The Status Quo Agreement, and Why Agudah Didn’t Advocate Against a State

Recently the newspapers Hamodia (6/9/2021) and Yated Neeman (6/25/2021) have published accounts of the “Status Quo” agreement reached between Agudath Israel and the Zionists in summer of 1947, in which the Zionist leadership made four promises relating to religion in the state they planned to found, in exchange for Agudah’s commitment not to advocate against a state before the UN Special Committee on Palestine. The four items promised were: Shabbos would be the official day of rest in the state; all food in state institutions would be kosher; marriage and divorce would be under the guidance of the rabbinate, and the right to autonomous religious education would be guaranteed.

The two newspapers tell more or less the same story, and one surprising fact stands out. Most people who know this story are under the impression that the Agudah made a deal with the devil, so to speak: they promised not to prevent the state from coming into being, and got this compromise in return. However, the Hamodia and Yated articles say clearly that even before the deal, Agudah leader Yitzchok Meir Levin had decided not to speak either for or against a state, and claimed to have received instructions from the gedolim on this point.

[As we quote from various places, we will use the labels “Reason 1,2,3” etc. to keep track of the different reasons given as to why Agudah did not speak against the proposed state.]

The Hamodia writes:

At a meeting of Agudas Yisroel’s Executive Committee on 27 Teves 5707/January 20, 1947, Harav Yitzchak Meir Levin, zt”l, said: 

“To say in all conscience that we are fully in favor of a state is difficult as long as there is no guarantee for matters of religion. A Jewish state in Israel which is not run according to the Torah is a chillul Hashem among Jews and gentiles, and a danger to religion. 

However, just as it is impossible to say with a full conscience that we are for a state, we also cannot say that we are against it without causing a chillul Hashem. In this event, they will lay all the responsibility on us and blame the Orthodox Jews for upsetting it and making it fail. [Reason 1] 

The view of Harav Dushinsky and the Brisker Rav is also that one should not oppose it.

But then the article continues:

Agudas Yisroel therefore engaged in tense negotiations with the Jewish Agency to guarantee the basic conditions for Torah observance in the embryo state. This was why the Zionists were determined to reach some sort of compromise with the Agudah, and this led to the “status quo” agreement reached in the summer of 1947, establishing a framework of coexistence that both camps would learn to accept.

How did they negotiate if they had no intention of undermining the Zionists? In the sentence “this was why the Zionists were determined” – what is the “this” referring to? Clearly to the fear that Agudah would publicly oppose the state. And Agudah hid from the Zionists the fact that they would never do that.

The Yated’s characterization of Agudah’s position is a bit more complex:

The Agudah leaders were facing some extremely difficult, complex questions, including: Should they appear independently in front of the UN Special Committee on Palestine? Should they vociferously protest the idea of a Jewish state led by secular Jews? If yes, would this opposition convince the UN not to approve a Jewish state and therefore keep the doors to Eretz Yisroel shut and adversely affect the survivors in the DP camps?[Reason 2] 

The Jewish Agency threatened the charedim with extreme, anti-religious measure in the future state if they would come out against the state. [Reason 3] At the same time, they promised to obligate themselves to a number of conditions related to religion and Jewish matters if the charedim would come out in favor of the state. Should that be taken into account? 

…In a letter written during the summer of 1947 by Rav Levin to Moreinu Rav Yaakov Rosenheim, Rav Levin writes that every single Jewish organization aside from Agudas Yisroel had come out in favor of a Jewish state. The position that the gedolei Yisroel had taken was not to vote for the Jewish state but also not to vote against it.

The Yated provides a photo of the original letter, and in it Levin explains why we should not advocate against a state:

I am happy to confirm that I received your letters of June 24 and 26, 1947 and it is incorrect that the Executive Committee is about to decide in favor of a state. Already last year when we appeared before the Anglo-American Committee together with Harav Blau and Dr. Breuer z”l, we decided that if they press us to the wall, that it is impossible to have aliyah and opening of the country except through a state, we would say that too. And then they did not pressure us. And today, although they pressured us to give them a solution, I withheld myself from saying the word state. Paying attention to your words, I was careful that the thing should not emerge from my mouth. And despite the fact that the representative of Yugoslavia pressured me, he did not hear from me such a demand. We did not mention the demand for a Jewish state either in the memorandum or in the speeches, despite the fact that the entire Yishuv was demanding a Jewish state, and all the parties starting with the chief rabbinate, down to the smallest of the groups, demanded a Jewish state. However, we could not speak against it either, in accordance with the words of the Gedolei Hatorah, who said that just as we cannot speak for it, we cannot speak against it, in order to prevent Chillul Hashem when we would be blamed, saying that the chareidim are preventing it.[Reason 1] Therefore the stormy anger you expressed in your letter at the Executive Committee for deciding to demand a Jewish state is misplaced.

