During the prestate period, Agudat Israel, founded in 1912, opposed
both the ideology of Zionism and its political expression, the
World Zionist Organization. It rejected any cooperation with non-Orthodox
Jewish groups and considered Zionism profane in that it forced
the hand of the Almighty in bringing about the redemption of the
Jewish people. A theocratic and clericalist party, Agudat Israel
has exhibited intense factionalism and religious extremism. From
1955 to 1961 Agudat Israel formed a part of the Torah Religious
Front (see Appendix B). Traditionally, the party's Knesset delegation
has consisted only of Ashkenazi factions, although ultra-Orthodox
Orientals also provided it considerable electoral support.
In preparation for the 1984 Knesset elections, grievances over
a lack of representation in party institutions caused Orientals
to defect and establish Shas. As a result, Agudat Israel's Knesset
representation declined from four to two seats. In the 1988 Knesset
elections, as part of an ultra-Orthodox electoral upswing, the
Shas Knesset delegation increased from two to six seats.
The Council of Torah Sages, a panel of rabbis to which both religious
and secular decisions had to be referred, contained representatives
of each faction in Agudat Israel. The main factions represented
two Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) courts: the court of the Rabbi of
Gur, which dominated the party and the Council of Torah Sages;
and the court of Rabbi Eliezer Shakh.
Agudat Israel engaged in ultra-Orthodox educational and social
welfare activities, as well as in immigrant absorption. It usually
took the lead in initiating legislation on religious issues. The
party has obtained exemptions from military service for its adherents.
Data as of December 1988