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Dec 16, 2008

PAI, not pie or pi

A Guest Post by Shimon A

Recent local elections in Israel have seen the "Tov" party gaining a seat in both Beitar and Beit Shemesh. Tov's aim is to represent the working Charedi. There has been talk that what we are seeing is the beginning of the reestablishment of the Poalei Agudat Yisrael Party (PAI).

If you have only arrived in Israel or were born in the past 20 years or so, then when you hear "Poalei Agudat Yisrael" the first thing that probably comes to mind is the Bank that goes by that name. However, PAI is one of the original political parties that was around before the establishment of the State of Israel. Who were they and could they really be making a comeback?

PAI was set up in Poland in the 1920's, as the trade union of Agudat Yisrael (originally called Poalei Emunei Yisrael) and participated in certain elections, such as the Jewish Community Council. An attempt at that time to set up some branches in Eretz Yisrael did not last for any length of time.

Binyamin Mintz (Yad Binyamin is named after him) with some other people, reestablished PAI in 1933 in Eretz Yisrael. Mintz was was the type of person that they don't make anymore. He was born in Łódź in the Russian Empire (nowadays part of Poland) and studied at the Gerer Beis Medrash. He made aliya in 1925 and worked in construction (yes, Jews did that kind of thing once upon a time) and he set up a printing press. Initially, PAI was part of Agudat Yisrael and would follow the instructions of the Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah, but their somewhat more Zionistic outlook was a cause of tension and friction between the two.

The founding of Kibutz Chafetz Chaim in 1944, typically shows the Charedi, but also Zionistic approach of PAI. The Kibutz was set up on JNF land with the full cooperation of the Zionist establishment. The members served in the Hagana. The Rav of the Kibbutz, Rabbi Kalman Kahana, was a close talmid of the Chazon Ish and, therefore, Shmita was strictly observed, unlike the Poel Hamizrachi kibutzim, that relied on the Heter Mechira. But this did not stop Kahana from being a member of the pre-state Yishuv government and even signing Israel's Declaration of Independence.

PAI had 3 representatives, including Binyamin Mintz and Rabbi Kalman Kahana in the first Knesset. PAI ran together with all the other religious parties on a joint list called the United Religious Front. The united list altogether received 16 seats and was seen to be a success, but this unity has not been repeated since.

Over the next 3 decades PAI would sometimes run on its own and sometimes with Agudat Yisrael. With issues like voting in favour of the Sherut leumi bill, the relationship between the two was always stormy. The most PAI ever received was 3 seats, which was enough for Mintz to serve as Minister for Postal Services and Kahana as Deputy Education Minister.

PAI gradually declined as it started to lose its constituents. By the 1977 election, PAI only manged to win one seat. On the one hand, the working Charedi became somewhat of a rare breed and on the other hand, there was a move to the right religiously, by the National-Religious. Yeshivat Sha'alvim, which was founded by the kibbutz of that name, was the flagship of the PAI movement. However, being a Yeshivat Hesder, it became clearly associated with the more religious or torani part of the National-Religious. Nowadays, many of the graduates of Sha'alvim are very prominent in the communities in Yehuda and Shomron and cannot really be told apart from graduates of other top National-Religious yeshivot.

A last attempt to keep PAI going was made in 1984. The Mafdal had split over support for the Camp David agreement and Meitzad, the breakaway party, ran on a joint list with PAI (now headed by Avraham Verdiger) called Morasha. The party received 2 seats, but fizzled out when Rav Chaim Druckman of Meitzad rejoined the Mafdal. PAI ran again in the 1988 election with Agudat Yisrael and Avraham Verdiger was reelected. His moment of fame came in 1990 when Peres did his "stinking maneuver", brought down Shamir's National Unity Government and attempted to form his own with the support of Shas and Agudat Yisrael. However, Verdiger, even though he was part of the Agudat Yisrael list, refused to go along with it and Peres failed in his attempt to form a government.

Since then, not much has been heard of PAI. Yes, they do exist on paper. There are still 14 settlements that are part of the movement and PAI still has some shares in the Poalei Agudat Yisrael Bank, owned mainly by the First International Bank of Israel. I guess you can call all this a shadow of its former self.

So back to my original question. Will PAI make a comeback? There have been some recent changes in the Charedi world. There are a lot more Chareidim in the workforce nowadays. The Charedi college in Kiryat Ono, where students study business management and law is becoming popular. Unfortunately, these Chareidim seem to find it hard to get their children accepted to good Talmudei Torah because they have left the Yeshiva benches. The Tov party which ran in the local elections in Beitar and Beit Shemesh appealed to this constituency. And what do you know, one of the people behind this party is Chanoch Verdiger, the son of PAI's Avraham Verdiger.


  1. Rafi:
    This is my math
    1. It takes around two seats worth of votes to pass the threshhold.
    2. UTJ at present has 6 seats, at least half of the votes belong to the Chasidish Aguda half of the equation.
    In order to reach the Knesset, they would have to either: get two thirds of the Litvish vote, or get votes from either disgruntled Hasidim or non-gimmel voters.
    On top of that, the fringe of the Chareidi world may vote for either Marzel or Likud and may not be interested in them anyway.

  2. my personal take on this issue is that it is too soon for PAI. They need to build on the recent municipal success and establish a greater base of support.
    Two small cities with 1 seat in each does not a national party make.

    If they want to expand to national government, they first need to increase their support in the various cities -Elad, Bnei brak, Jerusalem, etc. Only then will it even be possible for them to consider. Also, the wounds in the haredi community are still too fresh. While it means many are still upset with Degel for the recent campaigns, it also means people might not yet be disenfranchised enough with them to consider bringing PAI back to life. It will take some more time in my opinion.

    eli - how many votes, give or take, are two seats worth to get the minimum threshhold?

  3. It used to also be know as "PAGI" to differentiate it from "PAI"

  4. Rafi,
    the threshold is at 2 percent, last election it was at about 63000(that depends on voter turnout).

  5. so at anywhere near the number of 63000 votes needed, PAI would be extremely hard pressed to come up with those numbers at this point in time.
    Maybe next time around, if they spend the next few years working on building their support base.

  6. Thanks Rafi for posting.

    It won't be easy for PAI to get that amount of votes. If Verdiger Jr. tops the list then they can pull in the Chabad vote(Verdiger Sr. was close to the Rebbe) but that won't be enough.

    What about a repeat of Morasha's '84 and they can run together with a disappointed former Ichud haleumi figure who is not offered a high enough position on the Bayit Hayehudi list?


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