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A Tale of Two Israels

At the time that the Jewish nationalist (Zionist) movement was founded, in the 1890s, there was already a significant Jewish population in what would become the modern state of Israel. Indeed, reasonably reliable census figures kept by the German Consulate in Jerusalem suggest that the Jewish population was a plurality of the whole, i.e. there were more Jews than there were either Muslims or Christians in the Ottoman provinces which would form the Mandate and then the state.

This population was largely, though not exclusively, centered on what were known as the Four Holy Cities of Jerusalem, Chevron, Tiberias, and Tzefath, as well as the then-commercial center of the region, Jaffa. There were also Jewish populations living peacefully in mixed communities with Muslims and Christians such as Haifa, Peqi’in, and Shfar’am, and around a dozen Jewish agricultural villages had been founded by groups backed with funding from abroad, some of which – such as Rechovoth, Rishon leTziyyon and Petach Tiqwa – would become substantial towns in later years. 

Virtually all of these people were traditionally observant, Orthodox Jews.

With the establishment of the Mandate following the Great War and, with it, the establishment of the Zionists in a position of power, this traditional community came to feel itself increasingly under siege, to some extent with the connivance of the British, and their way of life threatened.

Some, such as members of the Rivlin and Diskin families, came under the influence of the Zionist ideology; others did not. The ones who did not, as well as some more recent arrivals, are the people known in the Israeli media as the Chareidim, often somewhat pejoratively called “Ultra-Orthodox” in English-language media.

After the UN voted for partition of the Mandate in 1947 the state became inevitable; members of this population were faced with a major question: Should they, or should they not, participate in the secular government about to be formed?

The question was put to one of the most eminent Jewish scholars of the day, Rabbi Refael Reuvain Grozovsky, then dean of Yeshivath Torah Vodaas in New York, and Rabbi Grozovsky rendered a tightly-reasoned opinion (subsequently published in his book Be‘ayoth haZeman) in which he reluctantly agreed that participation was the lesser of two evils. They might be able to deflect the worst of the decrees leveled at their community, and perhaps also be able to influence the government to the good.

The vast majority of the Chareidi community followed that ruling, under the leadership of the world Agudath Israel organizarion, which subsequently became a political party in Israel; a tiny minority, eventually coalescing under the name Neturei Karta (literally, “Guardians of the City”), centered in Jerusalem, did not.