United Torah Judaism
Template:Distinguish United Torah Judaism (Template:Lang-he, Yahadut HaTorah HaMeukhedet) (UTJ) is an alliance of Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, two small Israeli ultra-orthodox political parties in the Knesset. It was first formed in 1992.
The two parties have not always agreed with each other about policy matters, however, over the years they have co-operated and united as a voting bloc in order to win the maximum number of seats in the Knesset since many extra votes can be wasted if certain thresholds are not attained under Israel's proportional representation parliamentary system.
Before the 2006 election Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel agreed to revive their alliance under the banner of United Torah Judaism in order not to waste votes by combining all votes that would be cast for them cumulatively rather than as separate parties in order to have maximum representation in the 17th Knesset.
Formation of the party
UTJ was always a coalition of two factions:
- The Degel HaTorah ("Banner [of] the Torah") party that is guided by the rabbinic heads (usually the leading rosh yeshivas ("deans") of the Lithuanian yeshivas) of non-Hasidic Haredi Ashkenazi Jews.
- The Agudat Israel ("Union [of] Israel") party that is guided by the followers of Hasidism in Israel, and also consisting of Ashkenazi Jews. The leading members of this party are the followers of the Ger, Vizhnitz, Boston and Sadigura Hasidim.
Degel HaTorah's pre-eminent sages and guides are presently Rabbis Yosef Shalom Eliashiv and Aharon Shteinman, both well into their nineties. Rabbi Eliashiv lives in Jerusalem and Rabbi Shtainman is in Bnei Brak. Policy decisions are also weighed and decided by a Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah ("Council of Torah Sages"), a council of experienced communal rabbis, made up of mostly senior and elderly heads of yeshivas all very learned in Talmud, devoted to halakha (classical Jewish law), and guided by their knowledge and application of the classical "Code of Jewish Law", the Shulkhan Arukh.
The Agudat Yisrael faction takes its directions from the Hasidic rebbes of Ger, Vizhnitz, Boston and Sadigura also steeped in Torah law and mysticism, who exert much influence in the daily lives of their followers (the "Hasidim"). The Belz rebbe, a prominent political and religious figure in his own right, is also closely involved in Agudat policy-making, and his followers are loyal UTJ supporters, though inter-party politics resulted in Belz failing to get any of their representatives into a high position on the UTJ list in the 2006 Knesset elections, and consequently, resulting in a faction with no Belz members present, for the second Knesset in a row.
Before the formation of UTJ and the establishment of Degel HaTorah, the two factions were united under one united Agudat Yisrael party, but the late mentor and supreme guide of the non-Hasidic group, Rabbi Elazar Shach (1898-2001) decided to break away from the Hasidic wing when it was clear that the party was too strongly controlled by Hasidic groups whom he considered not up to his standing. At that point he split from them, and created the Degel HaTorah party for the "Lithuanian" Haredi Jews (also known as "Mitnagdim" by some). He chose the name Degel HaTorah meaning "Flag [of] The Torah" to be a contrast to the well-known flag of Israel and its connection with the secular-dominated State of Israel (an "anti-Torah" entity in his opinion). Rabbi Shach was known as an outspoken critic of the secular Israeli way of life.
The UTJ party also had considerable influence on the Israeli Sephardi Jews' Shas party. In fact, the Shas party was founded by Rabbi Shach at an earlier juncture when he was previously also frustrated with the policies of the Hasidic rebbes, so he turned to the Sephardic Jews, and urged his own Ashkenazi followers at that time, to vote for the new Shas party, which they did in record numbers. Later, Shas broke with Rabbi Schach as it adopted its own independent political stance under Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Yet, Shas always "looks over its shoulder" to see what the Ashkenazi Haredi parties are up to, and usually goes in the same direction as it has similar needs and interests within the state.
In January 2004, the party split back into its two factions following a disagreement over how to join Ariel Sharon's coalition, which had been negotiated by Rabbi Eliashiv. Rabbi Eliashiv wanted the five MKs to have a three-month "waiting period" before accepting jobs in the government. Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the Gerrer rebbe, however, thought that all Agudat members should accept positions immediately. The Agudat MKs argued that they should be entitled to follow their own rabbis' ruling, while their Degel HaTorah counterparts accused them of disrespecting Rabbi Eliashiv. The Agudah faction proceeded to follow the rebbe of Ger's instructions, with MK Yaakov Litzman accepting the position as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. This infuriated Degel HaTorah and its leaders, and in response they left the party, dissolving a twelve-year-old partnership.
Reunification as a party
In December 2005, there was a meeting between representatives of the two factions, presumably to smooth over the ill-feelings of the previous year and to attempt to regroup before the March 2006 elections. A number of issues were worked out, such as Degel HaTorah's insistence on the joint list being equally divided between the two parties. (In the past, Agudat Israel has received slightly more votes than Degel HaTorah.) Degel HaTorah has reorganized itself. It has a fully equipped modern party office on Hamabit Street 10 in Jerusalem's Geulah neighborhood. It conducted a party convention, its first in 15 years, in December 2005.
In early February 2006 Agudat Israel and Degel HaTorah agreed to run together as United Torah Judaism, despite the fact that the contentious "sixth seat" issue remained undecided. The two groups finally compromised by proposing dividing the sixth seat between two representatives on a rotating schedule, (as was done in the last Knesset between the Belz and Vizhnitz communities for the fifth seat). This solution seemed to mollify the respective groups and paved the way for the re-establishment of a joint list for the 2006 elections, although the Belz court was reportedly irked that once again, it was being asked to sacrifice part of its representation.
UTJ MKs told reporters that any decision to join future government coalitions will be dependent on achieving two "central posts" to be split between Agudah and Degel. Similarly, in order to avoid the problems that led to the 2004 split, disagreements about joining a coalition will not be determined by a majority vote of MKs, but rather taken to the party's rabbinic leaders.
Various media interviews with the party's Knesset members confirmed that it would strongly consider joining a coalition with the Ehud Olmert-led Kadima party should it be offered to them after the elections.. In March 2006, the rabbinical leaders of UTJ, including Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, issued public declarations urging the Haredi public to vote for the party's list. In the election the party increased its mandate by one to six seats. Presently the party is represented more by the Agudah faction, as the sixth seat is being held by Yaakov Cohen, the longtime dean of a Ger yeshiva, bringing the ratio of the faction 4-2 Agudah. This marks the second time since the coalition's founding that Ger has secured two simultaneous MK positions in UTJ, and could indicate an increase the court's clout and influence.
- Degel, Aguda on verge of reuniting Jerusalem Post, 9 February 2006
- , United Torah Jewry and Shabbos — Agudas Yisroel- Degel HaTorah Submits Joint Knesset List Dei'ah veDibur, 15 February 2006
- NRP, National Union agree on merged Knesset list Haaretz, 9 February 2006
- Hareidi UTJ Party Hints: We Will Join Kadima Government Arutz Sheva, 23 March 2006
- Official site
- "Meeting paves way to Haredi unity"- Jerusalem Post, December 1, 2005
- "Degel Hatorah plans first convention in 15 years"- Yair Ettinger, Ha'aretz, December 9, 2005