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War on Internet Is a Fight the Rabbis Can’t Win

Are Israel’s Haredi religious authorities losing control of their followers?

In December, leading Israeli rabbis launched a new push to curtail Internet use among ultra-Orthodox Jews, emphasizing that their longstanding ban on Web surfing applied to sites geared toward the Haredi community as well. They threatened stricter penalties than ever before for those who disobeyed. But rather than showing their power, the battle against Haredi Internet use has exposed the rabbis’ weakness, as large parts of the community resolutely remain online.

The Israeli rabbis first came out against Internet use in January 2000, when more than 30 Haredi leaders forbade Internet connections at home. Back then, the main concern was the easy availability of online pornography. The ban was not particularly controversial, as Israeli Haredim had long accepted a similar ban on owning television sets.

Many Haredim, however, circumvented the ban by using 3G phones, which allowed Internet access — until the rabbis forced them to buy “kosher-certified” sets in which the Internet feature was disabled. Others frequented Internet cafés. Still others brought computers into the home for work purposes, a practice that the Rabbinical Commission for Media Affairs — established by leading Haredi rabbis to set policy — was forced to permit in 2007, conceding that the Internet was essential for many businesses.

Senior rabbis continued to emphasize the ban on casual Internet use. But it was too late. Although no accurate figures for Haredi Internet use exist, the Israeli phone company Bezeq claims that a quarter of the Haredi households that it serves have a Bezeq Internet connection. Many others, presumably, use different service providers.

Meanwhile, blogs written by Haredim who have theological doubts or misgivings about their closed society have flourished. And Israeli Haredim developed an online network of news sites, whose existence is by now taken for granted. Along with hard news, the sites feature gossip from the rabbis’ courts, discussion of intra-communal scandals and forums in which any aspect of Haredi life can be criticized.

Such sites are widely understood to have revolutionized strictly Orthodox society, exposing its leaders to previously unimaginable scrutiny and draining advertising revenues from the community’s more deferential newspapers.

Ultimately, it seems, it was the threat to rabbinic authority — rather than the threat of exposure to the secular world — that pushed the rabbis into taking draconian measures. The December order from senior rabbis — including top Haredi authorities like Yosef Sholom Elyashiv and Aharon Leib Shteinman — instructed their followers not to visit Haredi Web sites, which they said were full of “lies,” “gossip” and “abominations.” Crucially, they also instructed Haredi schools not to admit any child whose parents are involved in such Web sites.

As a result, several sites capitulated and closed down.

But this is only a very partial success for the rabbis.

One of the most popular Haredi news sites, B’Hadrei Haredim (in the rooms of Haredim) — owned by a secular businessman — reports that its traffic was up 30% in December, to 65,000 unique visitors a day. Other sites are also holding on.

Haredi Web surfers, in other words, are continuing to go online in massive numbers, consciously defying their supposed leaders. Indeed, Haredi news sites are even matter-of-factly reporting on the new ban — brazenly ignoring its implications for their own existence.

In pushing this ban, the leading Haredi rabbis — mostly in their 70s and 80s — have revealed themselves to be utterly detached from their communities, not understanding that Internet use has become normative. They appear to have relied naively on the advice of a few advisors, some of whom have been attacked on the Haredi Web sites and may have had personal reasons for wanting to see them shut down.

Meanwhile, the rabbis continuously overestimated their own influence. Following a decade of ignored bans, it took what amounts to a threat of excommunication to produce any results at all. The Haredi public’s disobedience is so overt that religious authorities must be worried that it will spill into other areas.

As the battle over Google in China and the pivotal role of Twitter during this summer’s unrest in Iran shows, digital media is toxic to closed regimes. But the rabbis should recognize that even if the Internet does pose a threat to their control, the damage done by trying to ban it is far greater.

Haredim are going to stay online. The community’s leaders may be able to retain some measure of control, by allowing and cooperating with “kosher” Web sites. Alternatively, they can continue to issue ultimatums their followers will not meet, condemning themselves to irrelevancy.

Miriam Shaviv is foreign editor of Britain’s Jewish Chronicle.


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