Ultra-Orthodox and online

A boycott ordered last year by leading rabbis seemed like it might spell the demise of Haredi websites. Since an agreement was reached, however, the Behadrei Haredim site has begun to flourish - but with a 'kashrut' monitor in tow.

Haaretz, Israel/October 29, 2010

The editors of the ultra-Orthodox website Behadrei Haredim recount with pride that on an average day they upload some 100 new items to their constantly updated home page. Among the news flashes, the multimedia posts and the banners, one can find a stylized link to "the Immanuel affair." A click of the mouse leads to a host of articles and opinion pieces posted earlier this year about the conflict, involving the move of parents in that ultra-Orthodox community to separate Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls at a Beit Yaakov school.

An archive gives surfers access to all the items that have appeared on the site on the conflict, almost all of them expressing support for the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi establishment that authorized the segregation. The justices of the Supreme Court are depicted demonically, and the attitude of writers toward Sephardic petitioners and their rabbis who challenged the system is critical, at best. "We'll go to the gas chambers for education," one surfer wrote in response. "For the sake of Prisoners of Zion we shall not keep silent." And also, "Bnei Brak roared: Yes to Torah, No to the High Court of Justice."

Precisely during the period when the commotion surrounding Immanuel was at its height, in May, the site was subject to a total boycott by the leading rabbis. They issued a ban against publishing items on it, and ostensibly prevented interviews from being granted to the site's reporters.

In practice, however, despite the ban, the site ran an interview at the time with MK Meir Porush, the deputy education minister, who had set up a protest tent outside the Ma'asiyahu prison. That's where Ashkenazi parents from Immanuel were being detained for ignoring a High Court order to send their daughters back to school. Someone who worked for Behadrei Haredim even got to tag along on a prison visit with the entourage of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, a prominent figure who supported the boycott. Behind the scenes, reporters and photographers for the website say, the politicians, rabbis and even the Haredi newspapers relied on their help to promote the campaign on behalf of the detained parents.

The fact that the boycott against the Haredi Internet site eventually died down, and the quiet, retroactive seal of approval it received a few weeks ago, apparently has something to do with the site's coverage of the rabbinical establishment's battle against the High Court. Other factors contributing to the change of attitude toward the website include: the power Haredi Internet sites in general have accumulated, over both the rabbis and other members of the ultra-Orthodox elite; the large sums of money involved in the websites; and perhaps above all, the basic, spiritual confusion the medium has caused in Haredi society. At present there is a growing understanding among some rabbis that it is better to learn to get along with the Web, than to try and beat it.

During the past few weeks, for the first time since Behadrei Haredim's establishment in 2002, its content has been edited by staff working in a proper office in the heart of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. There is no sign posted at the entrance, and it is doubtful that will change in the future, but there is no palpable feeling that the workers are trying to hide something: Indeed, Behadrei Haredim is going mainstream, at least partially, even if most of its writers still hide behind pseudonyms and most of those who spoke with Haaretz for this article asked to remain anonymous.

Several of the prominent rabbis who initially supported the site's boycott recently granted the site's management, indirectly and quietly, their consent to carry on and even expand activities - albeit in return for close scrutiny and censorship. More importantly, the rabbis now permit advertising on the site. In recent weeks, Haredi advertising agencies have informed their clients of verbal understandings with the rabbis, under which Internet use is no longer forbidden.

However, verbal arrangements can also be denied at any time - as Rabbi Mordechai Blau did in a brief phone conversation. Blau heads a group called Guardians of Sanctity and Education, which operates under the auspices of leading Bnei Brak rabbis and is charged with dealing with matters pertaining to modesty and morality. "No significant changes have occurred with regard to the entire Internet subject," he declared.

The rest of the rabbis also deny there has been any agreement, and none attended the ceremony in which mezuzahs were affixed to the doors of the website's Jerusalem office.

One central figure in the Haredi advertising industry claims that the rabbis lacked reliable information when they first came out against the Internet: "In the boycott case, the rabbis were fed by people who have certain interests, and now, almost a year after the boycott was imposed, the rabbis understand that."

In December 2009, the letter declaring a boycott of Haredi websites was published in the ultra-Orthodox press, signed by the spiritual leaders of ultra-Orthodoxy. "These channels must be condemned and uprooted from our midst," the letter announced. It also included other clear warnings such as "not to look at these channels, and not to cooperate with them in any way," and "individuals, organizations and companies are not to advertise on them."

Secrets and shocks

The boycott was the brainchild of Rabbi Moshe Karp of Modi'in Ilit, who managed to keep the collection of the signatures of 20 like-minded rabbis a secret until the moment before he published it. The shock was complete; within three or four days the boycotters had seemingly succeeded in toppling most of the Haredi Internet industry. First to close down was one of the more high-profile sites, Haredim (which since then has been operating only as a cellular portal ); afterward the two founding editors of Behadrei Haredim, David Rotenberg and Dov Povarsky announced they were leaving (a temporary move, as it turned out ) and others quit in their wake.

Despite this situation, the portal Behadrei Haredim, which includes a news site and dozens of discussion forums, continued to operate. The pressure had only limited effect on the owners - mainly because Guy Cohen, CEO of Global Networks, which bought the site prior to the boycott, is secular, and "you can't threaten him that his kids will be kicked out of the heder," as one of his colleagues put it.

Furthermore, Haredi-owned websites - such as Kikar Hashabat and Ladaat - did not shut down after the boycott, even though they did not have a seal of approval, and the same was true with the sites affiliated with Chabad, such as Shturem and Chabad Online, which in any case do not play on the same "Haredi-Lithuanian field." Several advertisers also continued to advertise on the Haredi sites, although the blow to the entire industry was palpable. A prominent Haredi advertising executive estimated recently that had there not been a boycott, the advertising budgets of the sites in question would have grown "five- to eight-fold" over the last year.

