Jerusalem, Israel - Ultra-orthodox rabbis in Israel have launched what they claim is a "divinely ordained war" against use of the internet among their followers.
They charge that the web is filled with "abomination" and can cause the faithful to abandon the strict religious way of life.
"The campaign against the internet and the ultra-orthodox websites that destroy everything that is good is a divinely ordained war," rabbi Shmuel Halevy Vozner, a prominent interpreter of Jewish law, wrote last week in HaModia newspaper.
Wary of their own standing as much as being vigilant against perceived sacrilege, the rabbis have forced the closure in recent weeks of ultra-orthodox websites that emerged over the last several years as an alternative news source to stodgy rabbinically guided newspapers.
Terming these lively websites and their forums, including one on being an ultra-orthodox bachelor, as "spreaders of evil talk, gossip, lies and impurity" the rabbis have ruled that it is sinful to advertise on them. The newspapers, HaModia, Yeted Ne'eman and HaMevaser - which have lost advertising to the websites in recent years - have unsurprisingly given saturation coverage to the charges the sites are sinful.
The crackdown began last month when wall posters sprung up in the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim area signed by the "Committee for the Purity of the Neighborhood." The posters voiced alarm at the growing use of the internet by rabbinical seminary students who live outside the school's supervision in rented flats.
"To our dismay there has been found in the unsupervised flats computers with all sorts of abomination, may God protect us," said the posters. Soon afterwards, leading rabbis including the revered 99-year-old sage, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, published a declaration that all internet use in homes is forbidden. Exceptions could be made if one's livelihood depended on using the net, but only if rabbinically approved "complete" filter mechanisms were in place.
Secular Israelis pride themselves on their country being at the cutting edge of internet technology. But the ultra-orthodox have always striven to be a community apart, preserving their ancient lifestyle and insular neighborhoods guided by strict Jewish law as interpreted by their rabbis.
With Israel's establishment in 1948, the ultra-orthodox, wary that the army would secularize their youngsters, were able to secure deferments for their youth from the mandatory service performed by other Israelis. The deferments turned into de facto exemptions.
Now the web is seen as another major threat that could prompt youth to assimilate into larger Israeli society. "We consider it to be very dangerous," said Yitzhak Goldknopf, an ultra-orthodox rabbi and educator in Jerusalem who serves on a committee to ensure the Sabbath is observed. "It is something liable to cast down a lot of casualties."
Another educator, Avraham Feiner, a Jerusalem city councilor, stresses that some secular Israeli parents are also concerned about the impact of the internet on their children. "If the average secular Israeli is looking for ways to block it, what do you expect from the ultra-orthodox? We will always find ways to safeguard our holy, pure youth."
The internet is seen foremost as violating modesty laws - according to ultra-orthodox belief it is forbidden to publish even faces of women. The web, according to rabbis, is also rife with "evil speech" and "idle gossip." But staffers at the Haredim website that was forced to close in deference to the rabbis hinted in a farewell message that perhaps articles that embarrassed ultra-orthodox politicians or the "machinations of hacks" were the real reasons for the crackdown.
"Despite the enormous financial loss, we heed the great sages of Israel and respect the edict," they wrote.
Another website, B'Chadrei Charedim (In the rooms of the ultra-orthodox), is still doggedly hanging on, although its top-two editors stepped down under the pressure. Its owner, Guy Cohen, who is a secular Israeli, is threatening to sue a rabbi, Moshe Karp, who he alleges is masterminding the crackdown, for allegedly libeling the site. Cohen says advertising has crashed since the crusade began and that he has lost 1 million shekels ($263,000) in recent weeks.
One ultra-orthodox group, the Vishnitz Hasidic movement, has told its followers that if they install an internet connection, which it terms an "instrument of impurity," in their homes their children will be excluded from the movement's educational system.
But not all ultra-orthodox rabbis are backing the crackdown. Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a disciple of rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the most revered sage of Jews of Middle Eastern descent, or Sephardim, said the latter had declined to sign the edict. "It is true that the internet is something bad and harmful but nevertheless, our great Sephardic sages understood that this instrument can also be used to bring people closer" to Judaism, he said.
But rabbi Feiner says that youngsters should not be allowed to use the internet, even in filtered form. "When they are old enough to distinguish between good and evil we will expose them, under supervision."
Still, observers believe that internet use has become so widespread among the ultra-orthodox - one in four households uses it according to Israel's national phone company, Bezeq - that the rabbinical opposition will not be able to halt it entirely.
That certainly was the impression at the Shtrudel Internet cafe, an easy walk from Mea Shearim. Bucking the rabbinical ban, a tall bearded man with a black skullcap and white prayer strings known as tzitzit - that remind Jews of the divine commandments - headed straight for a computer, closed a drab curtain to shield himself from being recognized and began clicking away.
The cafe's owner, a Russian immigrant who identified himself only as Michael, said he had not sensed a drop-off among his mostly ultra-orthodox clientele since the crackdown began.
"Trying to force people to stop using the internet won't work," he added. "In Russia, until there was perestroika it was forbidden to watch videos. Someone who organized a video showing could go to prison. But that didn't stop people."