As the 1950s opened, Agudath Israel was in an accommodationist mode in Israel, serving in the government and accepting the notion that Israel was fully a Jewish state. Even Rav Aharon Kotler seemed to retreat from the position that Rav Elchanan Wasserman and he had taken at the 1937 Knessiah Gedolah in Marienbad where they sharply rejected the neo-Zionist views regarding the anticipated Jewish state espoused by Dr. Isaac Breuer and other major Agudath leaders.
Within Orthodox life in North America, there was general acceptance of a modernist outlook on public issues, including on separation of church and state. There was, at most, a whiff of militancy and separatist sentiment within what was then the yeshiva world. Two epic events, one in Israel that also had a strong impact here, and the second entirely on these shores profoundly changed the relationship between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox and reversed the appearance of intra-Orthodox unity.
The first event was the conflict in Israel over the draft of girls who had just graduated high school into the Israeli army. The second, which I will discuss in a subsequent article, concerned Orthodox participation with the non-Orthodox in rabbinic and congregational organizations.
For all of David Ben-Gurion’s and the Mapai’s (Labour Party) strong secular orientation and hostility toward religion, in the first years after Israel’s establishment, their attitude was to accommodate the Orthodox. This approach was articulated in the famous 1947 agreement between the Jewish Agency which Ben-Gurion headed and the Agudah – later, as well, with the Mizrachi – accepting the religious character of the state. Shabbos was recognized and there would be no public transportation on that day. Kashruth would be maintained in the army and in other public places. Most critically, in matters of personal status such as marriage and divorce, halachic processes and standards would prevail.
After the state was established, Ben-Gurion accepted the exemption from military service for yeshiva advanced students, perhaps because, as has been claimed, there were relatively few of them, although I believe that he sincerely felt that Israel needed to have some young men study Torah full-time.
There were, of course, divisive issues in the initial years, notably over basic education, as I have discussed in a previous article on Chinuch Atzmai. Even then, Ben-Gurion refrained from taking a coercive position, as he accepted the creation and independence of Chinuch Atzmai.
At the time, as well, within the yeshiva world and a number of chassidic groups, there was a measure of acceptance, perhaps begrudging, of Israel. There was pride in Israel. We weren’t Zionists in hashkafa or affiliation, yet most of us were somehow zionist in our identity with Israel. We cleaved to the radio as the United Nations voted for partition and a Jewish state in November 1947 and again the following May when Israel came into being. Whenever we felt that Israel was endangered, we once more were emotionally enveloped in our concern for the Jewish state. We did not – and still do not – say the tefila for the Medinah, but prayers for Israel are always in our hearts.
In 1953, Ben-Gurion decreed that girls would be required to do military service after they graduated from high school. This triggered an immediate explosion of protests from Gedolai Torah, including the Chazon Ish who by and large had stayed away from public issues. They ruled that army service for girls was absolutely forbidden as a form of arayos or illicit behavior that fell under the halachic requirement of “yaharog v’al ya-avor.” In the course of the ensuing struggle, first the Chazon Ish and then thirty days later Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer died. These terrible losses shocked the yeshiva world. Etched in my mind is the grief that was evident at the hespedim for these Torah giants at the Pike Street (Kalvirer) Shul on the Lower East Side. Rav Aharon was the principal speaker. A dramatic moment occurred when Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz of Mir opened the Aron Kodesh and cried out in Yiddish, “Der Chazon Ish iz nisht dor, Rav Iser Zalman iz nisht dor, un ich bin an alter Yed” and then collapsed.
As the battle raged in Israel, Rav Aharon called for a mass protest at the Israeli Consulate in Manhattan. Yeshivas emptied out and many Chassidim, including Satmar and the Rebbe, joined in what still remains the largest demonstration ever in North America against the Israeli government. As invariably happens at such occasions, in the name of crowd control the police roughed up some protestors. There was extensive media coverage and shock and anger among American Jews. A line had been crossed, it being sharp criticism by Jews of Israel.
The strongest criticism of the demonstration probably came from the Modern Orthodox, with the Rabbinical Council of America which was largely comprised of rabbis ordained at Yeshiva University leading the way. The RCA asked its members to denounce Rav Aharon and the demonstration from the pulpit and many did. We of the Borough Park Zeirei were determined to respond and so on the Shabbos that was appointed for rabbinical censure of the protest, we completed davening a bit earlier than usual, divided our members into several groups and went to the large shuls where we were certain that the rabbis would speak out against Rav Aharon and the demonstration. When they did, we protested verbally and vehemently. To put it mildly, we were not welcomed.
Ben-Gurion, surprised I believe by the fury unleashed by his action, backed down a bit, so that the high school graduates could choose national service, such as in schools or a social service project, rather than being in the army. As a practical matter, charedi girls were exempt. As has been widely reported, the arrangement has broken down over the years. Nowadays, thousands of girls from secular homes claim the religious exemption.
The battle over Giyus Banot or military service for girls and also Sh’erit Leumi or national service took a huge toll. Ben-Gurion’s concession did not change the reality that over the years probably hundreds of thousands of girls, more than a few from religious homes, have served in the army and that this service has been a powerful factor in the erosion of Israel’s moral fabric.
The willingness of Mizrachi leaders, in Israel and here, to acquiesce to an arrangement that was totally antithetical to Torah standards and to do so despite being implored by Rav Aharon to reverse their position has contributed significantly to that movement’s steady decline. Sadly, over the years whenever push came to shove over religious issues in Israel, Mizrachi invariably chose political expediency over halacha.
For Rav Aharon Kotler, there was also a cost. He had tirelessly reached out across the Orthodox spectrum and specifically over the years to the Modern Orthodox and now he was being denounced. He would continue to reach out, yet the truth is that support for Lakewood suffered as a result of his principled stand. He believed, of course, that this was a small price to pay for promoting and protecting Torah values. He would not contemplate accepting financial gain for his yeshiva at the cost of sacrificing Torah values.