The controversy over “kosher phones” in Israel that has raised the ire of the rabbis

A move by Israel’s communications minister to make it easier for members of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community to use smartphones without the knowledge of their rabbis has sparked a firestorm. Stores have been ransacked, customers assaulted and riots have broken out

In Israel, a controversy rages over so-called “kosher phones” that do not allow access to messaging, video, radio and the Internet.

Smartphones have become a volatile issue within the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community since April, when Israel’s communications minister facilitated the use of smartphones by Haredi without the knowledge of their rabbis, increasing tensions in the within the Haredi community and between themselves and others. of Israeli society.

Shmuli stares out of the windows of her cell phone store in dread. He pulls on his long beard and side curls. “Please don’t take my picture,” he begs. “Don’t speak loudly.”

His tone becomes menacing. “Go away. Go away. Now.” Shmuli (pseudonym) has reason to be afraid.

Several stores that sell smartphones and other digital technologies near Mea She’arim, Jerusalem’s largest ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, were ransacked.

Customers were assaulted and riots broke out in nearby streets.

Let’s see why:

Meet the Haredi Jews

Haredi Jews make up 12.6% of Israel’s population, or 16% of Israeli Jews, and are one of the fastest growing communities in the country. And while the term actually refers to several diverse sects and denominations, all Haredim are united in their adherence to Jewish law in all aspects of their lives and their complete rejection of Western sensibilities.

Rabbis learned in the law make rulings on everything from modesty requirements for women to personal health to marital relationships.

Haredim see themselves as defenders of authentic Judaism and mostly live in tightly knit communities — a lifestyle some call a “ghetto by choice.” Surrounded by “walls of holiness”, they avoid contaminating modern influences. Haredi schools focus on religious studies and most ignore core subjects such as English, science or math, leaving their graduates with few options in the job market. Encouraged to pursue religious studies, few Haredi men are salaried; those who are tend to work within the community.

Having established haredi newspapers and magazines, their rabbis forbid neighborhood stores from selling secular newspapers. When television was introduced to Israel in 1965, the rabbis banned the “briefcase” from adherents’ homes. Today, data shows that less than half of Haredi households own a television.

But digital communications, a greater threat to cultural walls, are of greater concern to the rabbis. Not only do digital tools provide access to inappropriate content, but they pave the way for chat groups and apps such as WhatsApp where Haredi can criticize rabbis and even turn to secular sources of authority.

Rabbinical bans on computers and the Internet have been less successful than bans on television or the secular press. Initially, the rabbis completely banned the internet, but as the need for it grew in daily life and livelihood, they allowed filtered internet for personal computers.

But the rabbis have drawn the line at smartphones.

Representative image.

How the “kosher phone” works

They organized the Rabbinical Committee for Communications, which, along with Israel’s three major cell phone providers, created the “kosher” cell phone – a stripped-down phone that blocks messaging, video, radio, and the Internet.

According the keeper, the Haredi use “dumb” phones or smartphones that come with pre-installed content blocking filters along with apps such as a calculator and navigation software.

The Rabbinical Committee for Communications is the only body authorized to issue kosher certificates for the approximately 500,000 kosher cellphones in Israel. It is an opaque and influential operation that can filter numbers, content and the flow of information to its liking, according to The Guardian.

The committee and mobile phone providers have also created a set of dedicated numbers with their own area code, which makes it immediately clear if a call is coming from an unsupervised device.

The committee has blocked telephone sex services, but also government welfare agencies, sexual and domestic violence support centers (which the rabbis prefer to run within the community) and secular organizations that help people who try to leave the community.

When a 2007 change to the telecommunications law required Israeli mobile phone providers to allow their customers to roam between companies while retaining the same personal phone number, other agreements exempted phone numbers. kosher.

The rabbis found other ways to support their prohibitions. Posters on walls in Haredi neighborhoods warn of the heavy spiritual price that comes with a non-kosher phone. Haredi media are not allowed to advertise products or services that direct consumers to secular phone numbers, and parents without approved phone numbers cannot enroll their children in school. A man using an outside telephone cannot be counted for a minyan – one of the 10 men required for public worship. Children of families using smartphones are shunned for a shidduch (arranged marriage).

