The Internet pandemic is plaguing Israel's haredi community

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: Without the power of the state behind them, will persuasion and social pressure be sufficient to keep the haredi Internet firewall intact?

 HAREDI MEN with cell phones in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
HAREDI MEN with cell phones in Jerusalem.

While the rest of the world has been coping with the COVID pandemic, the haredi community is coping with a pandemic of more serious proportions.

While they believe that the physical threat from the health risk is manageable, the spiritual and communal risk of the Internet is existential. Indeed, the COVID crisis has exposed deepening cracks in the walled garden, so fundamental to haredi society. There has been a major increase on the Internet connectivity for haredim since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, leading to ever greater concerns from the leadership about how to protect their flock from outside and, in their perspective, wholly destructive influences.

Beyond the politics or even the optics of the moment, this is the deeper background story to the highly unusual meeting this week between a group of the most senior haredi Rabbis and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel. haredi watchers and commentators cannot recall anything in living memory that comes close. Typically the history of Israeli politicians and haredi rabbis, going all the way back to the famous meeting of Israel’s first prime minister and the founding father of Israeli haredim, Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish, in 1952, is a story of Israeli politicians visiting haredi rabbinic leaders and not the other way round. David Ben-Gurion didn’t meet the Chazon Ish at the Prime Minister’s Office, the center of State power, but in Bnei Brak, at the home of the haredi leader.

In its time this was a remarkable gesture of respect, and as some at the time said, surrender.

History allows us to poetically compare the two political meetings, 1952 and 2021.

 COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER Yoaz Hendel heads a meeting with the Vizhnitz Rebbe and other haredi rabbis this week at his office. (credit: Courtesy) COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER Yoaz Hendel heads a meeting with the Vizhnitz Rebbe and other haredi rabbis this week at his office. (credit: Courtesy)

Controversy surrounds the meeting between the Chazon Ish and Ben-Gurion. In what became known as the parable of the empty wagon and the full wagon, the Chazon Ish described succinctly how he saw relations between haredi society and secular Israeli society. The haredim have a wagon full of values, in this case Jewish and Torah values, whereas secular society has no values at all, the empty wagon. Ergo haredi society should inherently take precedence. This brief meeting of foundational leaders has informed haredi secular relations in Israel ever since.

In what we may come to see as a return meeting, leading haredi Rabbis – hassidic, Litvak and Sephardi – waived away their Rabbinic honor agreeing to meet in the office of the minister. During the meeting the 70 year old parable came up. The minister made a point of replying, as if on behalf of Ben-Gurion: “I feel like a full wagon. The people of Israel will be here (Israel) based on the merit of army service and Torah study.”

This a clear stab at the haredi communities insistence to allow Torah study instead of military service.

The core mission of the Vizhnitz grand rabbi is to guarantee, to the extent he is able, that the next generation of Vizhnitz hassidim will behave, religiously and socially, the same as their fathers. In his mind and the mind of the wider haredi leadership, the main threat to this core mission statement is the Internet. Not only because of the unlimited amounts of improper and immodest content, but because of the infinite world of knowledge and access to the outside world it offers.

The reason for the meeting was a change in state regulations that Hendel had announced. The new regulations would allow any haredi with a “kosher phone” to switch to a regular phone capable of full internet access. Since the cellular internet revolution, the haredim identified free access to the Internet as a threat. As such the Rabbis decreed that only kosher cell phones should be allowed. Phones are for phone calls only – not internet access, not data, no video, no whatsapp etc. And whilst within the different haredi communities there are different rules, it has become a widely accepted religious norm.

In order to enforce this rule there came into being an internal haredi regulating body. It approved of which phones, what type of technology and even which phone numbers the haredi consumer could access, effectively creating a monopoly by guaranteeing that kosher phones would have a specific cellular number, to be controlled by the Rabbis.

 While this enterprise began as a community based exercise in self-regulation or policing, over the years the power and reach of the “Rabbinic Committee for Communications” has grown dramatically. And, although the founding of this body was with the total approval and backing of the senior leadership, it’s not clear that they have sanctioned all its more aggressive activities. From internal regulation of the community, it has become a sub-regulator with the approval of the state. It has autonomous authority to block any content that the Kosher phones can access, and because all the kosher phones have the same “area code” they have been excluded from the wider regulation that applies to the cell phone market in Israel allowing number mobility from one service to another. 

Without an approved phone, children are excluded from the bulk of the haredi school system. This is a supreme social sanction within a community that education defines social standing and even actual membership of the community. Hence the increased power of the committee.

MUCH HAS been made of haredi autonomy within the State of Israel. Exclusion from military service and an independent education system – both sanctioned by the state – are perhaps the most obvious expressions of this autonomy. The ability to control the access to the Internet allows the physical walls to be complimented by virtual walls, in an effort to protect the walled garden of the haredi autonomy. This situation would almost undoubtedly have continued had the committee not over used its power at the beginning of the pandemic. Complaints began to reach former MK Tehila Friedman from deep within the haredi community that the committee was blocking access to the phone services providing possibly lifesaving information about the COVID virus, and what the Health Ministry was recommending in order to protect oneself. To Friedman this smacked of a serious abuse of power, and she started to dig. Once this process started it became clear to her and others, including Hendel, with the power and responsibility to intervene, that what had started as a community service had become an abuse of the power vested in it from the state to improperly enforce itself on the community.

This brings us full circle to the meeting this week. Not arranged via the normal channels of the haredi MKs (MK Arye Deri himself admitted, or perhaps complained, post meeting about this) but by the committee itself. Perhaps in desperation, perhaps on the basis of misinformation, the potential ramifications of the meeting, dealing a major blow to the Rabbinic status, and unlikely to achieve a change of heart of the minister, do not seem to be justified from the perspective of the rabbis who attended.

There is no doubt that with the advance of technology there are many social challenges. This is not limited to the haredi community. Hendel, himself a social conservative who in spite of not wearing a kippah in public considers himself part of the religious Zionist community, agreed with the rabbis that free access for children to all that the Internet offers carries with it danger, and hence should be managed. He made clear that he cannot agree that the state regulator be used as a way to enforce communal religious standards. Moreover, in light of the pandemic, Hendel reminded his guests that there has been a major jump in the amount of online connectivity the haredi community has, crossing the 60% mark for the first time. There are many reasons for this trend, but Hendel’s point to the rabbis was that they are trying to close a stable door, after the horse has bolted, or at least with two hooves out of the stable.

A number of years ago a prominent hassidic grand rabbi told me with a great deal of pain: “If I lose the battle over the Internet, I will wake up one morning without hassidim.”

After this week and the reduced power of the committee, leaders of the haredi community may have to rethink their strategy. Without the power of the state behind them, will persuasion and social pressure be sufficient to keep the haredi Internet firewall intact? I would never underestimate the power of haredi identity and leadership to survive the challenge, but my sense is that failure this time could undermine the very foundations that the haredi community is built on.

Sometimes when internal communal bodies receive the power of the state, this can lead to corruption.

The writer is partner of Goldrock Capital and co-chair of the Coalition for haredi Employment.•