Imagine, for a moment, if there were United States senators and congressmen who were representatives of Agudas Yisrael. How would things look? There would almost be no need for explanations of the unique needs of the Torah community, almost no need for constant vigilance and advocacy.
Since in the United States the Torah community does not enjoy such power, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, President of Agudath Israel of America, conceived of an alternative approach.
Rabbi Sherer devised and implemented a multi-tiered approach to have the needs of the community articulated. The first tier relied upon skilled public-relations professionals and community representatives who had the know-how to successfully present our case. The second tier involved developing a leadership with the political savvy to know when to lobby and when to counter. The third tier was to engage some of the nation’s top legal minds to formally challenge matters of discrimination within the court system. To this day, some of the nation’s greatest amicus curiae briefs seeking protection of religious liberties and/or fighting discrimination were penned at the instigation of Agudath Israel.
After Rabbi Sherer’s petirah, Agudah expanded the program to state legislatures across the nation. As a recent Jerusalem Post article pointed out, advocacy was developed by Agudah to a fine art. In Eretz Yisrael, with chareidi representatives in the Knesset, this program was deemed unnecessary.
In the year 2000, however, a sea-change took place.
For the first time in decades, Yahadus HaTorah was excluded from the governing coalition. It was the apogee of the Second Intifada and the economy had turned sour. The mood was dire; faith in the power of the members of the Knesset had waned.
A delegation from the American Agudah traveled to Eretz Yisrael. They met with the Gedolei Yisrael, the chavrei haknesset, and the chareidi mayors. Agudah offered assistance in developing the type of multi-tiered approach that Rabbi Sherer had designed.
To the surprise of many, the idea was embraced.
First on the agenda was the Israeli legal system. A search was launched for the right man. Rabbi Mordechai Green, who had learned in the Brisker kollel for 13 years and then proceeded to graduate at the top of his class in law school, was chosen to head the project. He was a sabra, the son of American parents, and had clerked in Israel’s Supreme Court.
Rabbi Green was a formidable choice. He had both a sharp legal mind as well as the inner know-how of the Israeli court system. With him at the helm, Betzedek was incorporated and soon began to impact Israeli society.
Betzedek successfully argued numerous cases before the highest courts in the nation. Indeed, its greatest influence lay in the fear that Betzedek would take an issue to court. As an example, the Israeli government had contracted with a private company to upgrade the computer system through which the yeshivos received their monthly allocations. In the process, a month’s grants totaling over 40 million NIS was lost. All sorts of shtadlanus efforts were undertaken to recover that money. Excuses and apologies were offered, for over four years. In desperation the yeshivos turned to Betzedek. Betzedek brought the case to the attention of the BaGaTz (Bet Mishpat Gavoha L’Tzedek) — the Israeli Supreme Court.
The court granted the government 90 days to respond. Two days before the deadline, the government asked for an additional 30 days. The court granted the additional time, but before the 30 days were up, the yeshivos received letters indicating how much money each would be receiving. The money arrived before the second deadline for the government to respond to the court.
Soon it became standard practice for the Ministry of Education’s legal advisor (no friend of the yeshivos) to call Rabbi Green before promulgating new regulations. Would he launch a legal challenge? In most cases, the regulations were changed in favor of the yeshivos and precluded any need for the yeshivos to go to court.
As situations evolved, and Yahadus HaTorah reentered the government in even more powerful positions, the need for other avenues of shtadlanus and for Betzedek diminished. In 2011, Betzedek was dissolved.
But perhaps, in light of recent events, it was too soon. We find ourselves once again at low ebb politically. Discrimination has once again reared its ugly head to a point that even the secular Israeli courts must recognize it.
The dockets and court records demonstrate that Betzedek was enormously effective. The political situation in Israel has reached a critical mass. Betzedek must be reconstituted and rise again.
Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, the Vice-Chairman of the Agudath Israel World Organization, was formerly the Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America. He currently resides in Israel and serves as the Dean of the Ohr Lagolah kollel, affiliated with Yeshivas Ohr Somayach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.