The initial reaction to the ban was a storming of Haredi websites - evidently by surfers who first learned of their existence from the boycott announcement. Staff at Behadrei Haredim say the increased interest has remained steady throughout the ensuing months. A year ago the site drew an average of 50,000 discrete surfers a day, whereas now the number is 65,000. Meanwhile, the monthly total of surfers is now up to 500,000 in Israel, plus another 300,000 surfers from 94 countries (the site and most of its forums are in Hebrew, though there are a few Yiddish-language ones ). Behadrei Haredim is today the major media outlet in the Haredi world, and two weeks ago was voted one of the five best news sites in Israel by a popular secular site, Mako.

Over the summer, as the Immanuel affair raged, Povarsky and Rotenberg quietly returned to Behadrei Haredim, with the permission, they say, of rabbis who had originally supported the boycott. Only now, in their new office, are they openly managing the site - though not its forums, which they say had been the primary basis for the boycott in the first place. The forums constitute fertile ground for grievous and diverse "sins," beginning with "slander and attempts to bury people," as Povarsky puts it, and ending with display of rebelliousness against the Haredi way of life, and what is worse, against the community's rabbis.

Problematic forums

Povarsky and Rotenberg eventually received a different domain name from the forums, and thus now share, together with Guy Cohen, ownership over and responsibility for the Behadrei Haredim website alone.

"I'm not saying a forum is a bad thing, but there are problems, and I can't assume spiritual responsibility [for its content]. I'm not willing to be the town fool, who does something that everybody enjoys while paying the spiritual price for it," Povarsky says.

He believes the rabbis had a change of mind: "After all, they said from the start that the Internet is permissible for work purposes - in other words, that it is not exactly treyf like pork. They also realized that in any event there are loads of Haredim on the Internet, and that it would be better if they get their information from Haredi sites than from secular ones, where some offer of a date can suddenly pop up. In my opinion, this is a move that was calculated in advance. First, they banned [use of the Internet] in general, and now they are interested in providing a solution for people who are nonetheless using the Internet."

Today Behadrei Haredim has a staff of 30 regular reporters (including two women ) and 20 freelancers, and it will soon debut a revamped design and a new user agreement for surfers. But the most important change is that the group of rabbis who indirectly authorized the operation of the site demanded - and received - the right to have a representative on the premises with the power to red-pencil any content they deem problematic. The supervisor on behalf of the rabbis is Avi Greenzeig, 24, whose salary is paid by the site's owners (as with kashrut inspectors in restaurants ).

The rabbis have also asked to monitor online chatting on the forums, particularly on sensitive matters. These include a case that has been dragging on for several years involving a petition to the rabbinical court by the Ger Hasidic community, demanding that Behadrei Haredim's management reveal the identity of a surfer who expressed sentiments contrary to those represented by the current Gerer rebbe.

Greenzeig, a curious and likable young man, and a graduate of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, says that his job is to ensure that a balance is struck between freedom of expression for surfers and the demands of his superiors. Mainly his work entails monitoring the 1,500 talkback responses to news items on the site. He approves fewer than half of them.

"Talkbacks are one of the most sensitive matters," he explains. "Everyone writes, and I even know of prominent politicians who write. In contrast to posting items to a forum, this doesn't require authorization, but we monitor things closely. I have to read every talkback; some people write 'sermons' a kilometer long."

For instance, Greenzeig immediately deleted a talkback in response to an item stating the rabbis' position on the state-religious school system's core curriculum, which read, "Don't they see how their public is suffocating from poverty? These are sages? These are leaders?" Another comment that began, "The time has come to separate religion and state," was ruled out on the grounds of improper language.

An individual well versed in the Haredi Internet world expressed frustration at what he described as a continuation of the line Behadrei Haredim took during the Immanuel affair. During that period, he explains, "Behadrei Haredim became a mouthpiece for the rabbis. When the site was founded, the idea was to provide a platform for Haredim who thought outside the box; an alternative to the 'sponsored' press. What is happening now is that the monitoring has taken over the forums, and makes sure to get rid of anything that doesn't suit the rabbis or their ilk."

According to Povarsky, "We maintain freedom of speech, and the fact is that nearly every day we also publish harsh critiques on various matters. But our central motif, as Haredim, is to do this correctly, fairly, appropriately. The previous way was not right, because everyone wrote whatever he felt like writing. The situation in which there are rabbis in the picture is good for everyone. The surfers also wind up benefiting."

Another Behadrei Haredim staffer also defended the system: "People love to say that Haredi media are subject to censorship. Aren't the general media? They simply call it 'rules,' or 'the interests of the publisher' or editor. We too have rules like that, which we set. The requests by those who gave their seal of approval have been minor until now. If they were to harm freedom of expression, we would not permit it."

Povarsky says he is willing to be tolerant when it comes to different opinions even if they are disputed by certain rabbis - but items on "subjects that are outside the consensus entirely I won't post."

How does he explain the fact that Behadrei Haredim aligned itself with the Ashkenazi rabbis in the Immanuel affair, in contrast to the rival site Kikar Hashabat, which published a variety of views?

"We are part of the public, not a mouthpiece for the rabbis," Povarsky says. "But in the Immanuel affair, most of the public fell into line because of the interference in the goings-on of our public. In the Supreme Court there is only one justice of Mizrahi origin. Who are they to preach to us?

"There are matters in which there is no shame on our part about showing sensitivity, and there are matters in which there is - and then we bite very hard. Every day a biting column appears here," Povarsky says.

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