Porush’s legacy

On Purim almost 80 years ago, Menahem Porush was expelled from a yeshiva for entertaining his peers with a comical impersonation of Rabbi Kook.

porush funeral 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
porush funeral 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
On Purim almost 80 years ago, when he was just 16, Menahem Porush was expelled from the Etz Haim Yeshiva in Jerusalem for entertaining his fellow students with a comical impersonation of Chief Rabbi of Palestine Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook. The yeshiva may have lost an entertainer but the haredi public gained an important political leader.
Porush, who passed away this week at the age of 93, embodied a pragmatic approach to coexistence with the secular Zionist leadership in Israel.
Porush was the scion of a zealots. His family had lived for generations in Jerusalem and was vehemently opposed to Zionism. However, in July 1945, when the more extreme elements within the haredi community of Jerusalem purged Agudath Yisrael from their ranks, in protest against its willingness to cooperate with the Zionists, Porush, who had worked as a foreign correspondent for the haredi weekly Kol Yisrael, chose pragmatism over ideological purism.
He joined the thousands of more moderate haredim who had come to Palestine from Poland with the Fourth Aliya in building Agudah into a viable political party. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Porush understood the importance of working together with the materializing Jewish state to rehabilitate devastated haredi Jewry.
Agudah was hardly pro-Zionist. However, historians have refuted claims that in 1947 high-ranking members of the party threatened to testify before the UN against the creation of a Jewish state unless David Ben-Gurion granted their religious demands. (Porush himself, ironically, attempted to support this claim in his six-volume family biography, xxSharsheret Hadorot, to prove to more uncompromising detractors that Agudah stood steadfastly by haredi interests.)
THOSE WHO knew him well tell of Porush’s strong connection to the Land of Israel. One relatively recent memorable photo shows him on a stage in Sderot – in his late 80s, confined to a wheelchair – protesting against the Gaza disengagement.
But he always maintained close ties with the Left. Former Meretz chairman Yossi Sarid eulogized Porush on a haredi Internet site, stating, “If I must have a political adversary, I hope it is someone with Porush’s attributes.” President Shimon Peres also had close ties with him and mourned him as a man of vision and hope.
For all his openness, Porush knew well how to advance the interests of his constituency. During more than three decades as an MK, including two periods during which he served as deputy labor and social affairs minister, Porush fought bitterly for the exemption of yeshiva students and religious women from IDF service. He demonstrated against the opening of a public swimming pool in Jerusalem. He torpedoed plans to build Teddy Stadium on a hill in northern Jerusalem that today is the site of a haredi neighborhood.
But Porush did not just tow the party line. Together with his son, MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism), he challenged the haredi political establishment. The two Porushs, with the backing of Shas, successfully ran their own mayoral candidate for Betar Illit in 2007, against Degel Hatorah and the Ger Hassidic movement, which controls Agudah. When Ger, through its paper Hamodia, helped foil Meir’s run for mayor of Jerusalem in 2008, the Porushes set up their own daily, Hamevaser.
MENAHEM PORUSH’S maverick political leadership style is an important legacy.
In today’s Israel, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find acommon cultural denominator that can unite the disparate parts of oursociety. At a time when one in four Israeli babies is born to a haredifamily, it is unclear whether these children will grow up to feelstrong ties with the State of Israel and its values.
At this critical moment, the haredi community desperately needscreative, independent leadership that takes heed of the commoninterests of all Israelis.
The rising number of haredi young men who are choosing to performnational service is a step in the right direction, as is the growingnumber of haredi men and women who are joining the labor force.
The haredi political leadership, in the spirit of Menahem Porush,should be encouraging these trends. Through interaction and the sharingof responsibility, we need to create and strengthen common culturalbonds to help meet the many challenges that face us.