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Makhzikey ha-Das

(Heb., Maḥazike ha-Dat; Upholders of the Faith), an Orthodox ideological and political organization active in Galicia and Bucovina. After a year of difficult efforts, Makhzikey ha-Das received permission to be formally established in 1878. The primary motivation for the Orthodox to organize was the approval of a new kehiliah statute with a liberal spirit in the city of Lemberg (Lwów) in 1876. Initiated by Shomer Yisra’el—the organization of the liberal Jewish intelligentsia—this statute guaranteed control of the community council to members of means who also had secular education.

The major figure behind the Orthodox move to organize was Shemu’el Margoshes, a kehilah activist who was concerned about the possible loss of Orthodox influence on the communal council. He garnered support from the rabbinic leadership of Galicia when Shomer Yisra’el organized its 1878 conference in Lwów for Galician Jewish communities. One of the items on the conference’s agenda was the establishment of regional leadership for Galician Jewry, including the goal of founding a rabbinical seminary. The very subject of the seminary helped Margoshes persuade rabbis of the need to establish a modern organization to represent Orthodox interests. Yehoshu‘a Rokeaḥ, the rebbe of Belz, agreed to be the spiritual guide of Makhzikey ha-Das, and Shim‘on Sofer, rabbi of Kraków and son of the Ḥatam Sofer, agreed to serve as president.

Makhzikey ha-Das first entered the public arena in Galicia in 1879 during the election campaign for the Austrian parliament. The organization sponsored four rabbis as candidates and commissioned religious slogans for the electoral struggle. At the end of the campaign, Sofer emerged triumphant over his liberal Jewish rival and earned a seat in parliament. The campaign had included meetings in synagogues, posters, rabbinic pronouncements, and newspaper articles that the organization published as soon as it achieved official recognition. Its newspaper, which was also called Maḥazike ha-Dat, appeared in Hebrew, an innovation for the Orthodox community, and from its inception served as the primary organ for disseminating the organization’s ideology and for recruiting supporters for various causes. By 1883, Makhzikey ha-Das had some 40,000 registered members with branches in most of the communities of Galicia.

Makhzikey ha-Das maintained a conservative stance on political issues and cultivated connections with the Polish bloc in the Austrian parliament, whose members belonged mainly to the Galician Polish nobility. The association with Polish representatives marked a deviation from the Jewish political tradition in the region, as most Jews identified with liberal Austrian Germans.

In 1882, when the intention of the Austrian government to institute a general communal statute for all the Jewish communities in the spirit of the Lwów statute became known, Makhzikey ha-Das organized a major rabbinic conference. In its agenda, it presented an alternative statute that called for governing communities in accordance with the dictates of the Shulḥan ‘arukh; however, it failed to gain governmental approval. Sofer’s demand that the Austrian minister of education and religion allow a split of the Jewish communities in Galicia along ideological lines—similar to those in Germany and Hungary—was also rejected. In a desperate struggle to assure the election of Orthodox representatives to communal and governmental institutions, the newspaper urged its readers not to vote for non-Orthodox Jewish candidates and even expressed veiled threats of excommunication against those who transgressed this pronouncement. As a result, a police investigation was opened, during the course of which Sofer died. His death was a heavy blow to the organization, which failed to find a suitable replacement.

In later years, Makhzikey ha-Das concentrated its efforts primarily on reaching agreements behind the scenes with the Poles, on both national and local levels. In these agreements, the organization promised its political support to Poles in exchange for rejecting demands such as minimal formal education for rabbinic candidates. The spiritual leadership of the organization remained in the hands of the rebbes of Belz.

Makhzikey ha-Das encouraged isolationist trends and scuttled every attempt to establish a single organization for the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During election campaigns, it urged supporters not to vote for secular Jewish leaders but to prefer Polish candidates. In its efforts to preserve traditional values, it rejected every attempt to introduce the teaching of trades or secular studies in the heders. After the dissolution of the Austrian Empire, Makhzikey ha-Das reorganized as a political party with branches throughout eastern Galicia. Branches were also established in Vienna and in other European countries. Under the aegis of the Belz Hasidic group, it competed with Agudas Yisroel for the support of the traditionalist community in Polish regions that had previously been part of Galicia.

Suggested Reading

Ze’ev Fisher-Shein (Zohar), “Ḥevrat ‘Maḥazike ha-Dat’ be-Galitsyah ha-Mizraḥit,” in Be-Sod yesharim ve-‘edah: Pirke historyah ve-zikhronot min ha-gedolah bi-kehilot Yisra’el be-Galitsyah, Lvov, pp. 125–162 (Bene Berak, Isr., 1969); Rachel Manekin, “Ha-Berit ha-ḥadashah: Yehudim ortodoksim u-polanim katolim be-Galitsyah, 1879–1883,” Tsiyon 64.2 (1999): 157–186.



Translated from Hebrew by Barry D. Walfish