The Yated continues:

The gedolim also agreed that Agudas Yisroel would not go together with the Jewish Agency in front of the UN Convention. Instead, they would speak of their own needs, individually… at the same time, the gedolei hador ruled that it was not permitted to go before the nations of the world and say that frum Jews were against the establishment of a Jewish state, because that could potentially endanger the lives of Jews.[Reason 2] This was the result of a meeting held at the home of the Brisker Rov in Yerushalayim. 

In a letter to Moreinu Rav Yaakov Rosenheim, Rav Levin wrote: “We know that a Jewish state will not be in accordance with our hashkafah. That said, we also know that even if we declare our opposition to the state, it will almost certainly come into being despite our opposition. Why, then, should we say outright that we are against the establishment of a state if, either way, our stance will not change anything on a practical level and will negatively affect us?” [Reason 3] 

Ultimately, the gedolei Yisroel ruled that Agudas Yisroel should go on their own in front of the UN Commission, while making sure not to speak for or against the Jewish state, but rather to beg that the gates of Eretz Yisroel be open to the survivors immediately… 

This was the policy that the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah at that time set. “We will not overtly protest the establishment of the state provided the Jewish Agency gives written assurance that the future state institutions will enable Yidden to live their lives in accordance with the Torah.”

This last paragraph makes our not protesting conditional, which contradicts the other reasons sharply. It seems that this was not the Agudah’s real position, only what they communicated to the Zionists. Indeed the article continues:

When Rav Levin sent this proposal to the heads of the Jewish Agency, they vociferously protested… As a result of their refusal, Rav Levin and the other Agudah leaders made them understand that Agudas Yisroel, the representatives of all chareidim in Eretz Yisroel, would fight against their request to the UN for a Jewish state, and it was therefore a possibility that due to this opposition, the UN would refuse their request. The Jewish Agency didn’t want to take that chance, and thus, against their will, they opened a dialogue with Agudas Yisroel.

It emerges that Levin and the other Agudah leaders actually bluffed to achieve the status quo agreement. They did not sell their souls to the devil to get it; their minds were made up already not to speak to the UN against a state.

That Agudah might have infuenced the outcome of the UN vote was a real possibility, especially considering that the required 2/3 majority was barely reached, and even then only by virtue of arm-twisting and backdoor threats by American politicians and laymen. In fact, according to a biography of the Satmar Rebbe:

 The Rebbe sent Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl to the UN to plead with the nations of the world not to hand over the Holy Land to the Zionists. The UN responded, “If twenty rabbis sign a document saying they are against a Jewish state, it may be possible to prevent a UN resolution in favor of partition.” Reb Michoel Ber set about gathering signatures, but due to immense Zionist pressure, he only obtained three signatures: his own, the Rebbe’s and the Stropkover Rebbe’s. (The Rebbe, by Rabbi Dovid Meisels, p. 254)

What did the gedolim actually say?

Why would the Brisker Rav and Rav Dushinsky have told the Agudah activists not to testify against the state? What did they actually say?

The above-quoted newspaper articles are unclear. In the speech quoted in Hamodia, Levin gives Reason 1 (the UN may say no to a state and they will blame us) and then mentions the Brisker Rav and Rav Dushinsky, implying – but not actually stating – that they agreed with this reasoning. In Levin’s letter to Rosenheim, he gives Reason 1 again, quoting anonymous “Gedolei Hatorah.” But the Yated article gives Reason 2 (danger to Jewish lives) and links it to a meeting in the home of the Brisker Rav.

The London Conference took place between September 1946 and February 1947. Its purpose was to discuss the Morrison-Grady plan, an Anglo-American plan for a federation in Palestine under which Jewish and Arab provinces would exercise self-rule under British oversight, while Jerusalem and the Negev would remain under direct British control.

The following quotes are from the Hebrew book “From Katowitz to the Fifth of Iyar,” by Rabbi Tzvi Weinman z”l, pp. 103-104.

On 9/22/1946, Agudah activists met in Jerusalem and decided to ask the following gedolim what should be their position in London: the Chazon Ish, the Poneveczer Rav, the Brisker Rav, Rav Dushinsky, the Tchebiner Rav, the Rav of Pressburg and the Rebbes in Tel Aviv. 

On 10/2/1946 they reported back: “The rabbis asked that their conversations should not be made public, and that it was necessary for all the rabbis to come together at one table to exchange thoughts and decide as a group… Because the rabbis want their words to remain confidential, it is impossible to report on what each one said. But we can say in general that most of the rabbis with whom we spoke had a negative position on a Jewish state and partition for religious reasons. And even in the case of a federation, they think that the secularists will control the Jewish autonomous area, so the danger to Torah would be no less than in the case of a state and partition. But that Agudas Yisroel should come out publicly against a Jewish state or the Zionist demands – they think that would be a danger to the Jewish people as a whole and to individual Jews, and their opinion is that the best policy is to avoid taking any public position. The meeting ended with a resolution to try to have a gathering of rabbis at Rav Dushinsky’s house. 

As of 1/19/1947 the gathering had not yet materialized. It was decided to call a meeting of the Executive Committee with the attendance of the Rebbes of Sadiger and Pshemishl and Rabbi Meir Karelitz to establish the Agudah’s plan and political position. At the meeting, Rabbi Levin stressed that we are confronted with difficult questions about the political situation, the gathering of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah did not materialize and the Executive Committee must choose its path. We cannot speak against a state so as not to cause chillul Hashem, because they will blame us, chareidi Jews, as the ones standing in the way. And this is also the opinion of the Brisker Rav and Rav Dushinsky, that we should not come out against it. 

Earlier, in 1946, Levin reported that Rosenheim asked him to show the Anglo-American Committee a copy of the decisions of the Moetzes from Mareinbad in 1937 (in which they said that we cannot agree to the Jewish state proposed by the Peel Commission). However, Levin worried that they would interpret it to mean that we are against a Jewish state, and the gedolei Torah said that we should not say this.

From the above, it sounds like the rabbis quoted, who included the Brisker Rav and Rav Dushinsky, said that opposing a state would mean danger – Reason 2. Levin, however, gives Reason 1, just as quoted in Hamodia.

In Uvdos V’hanhagos Leveis Brisk, by Rabbi Shimon Yosef Meller, v. 4 p. 193, we read:

Rabbi Moshe Blau said at a gathering that the Brisker Rav told him that if it were possible to gather together all the Gedolei Yisroel and send a telegram from the gathering to the Agudas Harabbanim in America, telling them not to ask [the American government, which was then participating in the Anglo-American Committee] for a Jewish state, we would be obligated to do so, for a Jewish state will bring great danger. But since he knew that he would be the only one to sign, he didn’t want to do it, for he didn’t want to be alone. 

Rabbi Blau also discussed with the Brisker Rov the possibility that Agudath Israel could submit a memorandum in Washington against a Jewish state. Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky had already decided against this idea, he told him, because such a statement would not make a difference anyway, and therefore it would only be a chillul Hashem to tell the nations that a Jewish state would be a danger to Torah.[Reason 4] When the Brisker Rov heard this, he was silent and did not respond.

So according to this, it was only Rav Dushinsky who said that we should not speak against a state, not the Brisker Rov. Furthermore, Rav Dushinsky gives a new reason: the Chillul Hashem of the nations hearing that a Jewish state would be a danger to Torah.

Still, we know that Rav Dushinsky testified before the UN as a representative of the Eidah Chareidis in the summer of 1947, not as a representative of Agudah, and he advocated against a Jewish state:

However, the basic reason for our opposition to an independent Jewish State is that in prevailing circumstances where the officially recognized representation of the Jewish people does not consider the authority of the Holy Law as binding in the public affairs of the Jewish People, there can be no guarantee that the religious needs and requirements of Orthodox Jewry will be observed in the Laws of such a Jewish State and it is contrary to the wishes of G’d to create a Jewish State which will not keep Traditional Jewish Law as the basis of Law in public affairs in the Holy Land. 

Orthodox Jewry has not the slightest intention of subjugating any section of the population of the Holy Land. We merely demand that the gates of Palestine be opened to all those Jews who have no home and enable them to live here Jewish lives in accordance with the commandments of the Lord. However, in order to avoid the continuation of the untenable position as set out in the last paragraph of section 5 we suggest that the keys of Jewish immigration be placed into the hands of the Government of this country. 

We furthermore wish to express our definite opposition to a Jewish State in any part of Palestine which is not based on the principles of Traditional Jewish Law. (Statement by the Council of the Ashkenasic Jewish Community of Jerusalem, Presented to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, July 1947, pages 5-6)

See the original document.

How does that square with his position in the above-quoted stories?

The answer may be that the story in “From Katowitz” is talking about the London conference. There was almost no chance that the London conference would decide on a Jewish state. Firstly, its goal was to discuss the Anglo-American recommendations, which had been against a Jewish or Arab state in Palestine. Second, the conference was called at the request of the Arab nations and the Zionists actually boycotted it. Rav Dushinsky reasoned that since it would not be necessary to attend in order to prevent a Jewish state –that would not be the outcome anyway – why should we attend and publicize the dirty laundry about the Zionists to the non-Jewish world? The Zionists were no danger to us in any case, so let the world continue to think that they were simply benign secular Jews who would allow religion in their country.

But a few short months later, in the summer of 1947, all the discussion was about partition and a Jewish state. Then Rav Dushinsky had no choice but to testify against it. It was only the Agudah activists who misapplied Rav Dushinsky’s words to the UN and decided not to testify against a state there, for different reasons: because of danger, or because if the partition plan failed it would be blamed on the chareidim.

The reason of danger quoted by the Agudah activists has to do with the DP camps. We will IY”H dedicate a separate article to the question of whether the DP’s were actually in danger or lacked a place to go.

tags: 

Agudah

Partition Plan

United Nations

History

Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky