Media Comment: Haredim, journalism and ethics

The ongoing battle between the Yated Ne’eman daily newspaper and the Mishpacha weekly is another example of the ferociousness between factions within the Haredi world.

thousands of haredim at yosef memorial 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
thousands of haredim at yosef memorial 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The haredi community has always maintained an odd relationship with the media, starting already in the middle of the 19th century when the Hebrew-language press made its appearance.
At the fascinating blog Seforim, Eliezer Brodt recently published an article on the 100-year old issue of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the practice of their reading newspapers, specifically on Shabbat. For example, he detailed that the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, among others, not only devoted time to the Hebrew newspapers of the day, but also quoted from them in various responsa pertaining to halachic decisions.
As reported by Brodt, in 1928 Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein published a book titled Mekor Baruch, approbated glowingly by Rabbi A. I. Kook, who was himself a pupil of the Netziv from Volozhin. In the book, Epstein confirmed that the Netziv read newspapers.
Mekor Baruch was translated and published in English in 1988. Yet, a few months later, the Lakewood Cheder, which distributed it, recommended that it should not be read.
The thought that a leading haredi rabbi actually read a newspaper was anathema.
Brodt, pursuing the matter, notes that the Netziv’s writings had suffered at the hands of censorship and that references to newspapers, such as HaLevanon and HaMelitz, were removed from later editions of his halachic works. Indeed, censorship is common practice in the haredi world. The late uncle of one of us (EP), Yitzchak Shimshon Lange, brought to light from old manuscripts a treatise on the Torah by Rabbi Yehuda Hahassid, who lived in Germany in the 12th and 13th century. Some of the passages in the book were not to the liking of the haredi Rabbi of Zurich, and Lange was “convinced” that he must censor the original edition and take the offending passages out.
With time it would seem that the haredi world has changed. Haredi media are flourishing, with newspapers, weekly Torah pages, Internet sites, haredi radio stations and even Internet TV. There are also designated closed forums for the exclusive use of ultra-Orthodox women, as researched by Azi Lev-On and Rivka Neriya Ben-Shahar. Haredi newspapers in Israel have special and enlarged issues for the weekends, presumably since people do read them also on Shabbat.
Yet the haredi media is very different from the general media. For one, it is heavily censored, especially when it comes to women.
This is not to say that censorship does not exist in the general media – far from it, and we have often noted how the Israeli media refrains from reporting on certain issues.
Yet, the censorship in the haredi media seems to be more severe.
It largely refrains from reporting violent or sexual crimes. It will also attempt to defend its own, sometimes going to extreme lengths in doing so. For example, as reported on the INN website, when the heads of the “Bechadrei Chadarim” haredi website were arrested on suspicion of blackmailing people, threatening them with exposure, the haredi media ignored the issue under the pretext that it did not report criminal affairs.
We have reported in this column too frequently on the abuse and stereotyping of the haredi community by the mainstream secular media. Unfortunately, the same takes place, and too often much more egregiously, in the haredi press than in the Israeli media. Recent political events have exposed the haredi media at its worst.
Anti-Semitic-style cartoons are employed to negatively portray the State of Israel, or Finance Minister Yair Lapid or the “war” waged by secular and Religious Zionist Israel against the haredi world. As reported on the Mako website back in August 2011, the Yated Ne’eman newspaper had a caricature of the Menorah – the emblem of the State of Israel – resting on a swastika.
This was not a one-time “error.” Yoni Greenstein, their caricaturist, excels at producing such high-quality images. In one of them, from January 2012, he depicts three wolves, representing the media, the law and the public, feasting on the bones of the haredi public. In the background one finds a pile of leftover bones.
When Rav Avichai Ronsky, the former chief rabbi of the IDF, wrote that the Bayit Yehudi party has more in common with Yesh Atid than with the haredim, he was attacked ferociously. The Hamodia newspaper published an opinion article by Isaac Matityahu Tennenbaum whose main thesis was that Rabbi Ronsky should be considered the equivalent of the pig. He published a whole tractate “proving” that the National Religious community act like pigs, look like pigs, and so they must be pigs.
He ends by noting that “it is good that the haredi youth now know who the Religious Zionists really are so that we will not come near them... we belong completely to the true Torah and its obligations.” In the world of Hamodia, lashon hara – defamation – is permitted.
Hatred is not only expressed toward the “outside world.” HaPeles is a haredi daily which started appearing in July 2012. It is associated with Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and the Bnei Torah political party. It has not refrained from criticizing haredi rabbis for what it perceives as a lax attitude toward Judaism. Rabbis Aharon Leib Shteinman and Chaim Kanievskyy do not like the paper, considering it as a source of desecration of the name of the Almighty. They decreed that one must not let the paper enter one’s home, one should not aid the paper in any way, one should not advertise in it and one should let the advertisers know that they might God forbid aid the desecration of the name of God. The paper has been honored with epithets such as “the wicked shall rot.” Within the haredi world, the right of retort is unknown, from all sides.
The ongoing battle between the Yated Ne’eman daily newspaper and the Mishpacha weekly is another example of the ferociousness between factions within the haredi world, which surpasses the rivalry between Yediot Aharonot and Yisrael Hayom.
The examples considered here are the tip of the iceberg within the haredi journalistic world. A haredi journalistic code of ethics seems not to exist. Objective truth, which is denied in the post-modernist world, is replaced in the haredi media with divine truth. Just as haredi parties submit themselves to a Grand Council of Sages, their press acquiesces to a so-called Spiritual Committee. Too many journalists speak regularly to the Almighty and these discussions serve to justify their lack of respect to their fellow human beings.
At the end of the day, it is the haredi world which pays the price. Its sources of information are slanted and controlled; any haredi person who does want to know what is happening in reality has no recourse but to use the secular media. It would seem that the well known adage of Hillel the Elder, who folded the whole Torah into one sentence – what is hated by yourself don’t do onto your friend – needs to become the basis of a haredi media code of ethics.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (