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OBITUARY : Shlomo Shragai

Those who saw Shlomo Shragai towards the end of his 96 years in Jerusalem, bent and needing constant assistance, could hardly believe that this was the same handsome man, vigorous and inventive, who played such a crucial role in the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe and Islamic countries to the fledgling state of Israel after the Second World War.

A passionate believer in Orthodox Judaism and religious Zionism, he left his native Poland in 1924 to work as a pioneer in the Jewish homeland of Palestine. He worked for a time on building roads, before his abilities were recognised by the Mizrachi national religious party.

By settling in Palestine he had challenged the views of the larger non- Zionist religious party, Agudat Israel, and others who feared the influence of the secular Zionist leaders and were prepared to wait for the coming of the Messiah for the re-establishment of the Jewish state. As a Talmudic scholar and fervent believer he was able to convince many other young people to follow his example.

Arriving in London after the Second World War as a representative of the Jewish Agency, the executive arm of the World Zionist Organisation, Shragai shared with local and Israeli Zionist leaders the shock of being, as they saw it, betrayed by the new Labour government led by Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin. Feeling that Christian leaders would understand the Zionists' religious longing for their ancient homeland, Shragai sought the aid of the churches but there was little hope that the Government's policy could be reversed.

With his profound attachment to Hasidism, the joyful, fervent and emotional religious movement which had won over most of Eastern European Jewry, Shragai was captivated by the discourses of the Hasidic scholar Rabbi Berish Finklestein at his London Shtibl (a small synagogue) and the two became firm friends.

When the State of Israel was established, followed by the invasion of the Arab armies, Shragai voiced his belief in an ultimate victory and stressed that sacrifices were inevitable.

As head of the Aliya (immigration) department of the Jewish Agency, Shragai intensified his efforts to bring survivors of the Holocaust to Israel. He persuaded the Polish Communist leaders to allow the emigration of a section of the remnant of the community which once numbered over 3.5 million. His discussions with Soviet officials proved less fruitful but led to a trickle. Finally there was a mass exodus.

In 1950, Shragai was elected Mayor of Jerusalem, a city which he loved with a rare intensity. During his two-year term he displayed an open-mindedness and sensitivity to the needs of its citizens, religious and secular, which was acknowledged even by his political opponents.

With the possibility of massive immigration from Islamic countries, Shragai made a number of dangerous clandestine trips to Arab capitals to organise the local Jewish communities. Hundreds of thousands of Jews left these countries, almost transforming overnight the young state of Israel.

Quietly spoken, with his small beard and piercing eyes Shragai looked more like a Talmudic scholar than a party leader. He shied away from compliments. However members of the Mizrachi movement admired him greatly and he was elected its Honorary World President. Last year it was planned to make a special presentation to him to mark his unique services to party and state, but by then he was too ill to accept any honour.

Joseph Finklestone

Shlomo Zalman Shragai, politician: born Gorzkowice, Poland 31 December 1898; married (three sons, one daughter); died Jerusalem 2 September 1995.