Bypass the ban

Officially the campaign has worked and most Haredim are using kosher phones, although specific data is not available. But others avoided social pressure by simply holding two phones – one for use within the community, one for everything else.

“Rabbis used to say ‘stay away from Allenby Street in the middle of Tel Aviv, it’s a sin.’ But now anyone can go to Allenby Street on their phone. The idea behind it was to protect the community from unclean culture,” Israel Cohen, a prominent Haredi political commentator, told The Guardian.

“It’s rare for the Haredi community to agree on anything, but a lot of people think the committee is out of touch,” Cohen added.

Dovid, 58, a Haredi standing near Shmuli’s store who declined to give his full name, said: “I am a real estate agent from the Haredi community. Of course, I observe and worship my rabbis, but I cannot function in my work without a smartphone. That’s how it is in the modern world, unfortunately.

Women complained of being deprived of hotlines for domestic and sexual violence.

“I am a Haredi woman,” said Shlomit, 38, a mother of eight. Shopping near Shmuli’s store, she too refused to give her full name for fear of shame. “I know the rabbis don’t want to admit that there are issues like violence in our community, but there are. I accept the decisions of the rabbis in most cases, but I know a lot of women cling to two phones.

Esty Shushan, a haredi social activist and entrepreneur, and founder and CEO of Nivcharot, a haredi feminist organization, agrees that hotlines should not be blocked, but opposes the widespread use of smartphones. “I use a smartphone,” she said.

“I wish I didn’t have to. This is another way technology is taking over our lives and stealing time and attention, not just from Haredim, but from everyone. There is something very beautiful and meaningful that our community seeks to live a simpler and more meaningful life dedicated to values ​​and belief.

Israel’s most recent coalition government, which is likely to remain in power until elections in the fall, did not include Haredi parties and ended the Orthodox monopoly on several religious issues.

In April, current Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel passed regulations allowing transfers from separate kosher phone numbers to unrestricted providers. The reform will come into effect on July 31.

“Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel is trying to harm the way of life of the ultra-Orthodox public,” the leader of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party charged.

Others have gone further. “Shmad,” cried a rabbi, using an emotionally charged word that refers to decrees by foreign leaders to force Jews to abandon their religion.

“It’s worse than the Holocaust,” shouted another.

Rabbis alleged that children would be corrupted by pornography and other ungodly content.

In an interview with Jerusalem Post, Hendel said his decision was about “Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state. We have to agree that there are no autonomies. Kosher phones are a kind of monopoly, outside of law and order. I cannot accept…that there is a monopoly of Judaism that only belongs to the Haredi community.

“The rabbis are afraid of losing their authority”

Shlomo Fischer, who teaches sociology at Hebrew and Ben-Gurion universities and is founding executive director of Yesodot, a think tank that advances education for democracy, claimed the Haredi outcry had nothing to do with the contents. “Chatrooms and control of information is power. Rabbis are afraid of losing their authority,” he said.

With increased communication with the “outside” world and better digital skills, Haredim will also be able to hold better jobs and be less dependent on the community, Fisher added.

The authority of rabbis has diminished since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fisher said, when they opposed social distancing and insisted that schools remain open. The Haredi community has suffered some of the highest rates in Israel due to mortality from COVID-19.

In response to growing disobedience, self-proclaimed vigilantes have decided to enforce the smartphone ban with violence.

Moishe, who appears to be in his late twenties, was hiding near Shmuli’s store. “Get out of our neighborhood,” he shouted at a reporter. “You can report to us. The police can arrest us. But we will not allow these unclean abominations to destroy our holy lives.

Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, the cell phone controversy is a battle in Israel’s culture war. “Haredim would like to see Israel become a religious state, but that contradicts the views of secularists, religious and Arabs,” Stern said. “This is the context of the campaign against cell phones. This will not be resolved in the near future. »

With contributions from agencies

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