Rav Binyomin Mintz was the founder of the Poalei Agudas Yisrael movement
Motty Meringer 07/06/2009 14:00
The Poalei Agudas Yisrael movement was founded for the purpose of addressing the needs and concerns of the chareidi worker. Whilst still based in the diaspora it fought its first battles for the rights of chareidi workers, and transplanted later to Eretz Yisrael the movement founded numerous organisations and settlements all across the country, in every location where chareidim had settled.
The ‘Poalei Agudas Yisrael’ movement (PAI) was originally founded as a branch of the Agudas Yisrael political party that was to cater specifically to the chareidi worker, but it later broke away from Agudas Yisrael and began to operate independently. Fourteen settlements in Eretz Yisrael were at one point associated with the movement.
The movement was founded in the year 5693 in the city of Lodz, Poland, with the stated objectives of encouraging chareidi business and fighting against the phenomenon of chareidim establishing business partnerships with gentiles, so that they could operate their businesses as usual on Shabbos and Yomim Tovim. Many chareidi Jews in Lodz joined the new movement, and it quickly spread to additional cities. Although the Agudas Yisrael movement was very active in protecting Jews in Poland, in general it refrained from opposing Jews who had formed partnerships with gentiles – it was in fact this point that was the source of many of the disputes between the two movements that occurred throughout the years. In the Thirties, unemployment soared among the chareidi population, as it did also among the general population, and Poalei Agudas Yisrael intensified its battles, until at one point, the disputes entered the walls of the batei knesses, and prevented the tefillos from commencing, finally, the Jewish manufacturers agreed to employ chareidi Jews in their businesses in place of their former gentile workers.
During this period, Rav Yehudah Leib Orlean hy’d, who was one of the founders of Poalei Agudas Yisrael, composed his essay ‘To the Satiated and to the Hungry’. In it, he wrote; “The phenomenon of lack of available employment and poverty is especially prevalent among chareidi workers, who are discriminated against simply due to their being chareidi. Not just non-Jewish employers, or even non-religious Jewish employers, but also even religious employers refuse to employ them in their businesses. These religious employers are simply driving away the religious workers, since they are unable to work on Shabbos, and in their place, they employ christian workers on the basis of a ‘document of sale’ [similar to the ‘Heter Mechirah’ used in Shemitta years, against which battles are still being fought today], and in this way they operate their businesses on Shabbos as during the week. Chareidi Jewry must now internalise that to conduct oneself in such a way, in which one makes a living at another’s expense, is a grave sin, and that mitzvos between one’s fellow man and oneself are beloved by the Creator no less than mitzvos between oneself and one’s Creator.” Later in his essay Rav Orlean attacked Agudas Yisrael for its lack of support of the struggle and its insufficient concern for the welfare of the workers.
The initiator of the idea of establishing a movement was Rav Binyomin Mintz, who united the worldwide movement and was also a minister and a member of the Knesset as a representative of the party.
Rav Mintz was born and grew up in Poland where he associated himself with the Gerrer chassidus. In the year 5693, after he immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, he established, together with other activists, the Poalei Agudas Yisrael movement. When the Second World War broke out, Rav Mintz was one of the first to sound the alarm at the danger hanging over the heads of the Jews of Europe, and when the Vaad Hatzolah was founded in Eretz Yisrael he was one of its main activists.
On the twenty-fourth of Shvat 5709, following the establishment of the State of Israel, the first elections to the ‘Organised Gathering’, as it was then known, took place in the Holy Land. (Later it would be known as the Knesset haRishonah). In these elections all the religious parties competed under one banner, as the ‘United Religious’ list. The list was comprised of members of the parties of Agudas Yisrael, HaPoel HaMizrachi, Mizrachi, Poalei Agudas Yisrael and the Religious Union. This list gained sixteen seats in the Knesset, of which three were allotted to Poalei Agudas Yisrael. Their three Knesset members were Rav Avraham Yehudah Goldrot, Rav Kalman Kahane and Rav Binyomin Mintz. Rav Mintz was also appointed as chairman of the Knesset Committee of Internal Affairs.
In the elections to the second Knesset, Poalei Agudas Yisrael stood independently for election and gained two seats. In the two ensuing election campaigns, Poalei Agudas Yisrael ran together with the Agudas Yisrael party under the title of ‘the Religious Front for Torah’. In both of these elections, the list gained six seats, but during the term of the fourth Knesset, the two parties split, and each faction subsequently acted independently in the Knesset. During the fourth Knesset, Poalei Agudas Yisrael alone of the two parties decided to join the Mapai government headed by David ben Gurion, and Rav Mintz was appointed Minister of Communications. It was during his stint in this position that, on the 15th of Sivan in the year 5721, Rav Mintz was niftar. The settlement of Yad Binyomin which was established by the Poalei Agudas Yisrael movement as a central settlement for all farmers of the area of Shurak was called by this name in memory of Rav Mintz.
In the coming election campaigns, up until the eighth Knesset, Poalei Agudas Yisrael competed alone. In the elections to the eighth Knesset, another attempt was made at creating a combined Poalei Agudas Yisrael – Agudas Yisrael list, but again it ended in failure when, during the term of the eighth Knesset, the parties again split and Poalei Agudas Yisrael went its own way as an independent party. Therefore, Poalei Agudas Yisrael ran alone again in the elections to the ninth Knesset, but it only gained one seat – in the elections to the tenth Knesset, it failed to pass the threshold. In the elections to the 11th Knesset, Poalei Agudas Yisrael ran together with the Meitzad party which had been established by former members of the Mafdal, who had been disappointed with it – together they called themselves ‘Morashah’. This list gained two seats in the Knesset, but in the course of the Knesset’s term, the Meitzad representative Chaim Druckman returned to the Mafdal, and the remaining representative of Morashah, Rav Avraham Werdiger, renamed the party ‘Morashah – Poalei Agudas Yisrael’. Later still, he united his party with that of Agudas Yisrael.
Over the years, Poalei Agudas Yisrael aroused the opposition of the Gedolei Yisrael, the leaders of chareidi Jewry, such as the Chazon Ish zt’l, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler), Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach, and Rav Yosef Zev Soloveitchik zt’l, the Brisker Rav. The Brisker Rav dealt the organisation a crushing blow when he ruled that it was forbidden to vote for them.
Yet despite this formidable opposition of the Gedolei hador, there continued to be those who did support Poalei Agudas Yisrael, largely those living in peripheral communities, chareidi farmers and other religious manual labourers who found the stance of Agudas Yisrael too extreme. For such people, Poalei Agudas Yisrael seemed to be a suitable alternative. The movement of Poalei Agudas Yisrael established many organisations in many towns all over the country. In areas such as Bnei Brak, Rechovot and Haifa, there are still synagogues standing that were set up by the movement. Poalei Agudas Yisrael even brought out its own journal, called ‘She’arim’ (Gates) which could be found in chareidi and other religious homes across the country.
Over the years, the political wing of the Poalei Agudas Yisrael movement represented a sizeable section of the chareidi and religious populations in Eretz Yisrael, who saw reflected in the party their own ideals and views. Today, however, the party is no longer operational, the organisations it established have shut down, the journal is no longer in existence and even the many synagogues it established no longer identify themselves with the movement, but are instead affiliated with the various kehillos within the towns where they are located.