Surf's up - but it's kosher!

Haaretz, Israel/July 28, 2008

At the beginning of July, Belz, the second-largest Hasidic sect in Israel after the Gur Hasidim, openly declared it was connected to the Internet. The announcements the sect distributed at synagogues in its centers in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem were, in effect, an exhortation to members who need the Internet for purposes of earning a living to use the "kosher" Internet. The message was also received by the greater ultra-Orthodox world to "make the vermin kosher" on the Web - in a supervised way, of course. Thus Belz fomented a revolution, whose outcome is not yet clear.

More than 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox households have computers, but many people in the community still relate to them with suspicion. The computer has not been banned outright like television, because there is a general understanding that it is needed for people's livelihoods. "Making a living" has always been a rationale for allowing modernity to come in through the front door, even in such households. The same is true with the Internet, even though it is considered more problematic because it is potentially a link to everything that is forbidden, from pornography to apostasy.

It is hard to estimate the number of ultra-Orthodox surfers, but from the flourishing of forums catering to this sector (at the Hydepark site alone there are more than 200), one can understand that the Internet "underworld" has already become an integral part of ultra-Orthodox life and a vital need in a community where restrictions and prohibitions are the daily bread.

"The Internet is a reality. It is inevitable. Every day more and more ultra-Orthodox surfers appear. But this threatens the foundations of ultra-Orthodox society," explains an ultra-Orthodox commentator on media matters. He preferred not to be identified by name, which testifies to the fact that despite relative openness, everything connected to the Internet is still problematic in his community.

"The problem is that exposure to pornography can occur very quickly," he explains. "I'm not talking about people who are looking for it, but about those who are not. Innocent people. It happens by chance: A fellow of 30, married and the father of children, suddenly sees naked girls and all the rest. This is tragic, because his world collapses in an instant. He is not prepared for this psychologically and emotionally. But even without pornography, there's a problem because our public is curious, and this is a world of information to which a person can become addicted."

The man adds that until now, ultra-Orthodox functionaries who deal with media matters have understood the dangers of Internet, but have swept them under the rug because it was not legitimate to talk about the subject. But these boundaries have been broken. "Belz are the first to have come out of the closet. They have admitted that that such a thing exists, that their Hasids surf, so now they have come up with a solution," he says.

The solution is supervised surfing. Belz representatives recently signed a contract with Rimon Internet, which provides various surfing packages at different levels of "openness," according to the client's requirements.

"Thus far the solutions provided in the context of kosher Internet were a closed list of sites, but this has not proven itself," says Kobi Hacker, CEO of Rimon Internet. "We screen the sites, but provide a surfing experience."

Without women

For the client, Rimon Internet acts as an Internet provider. The person connects to it and can only surf sites whose contents have been approved. At the company they offer three different, closed packages. All allow access only to sites that are safe with respect to modesty - that is, there are no photographs of women on them. But some sites have been blocked that are problematic from the perspective of the ultra-Orthodox worldview - like, for example, the Geographical Society's site or others belonging to museums. At some sites certain textual contents or photos have been blocked, and they can only be accessed in a limited way.

In cooperation with a special committee on media matters, which gives "certifications of kashrut" on behalf of the Belz sect, a special package called Natir has been created, which is even more restricted than other ultra-Orthodox ones.

What is permitted? A map of the accessible sites provides a look at the sect's worldview. One can see from it how the rather dour Belz community - which is actually more connected to the world than, say, the Satmars - wants the average Hasid to experience the world. This is, of course, a black-and-white world, both in terms of content and visuals.

First of all, there are 150 different sites that are generally useful or business-related, and are open to the Belz surfer. Plus an immeasurably longer list of sites that are blocked, which are defined as "black," at Rimon. It is not surprising, for example, that Belz leaders aren't interested in having their members surf the Hadrei Haredim forum on the Hydepark site. This forum provides a stage for harsh criticism of the ultra-Orthodox public and its leaders. Forums of the Satmar community, Belz's greatest rival, are also off-bounds.

Belz allows its adherents to surf news sites, but not those with contents that are not to its liking. Thus, for example, the sites of Haaretz or TheMarker, as well as Globes, with the photos missing, are open for surfing. NRG and Ynet, however, are forbidden. University sites are also open.

The religious feminist Kolech site is not accessible, nor is Hadaf Hayomi, which offers a daily page of Gemara. "We prefer that people study from a book," said one functionary. The educational Matah site is also blocked, as is Mikranet, which provides modern commentaries on the Bible.

At Belz they know that this solution is not airtight. After all, it is not possible to sift through every single one of the millions of sites that exist in various languages. Therefore, every day an inspector on behalf of the special media committee reviews the sites Hasidim have surfed, and decides whether to approve them. Moreover, a Hasid can pick up the phone to the committee and inform them of a site which he thinks should be be blocked.

Not in the home

Still, the Belz solution is indicative of a sensible view of reality. The Gur sect, for example, has acted in almost the opposite way and has sent representatives into adherents' homes to get them to sign agreements not to use the Internet. In the wake of Belz, however, Gur is looking into the possibility of connecting to Rimon.

There is also the policy adopted by the ultra-Orthodox community in London, which has forbidden the use of Internet in the home: The elders of the community have set up a kosher Internet cafe in the city, for the purpose of helping people to earn a living.

"We hereby appeal to all the inhabitants of our city," is the message to members. "Have mercy on your souls and on the souls of your children and our coming generations. Happy is the man who has the possibility of not bringing the Internet into his home or his office, and it shall be well for him and his generations, and he will be able to arrange the things that he needs on the Internet there."

Thus far several hundred households in the local Belz community have connected to Rimon. At the company, they say that the suffix on the e-mail address reveals who is connected and this will operate like a kosher cellular phone. Currently, every ultra-Orthodox cell-phone user has a kosher number because otherwise eyebrows would be raised, but deep in his pocket he may keep another phone. At Rimon they do not believe that ultra-Orthodox users will be willing to pay double for two Internet connections, and they will thus need the unique address of the company's surfers.

However, it must be noted that the Belz surfing policy relies on trust. It is subject to the Hasid's judgment and to the degree of his piety and obedience. He can change the connection whenever he wants to and connect to a more open package - and the rebbe will never know.

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