Surfing the net in sin
Matthew Wagner , THE JERUSALEM POST
Is it business and political interests or religious puritanism that is the motivation behind an attack led by rabbis on Internet news media sites catering to haredi audiences?
Sources in the haredi world say it's a little bit of both. Rabbis' religious sensibilities are being skillfully manipulated by businessmen and politicians, say the sources, to close down - or at least seriously damage the popularity of - several haredi Internet sites that offer news items, op-eds and talk-backs focusing on internal haredi issues, spiced with pictures and video clips.
Official rabbinic opinion allows surfing the Internet solely for business purposes. According to a recently released study by the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2008, 55 percent of haredim who own a computer also were connected to Internet, compared to a national average of 92%.
"B'Hadarei Haredim" (in haredi rooms), "Haredim", and "Kikar Shabbat" are the three biggest haredi sites, but there are smaller sites such as "Etrog", "Ladaat" and "Kugel".
All devote the vast majority of their screen space to issues such as new rabbinic decrees, interviews with haredi politicians and coverage of demonstrations.
While the haredi print media tend to deal with "hard news" such as political and diplomatic stories, the haredi Internet sites delve into the depths of internal haredi affairs. And sometimes things get racy.
"Kikar Shabbat" will be posting an op-ed about the sexual dangers of sending young boys to the mikveh (ritual bath), not from haredi mikveh-goers, but from secular perverts who frequent the baths.
True, the piece was carefully censored by the site's editorial staff to take out words like "sex", "backside" or "deviant". Still, the subject of child abuse is strictly taboo in the haredi printed media.
Unlike the three daily haredi newspapers - Hamodia, Yated Ne'eman and Hamevaser - Internet sites are not aligned with any political or rabbinic leadership. This freedom allows them to be much more critical of rabbis, politicians and other haredi figures.
Other subjects treated by the haredi Internet sites that would never be touched by the printed media are what one site manager called "fun" and "entertainment". There are interviews with haredi vocalists, video clips and coverage of other frivolous pastimes.
And the rabbis are not happy.
"For people who stumble into their trap and cooperate with them, we warn you with the strictest of warnings not to look at those stations," said a group of leading rabbis in a statement that has been published over the past week in the three haredi dailies.
"Nor should anyone - individuals, companies or organizations - advertise there. And all of the prohibitions set by rabbis regarding TV apply to Internet stations as well."
The statement was signed by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Haim Kanyevsky, Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman, Rabbi Israel Hager, the son of the Viznitz Rebbe, and Rabbi Nissim Karelitz.
As a result of the announcement Dov Fobrafsky and David Rotenberg, the founders of B'Haderei Haredim, the first haredi Internet site, resigned.
Fobrafsky told The Jerusalem Post that as a Jew faithful to rabbinic leadership he had no other choice.
"Whether or not I understand or agree with their ruling I have to accept it," Fobrafsky said, adding that he was looking to sell his shares in B'Haderei Haredim.
"If I could have at least been given the opportunity to explain my perspective to the rabbis who made the decision I would feel a little better. But I accept their decision nevertheless."
Fobrafsky said that he originally established B'Haderei Haredim eight years ago as an Internet forum that would offer an alternative to secular Internet forums that he said exposed young haredi men and women to negative influences.
Four years ago he added a news section to the forum, which has expanded over the years.
"Haredim are surfing on the Internet and there is really nothing we can do to stop them. My thinking was to provide a clean option to sites that have problematic content or ads. But the rabbis disagree," he said.
Just five months ago, Kikar Shabbat and Haredim set up sites that competed with B'Haderei Haredim.
Now Fobrafsky says he has come to the end of the road.
"Unless the rabbis decide to allow the Internet sites to continue under some kind of rabbinic supervision I will be unable to continue," he said.
Mani Gerah, manager of the Haredim site, said that if his rabbis tell him unequivocally that he must close down his site, he will listen.
"I am in consultation with my rabbis and whatever they tell me I will do."
Fobrafsky, Gerah and others involved with the haredi Internet sites say that while the rabbis' motivations were undoubtedly pure, there were political and business interests involved as well.
For instance, a series of negative news reports were published by the haredi sites against a prominent haredi mayor. They claim that it is not a coincidence that the rabbi of the mayor's city initiated the move against the haredi sites.
Also, the three haredi dailies have a vested interest in seeing the sites closed down.
"The dailies are afraid that they will lose advertising revenues to the haredi sites," said a source knowledgeable about the subject.
However, a senior editor of one of the dailies denied the Internet sites were a danger to revenues.
"Only 10 percent of the people who visit those sites belong to our readership," said the editor.
"The real story is that these sites simply went too far. They deal with subjects that are totally off limits in the haredi community, for instance, matters that have to do with the relations between men and women. They get into details of family purity. These are things that children must not be exposed to. It causes confusion.
"I believe the majority of the haredi public agree that the haredi sites have made themselves unbearable. One of two things will happen: either the sites will clean up their act and be put under rabbinic supervision or the few people who surf the Internet against the will of the rabbis will continue to do so."
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