Orthodox Zionist movement whose name was derived from the words merkaz ruḥani (spiritual center), and whose slogan was “the Land of Israel for the People of Israel according to the Torah of Israel.” The movement advocated the realization of the Zionist vision and incorporated some of its modern and revolutionary characteristics. The adoption of Zionist ideology, however, was accomplished for the most part by denying its secular and innovative aspects, or by assigning religious interpretations to its basic tenets.
Rabbi Binyamin Graubart (second row, center) with teachers and students of the Mizraḥi Talmud Torah on the holiday of Lag ba-‘Omer, Staszów, Poland, ca. 1920s. It is traditional to play with bows and arrows on Lag ba-‘Omer. Photograph by A. Rotenberg. (YIVO)
The founding conference of Mizraḥi was convened in Vilna in 1902 at the initiative of Rabbi Yitsḥak Ya‘akov Reines, following the decision of the Fifth Zionist Congress to include cultural activities in its program and in light of growing Orthodox opposition to Zionism. Two groups participated in the conference: the “political” faction, which held that Mizraḥi must act to ensure that the focus of the Zionist Federation remain the realization of Zionism’s national and political objectives, and the “religious” faction, which held that Mizraḥi must maintain an Orthodox character and conduct cultural activities. The constitution of the movement was formulated in an ambiguous manner, so that alongside its call prohibiting the Zionist Federation from engaging in cultural activity, it held that Zionist associations were entitled to conduct local activities in the Orthodox spirit. Additionally, it was decided that Mizraḥi would not be an independent federation, but that its associations would belong to the Zionist Federation in Russia, as demanded by the “political” faction.
In its first year, Mizraḥi won wide support in Russia, where its members numbered 11,000 in 210 branches; with time, its functions spread to Galicia, Hungary, and Western Europe. Mizraḥi’s strength in Russia was damaged, however, by its dispute with Russian Zionists over its support of the Uganda Proposal and by political conditions prevailing in Russia in 1904. At Mizraḥi’s first international conference, which convened that year in Pressburg (Pozsony), Hungary (now Bratislava, Slovakia), it was consequently decided to transfer the organization’s center to Frankfurt. Following this step, Mizraḥi presented itself as an independent Orthodox organization committed to strengthening the religious aspect of Zionism. After 1905, the strength of Mizraḥi associations in Russia waned again, due to restrictions on political activities; and in Hungary, membership declined as a result of Orthodox opposition. In eastern Galicia, however, Mizraḥi benefited from a comfortable political climate and from the strength of Zionism in the area; there it maintained approximately 40 associations.
The relatively liberal political situation in Poland following German occupation during World War I brought about an awakening of Mizraḥi, which was led by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Kowalski and Levy Lewin-Epstein, a businessman and Zionist activist. This expansion continued after the establishment of independent Poland—which became the main center of power of the movement in Europe—when the number of its associations there reached 225 by 1919. Concurrently, prominent Zionist activists, such as Yehoshu‘a Heshel Farbstein and rabbis Yitsḥak Nissenbaum and Yehudah Leib Zlotnick, joined the ranks of Mizraḥi.
Like other Zionist parties, Mizraḥi benefited from wide public support at the beginning of the 1920s, and it received approximately one-third of the vote in the elections for the Zionist congresses (ranging from 100,000 to 130,000 votes). With the subsequent weakening of the Zionist movement, Mizraḥi lost support, and its relative strength fell to approximately one-fifth of voters’ ballots in the 1930s.
The wide public support for the party was not expressed in its undertakings. Its associations—which did not include women—did not conduct regular activities and were satisfied with just conducting Judaic and Hebrew lessons and prayer services. In addition, the four regional leaderships (Congress Poland, Lithuania, and eastern and western Galicia) suffered from chronic organizational difficulties.
The organization of immigration to Palestine was dealt with mainly by Tse‘ire Mizraḥi, which was the youth movement of Mizraḥi. Mizraḥi itself looked out for the interests of the middle class only, by distributing their immigration certificates. As a Jewish Polish party it took an interest in communal institutions, attempting to fashion them as religious national institutions. However, its modest strength, which did not exceed 8 percent of the communities’ members, limited its effectiveness. Its parliamentary activity was conducted for the most part within the framework of the Polish and Galician Zionist factions. At the height of its strength, its representatives numbered eight deputies and senators, among them Farbstein and Shemu’el Brodt, its leaders in Congress Poland; Bernard Hausner and Simon Federbusch, its leaders in eastern Galicia; and Yitsḥak Rubinstein, its leader in Polish Lithuania. Mizraḥi was also active in the field of education, and it established the Yavneh school network.
In other countries, the movement enjoyed less support, and its involvement in public and political life was more limited. Mizraḥi associations were active in Lithuania and Latvia, where they established schools and benefited from public support that gave it between 5 and 15 percent of the vote in the Zionist congresses. In Latvia, two deputies served in its name in the Sejm (parliament): the movement leader Mordecai Nurock and his brother Aaron Nurock.
Members of the Mizraḥi Zionist youth group Bene Akiva (maintained by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), doing Israeli dancing in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains, Brusno, Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia), 1946. (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Photo Archives)
In Czechoslovakia, Mizraḥi associations were active mainly in Slovakia, where they cooperated with other Zionists in many fields. In Hungary, a small number of associations were intermittently active in the 1920s. The legalization of Zionist activity there in 1927 did not substantially change the condition of the movement, and in 1931 it did not win any support in the elections for the Zionist Congress. After 1933, however, Mizraḥi received approximately one-third of the voters’ ballots, and at the end of the 1930s it became the largest Zionist party in Hungary.
In Romania, Mizraḥi associations were active in Transylvania and Bucovina. They participated in Zionist activity and in communal elections; only in 1929, however, did they establish central institutions. In the 1930s, though, Mizraḥi enjoyed the support of approximately one-quarter of the voters in elections for the Zionist congresses. In Bessarabia, Walachia, and Moldavia, only a few isolated associations were active, and electoral support of the movement was minimal. Following World War II, Mizraḥi prospered in Romania, where it convened two conferences and won first place in the elections for the Zionist Congress in 1946. However, in 1949 its activities were halted by the authorities.
Asaf Kaniel, “Ha-Mizraḥi be-Polin ben shete milḥamot ha-‘olam” (Ph.D. diss., Bar Ilan University, 2004); Ehud Luz, Parallels Meet: Religion and Nationalism in the Early Zionist Movement, 1882–1904 (Philadelphia, 1988); Yehudah Leb Maimon (Yehudah L. Fishman), The History of the Mizrachi Movement (New York, 1928); Yizḥak Raphael and Shlomo Zalman Shragai, eds., Sefer ha-Tsiyonut ha-datit, vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1977); Yosef Tirosh, The Essence of Religious Zionism (Jerusalem, 1964).
Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen