During the prestate period, Agudat Israel, founded in 1912, opposed both the ideology of Zionism and its political expression, the World Zionist Organization. It rejected any cooperation with non-Orthodox Jewish groups and considered Zionism profane in that it forced the hand of the Almighty in bringing about the redemption of the Jewish people. A theocratic and clericalist party, Agudat Israel has exhibited intense factionalism and religious extremism. From 1955 to 1961 Agudat Israel formed a part of the Torah Religious Front. Traditionally, the party's Knesset delegation has consisted only of Ashkenazi factions, although ultra-Orthodox Orientals also provided it considerable electoral support.
In preparation for the 1984 Knesset elections, grievances over a lack of representation in party institutions caused Orientals to defect and establish Shas. As a result, Agudat Israel's Knesset representation declined from four to two seats. In the 1988 Knesset elections, as part of an ultra-Orthodox electoral upswing, the Shas Knesset delegation increased from two to six seats.
The Council of Torah Sages, a panel of rabbis to which both religious and secular decisions had to be referred, contained representatives of each faction in Agudat Israel. The main factions represented two Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) courts: the court of the Rabbi of Gur, which dominated the party and the Council of Torah Sages; and the court of Rabbi Eliezer Shakh.
Agudat Israel engaged in ultra-Orthodox educational and social welfare activities, as well as in immigrant absorption. It usually took the lead in initiating legislation on religious issues. The party has obtained exemptions from military service for its adherents.
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