March 5, 1902, is the day that the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi was officially founded, at a conference in Vilna (today Vilnius), in Lithuania.
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The name “Mizrachi” in Hebrew means both “eastern,” literally, and is an acronym for “Merkaz Ruhani,” meaning “spiritual center.” And indeed, the movement aimed to infuse the largely secular political movement founded by Theodor Herzl with a Torah-based spirit. This was not something that could be taken for granted in the early decades of organized Zionism, since for many religious Jews, the formal return to Zion was not supposed to take place before the coming of the Messiah, and any human efforts to hurry that moment were blasphemy – an attitude that persists to this day, to varying degrees, among many ultra-Orthodox sects.
Mizrachi was founded by Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines (1839-1915), an innovative educator from Lida, Lithuania (today Belarus), who had previously drawn fire for his attempts to combine secular education with Talmudic studies in the yeshiva he founded. Although Reines was not the first Orthodox leader to support the idea of a return to Zion (he was preceded by rabbis Yehuda Shlomo Alkalai, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Samuel Mohilever), it was he who answered Herzl's call to become involved in the political movement, and as such was a participant in the Third Zionist Congress, in 1899.
Although secular Jews continued to dominate the Zionist movement in general, and Israeli politics in the first decades of the state, in Russia, with its highly traditional Jewish population, Mizrachi was the most significant Zionist organization in the early 20th century.
In September 1904, the Mizrachi movement held its first world congress, in what is today Bratislava. It called for settlement in Palestine, and observance of religious law there. Important support within the Orthodox world came from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who managed to reconcile Orthodoxy with the secularism that was predominant in the Land of Israel’s nascent Jewish society. Kook claimed that secular Zionists, without even being aware of it, were “contributing to the divine scheme and actually committing a great mitzvah,” so that they were helping to pave the way for the coming of Redemption.
Mizrachi established a youth movement, Bnei Akiva, in 1929, a network of religious schools in Palestine, and, in 1935, a religious kibbutz movement, which today has 19 member communities. On the political level, it was represented by two parties, Mizrachi and Hapoel Hamizrachi, the latter an Orthodox Labor Zionist grouping, which merged in 1956 to form the National Religious Party.
The NRP’s focus on matters of religion, including its insistence that the Chief Rabbinate have exclusive authority over matters of personal status (among Jews) in Israel, and later on settlement, while being fairly flexible on matters of defense and foreign policy, allowed the NRP and its predecessors to be a member of every Labor-led government from 1948 until 1973. After 1977, when Likud came into power, it aligned with that. Today, what remains of the NRP has been incorporated into the Jewish Home party (Habayit Hayehudi), led by Naftali Bennett.