Agudat Yisrael (also called Agudath Israel, Agudas Yisroel, and Aguda[h] for short; Union of Israel) is a political and religious movement of Orthodox Jewry, founded at a conference in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia, Germany (today Katowice, Poland) in May 1912. Subsequently, branches of the movement were established in most countries of western and eastern Europe, as well as in the United States and prestate Israel. It was in interwar eastern Europe, though, that Aguda reached the pinnacle of its political achievement and institutional development. Hasidic rebbes in Poland and yeshiva heads in Lithuania legitimized the movement religiously, and their followers formed the bulk of its constituency. In his classic 1965 essay “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life,” noted sociologist Charles Liebman quoted the complaints of Aguda spokesmen in America that the growth and history of their movement in Europe had been generally neglected by Jewish scholars and instead the regnant narrative of modern Jewish history was one of declining Orthodoxy and rising secularism, socialism, and Zionism. Liebman conceded that the significant amount of archival and other material relevant to the history of the Orthodox in general, and Agudat Yisrael in particular, had been downplayed or ignored, for example, in standard histories of Jewish education. In the past four or five decades since Liebman’s writing, however, a large body of scholarly literature on various aspects of the history and ideology of Agudat Yisrael has developed, produced by scholars in North America, Israel, western Europe, and Poland. This can be attributed to a number of factors including growing interest in the history and sociology of Orthodox Jewry due to the resurgence and growing assertiveness of Orthodoxy both in Israel and North America; interest in Orthodoxy as another aspect of the modernization of Jewry and as a product itself of modernity; interest in gender issues and issues of feminine identity, where the topic of the Bet Yaakov school network of Aguda served as an interesting example; the phenomenon of baalei teshuva, newly penitent Jews who found their way to Orthodoxy; attempts by historians of Polish Jewry to move away from a strictly Zionist narrative and to more fully sketch out the political contours of the “Jewish street” to include Orthodox, Bundist, assimilationist, and apolitical or antipolitical groups; and renewed public interest in Israel’s haredi, or ultraorthodox sector, including its nature and history, in the wake of the 1977 rise to power of the Likud party in Israel and the inclusion in the governing coalition of Agudat Yisrael, after an interruption of almost three decades. The present annotated bibliographical essay covers the major topics and subtopics of the many and varied available primary sources and scholarly literature dealing with Agudat Yisrael.
General Overviews and Surveys
No overall historical survey of the history of Aguda exists. For the present, the most comprehensive work is Bacon 1996, with shorter versions of the author’s views in Bacon 1986 and Bacon 2008. Mendelsohn 1972 is a pioneering short glimpse of the movement in Poland. Friedman 1978 and Fund 1999 offer detailed views of the history of Aguda in Mandate Palestine, while Shalem 2007 focuses on the work of Aguda in Palestine, Turkey, and Switzerland during the Holocaust. Mendelsohn 1993 and Vital 1999 contextualize the history of Aguda within the larger political history of modern Jewry. Friedenson 1968 and Weinman 1995 present haredi views of the history of Aguda, the former written by a partisan insider and the latter a polemical and highly critical survey.
Bacon, Gershon. “Agudas Yisroel.” In The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Vol. 1. Edited by Gershon Hundert, 16–19. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
Concise but comprehensive introduction and survey of the topic, including bibliography. Available online.
Bacon, Gershon. The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916–1939. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1996.
The only comprehensive monographic study of Agudat Yisrael in Poland, the party’s main center of activity in the pre-Holocaust period. Besides coverage of the party’s ideology and its activities in Polish and Jewish communal politics, the volume also covers the various auxiliary organizations affiliated with the party and educational networks, as well as an introduction on the prehistory of Aguda and an appendix that continues the story of the party’s activity in the State of Israel after the Holocaust. Updated and expanded Hebrew version: Politika u’Masoret: Agudat Yisrael be’Polin 1916–1939. Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2005.
Bacon, Gershon C. “The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Israel in Polish Politics, 1916–1930.” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 2 (1986): 144–163.
Concise statement of the political ideology and activity of Agudat Yisrael in its most important Diaspora political arena.
Friedenson, Joseph. “A Concise History of Agudath Israel.” In Yaakov Rosenheim Memorial Anthology. By Joseph Friedenson, 1–64. New York: Orthodox Library, 1968.
Internal history of Aguda, focusing in the main on the leading rabbinic figures associated with the movement and on the series of world gatherings (kenessiah gedolah) held by Aguda in 1923, 1928, and 1937.
Friedman, Menachem. Hevra ve’Dat:ha’Ortodoksia ha’lo tziyonit be’Eretz Yisrael, 1918–1936. Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, 1978.
Classic study of the political organization of the non-Zionist Orthodox in the Palestine Mandate, including the development of Agudat Yisrael and its opponents and the internal tensions within the Aguda camp.
Fund, Yosef. Peirud o hishtatfut: Agudat Yisrael mul ha’tziyonut u’medinat Yisrael. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1999.
Important survey of the political ideology and strategy of Agudat Yisrael during the Mandate period and in the State of Israel. Discussion of major figures of the movement, including Isaac Breuer and Moshe Blau.
Mendelsohn, Ezra. On Modern Jewish Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Eloquent and insightful survey of the varieties of modern Jewish politics, with numerous mentions of Agudat Yisrael throughout the volume.
Mendelsohn, Ezra. “The Politics of Agudas Yisroel in Inter-War Poland.” Soviet Jewish Affairs 2.2 (1972): 47–60.
Pioneering short article by a leading historian of Polish Jewry dealing with political tactics and strategy of Agudat Yisrael in its main country of activity in the Diaspora.
Shalem, Chaim. Et La’asot le’hatzalat Yisrael: Agudat Yisrael be’Eretz Yisrael le’nohakh ha’Shoa 1942–1945. Beer Sheva, Israel: Ben-Gurion Institute and Ben-Gurion University Press, 2007.
Important monograph on the activities of Agudat Yisrael in Palestine during the Holocaust years, including rescue work in Turkey and Switzerland, the affair of the so-called Teheran children (Polish Jewish orphans who arrived in Palestine after leaving the Soviet Union via Iran), and attitudes toward the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
Vital, David. A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789–1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Comprehensive political history of modern European Jewry in the era between the French Revolution and the Holocaust. Chapter 11, entitled “The Orthodox Circle Their Wagons,” provides a beautifully written and succinct account of the birth of Agudat Yisrael in its historical context and a short survey of its political activity in interwar Poland. See pp. 616–640, 785–789.
Weinman, Zvi. Mi’Kattovitz ad heh be’Iyyar: Perakim be’toldot ha’yahadut ha’haredit ve’Agudat Yisrael u’be’mishnatan: Perspektivot hadashot. Jerusalem: Vatikin, 1995.
Critical history of Agudat Yisrael written from a contrarian haredi viewpoint, focusing in particular on Aguda’s not living up to its stated guiding principle of obedience to rabbinic supervision of all party activities and decisions.
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