A Room of Their Own
The editors of B'hadrei Haredim, a website whose name could be loosely translated as Haredi "private rooms," are supposed to be the good guys—the people who are leading the Haredi community in new and positive directions. These are the individuals who built a tiny Haredi chat room, then turned it into a major news site with reporting and analysis of major issues and developments in ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel and worldwide. If the Israeli party-connected Haredi print newspapers, like Yated Ne'eman and HaModia reported only flattering stories and spun the news to the benefit of their affiliated rabbis and politicians, B'hadrei Haredim aimed to provide more truthful reporting and a wider range of opinions.
Moreover, the B'hadrei Haredim website housed a vast network of open forums in which Haredi Jews could talk honestly and anonymously about whatever was on their minds—from recipes to current events, from anti-Sephardic bias to 19th-century Hungarian Hasidism. These were forums in which one could find discussion of not only the disadvantages and threats but the advantages of higher professional education, where one could talk with relative openness about communal faults and problems, where rank-and-file Haredim could question, criticize, and ignore the rabbis. The site made enough of a splash that a 2009 rabbinic edict banned B'hadrei Haredim and similar websites. After the edict, the editors made some minor cosmetic changes and kept going.
But knowledge is power, power is easily abused, and it is now alleged that the good guys are not so good after all. Running the B'hadrei Haredim website provided its editors with streams of fresh information about Haredi leaders and institutions. In the tight-knit Haredi community, such information, if it is unflattering, can blight family reputations, undermining everything from the children's acceptance into schools to business possibilities to marriage partners. If current reports are to be believed (this video, in Hebrew, certainly suggests wrongdoing), the editors of the website offered to bury stories and delete unflattering discussions in exchange for cash payments or the purchase of expensive advertising on the site. At least the editors of the other Haredi news media, say the critics, censored themselves for the sake of "the greater good"; the guys at B'hadrei Haredim just wanted cash.
Four of the website's owners and managers, one a secular Jew who viewed the website as an investment, were arrested last week on extortion charges. The lawyers and judges will determine where this behavior lands on the continuum from good business practice and troublesome but legal manipulation to outright criminal extortion. Law enforcement officials have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to shut down the site so that the investigation could be completed and the manipulation stopped—particularly in the forums, the location of much of the rumor, innuendo, and less-than-flattering news about individuals and companies that could be removed for a price.
Yet these chat rooms and forums are also the place where some of the Israeli Haredi community's most open, honest, and freewheeling discussions have taken place. One forum in particular, called "Stop: We Think Here" (Atzor: Kan Hoshvim), is a unique space in which one can question Orthodox dogma, announce and analyze academic conferences on Jewish topics, doubt the wisdom of great rabbis, or call for change in longstanding communal policy. Without fear of exposure or reprisals, Haredim can ask whether "Halakhic praxis kills the Jewish soul" and get honest answers from observant and once-observant Haredim. Another discussion focuses on the difficulty of airing an honest and straightforward opinion in the face of the judgmental attitudes produced by Haredi conformism.
Haredi participants in these forums are terrified of losing them. One participant, calling the situation an "emergency," insists that "we must get organized and act quickly to back up the forum," so that conversations will not be lost and can be continued in another venue. An online petition from participants has called on law enforcement officials not to close the forums but just to remove them from the suspects' control. Academics who study the Haredi community are concerned about losing a valuable window into its culture. Whatever the outcome of the police investigations, closing the site would strike a significant blow against freedom of Haredi expression.
Still, that blow would almost certainly be only temporary. Haredi online life is expanding, and there is plenty of honest money to be made running chat rooms and discussion groups for Haredi Jews. If B'hadrei Haredim closes, the market will quickly create alternatives. That is a good thing, because Haredi online discussions may be a critical element in easing tensions between Haredim and other Jews in Israel.
Non-Haredi Israelis are frustrated by a Haredi community that does not serve in the army, limits its members' general and vocational education, fails to encourage men to work for a living and share the tax burden, and receives significant government transfer payments. At the same time, the Haredi community suffers from crippling poverty and low social mobility, which stem directly from the same patterns that bother non-Haredi Israelis. Many on both sides of the Haredi-secular divide would like to see mutually beneficial changes; but inertia, deeply held religious aversion to change, and a conservative rabbinic and political leadership hold the Haredi community back, and it will take significant grass-roots pushback to make things happen. The internet is a fertile breeding ground for such an effort.
Today, more Haredim are receiving higher education and vocational training. More are joining the army. The recent repeal of the Tal Law, which functionally maintained the Haredi exemption from military service, has made it increasingly clear that long-term, full-time yeshiva study for all Haredi men is not sustainable. Momentum is increasing in favor of changes significant enough to shrink the gap between Haredi culture and that of mainstream Israel and to integrate Haredi Jews into Israel's academic, financial, and cultural life. But the Haredi revolution in Israel will come, if at all, from the bottom up. And, at the beginning of the 21st century, bottom-up is located online.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.
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