Downfall of ultra-Orthodox Website Doesn't Spell End of New Haredi Spirit

Ten years after Behadrei Haredim’s establishment, the movement no longer needs the legitimacy granted by a website to formulate a model of a Haredi who works, studies and surfs the internet.

The dirty schemes allegedly used by the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim website are to a large extent a victory for the conservative Haredi establishment. Even what looks like the downfall of the website is ostensibly a notable achievement for those who desire the good old order, in which it is possible to close a deal in ultra-Orthodox journalism with an envelope full of cash.

A direct line runs through December 2009, where Gedolei HaTorah (the supreme rabbinical policy-making council of any of several related Haredi Jewish organizations) started an all out war against Haredi websites – a campaign that was driven no less by economic interests – and April 2009 during which a case is formed against the managers and editors of Behadrey Haredim. It has become clear that the green light given to the managers to continue working, despite the campaign, lead to rotten deals on the backs of the website’s users.

Behadrey Haredim site - April 2012

Behadrei Haredim, which was established a decade ago, has become a home for new members of the Haredi community, especially those who wanted to talk amongst themselves about issues that bother and interest them. They did this through lively forums as well as a news broadcasting organization that dared to harshly criticize ultra-Orthodox politicians and community leaders.

This, of course, hurt the Haredi establishment politically as well as economically, as a sizable chunk of the publishing budget went from community journals to the lively arena of the internet.

For many years, the website’s managers were determined to remain loyal to its visitors. They presented themselves as the messengers of democracy and freedom of speech among the Haredi sector, and to a certain extent, up to a point, they were just that. The site brought about a change that made the ultra-Orthodox politician and the community leader understand that the people were watching their every move. It was precisely those managers that neglected the site users for whom they spoke. They counted the money on the way, at least according to suspicions.

In order to get a “green light” to continue operating, the rabbis established a “supervisor” whose job it was to erase every message on the forum that was considered problematic (the identity and existence of the supervisor were first revealed in Haaretz) . The rabbis got one of their own, a Trojan horse inside a system that would allow them to meddle in the sensitive and private content in tens of forums. The site managers were given a quiet front. While the rabbis understood that they could not defeat the internet, and joined it, the editors of Behadrey Haredim chose not to confront the rabbis and join them. Along the way, it is alleged that they used the supervisor as a cash cow.

What may occur now is the complete destruction of Behadrei Haredim, but the downward spiral began long ago. The years during which the forums served as a lively space for discussions surrounding issues in the Haredi community have passed, with the forums themselves becoming dormant. The users, who became internet celebrities due to their clever messages in the forums, disappeared, while the news stories began sucking up to the heads of Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Bhadrey Haredim owners arrested
Olivier Fitoussi

Behadrei Haredim’s continuing dive, now reaching its nadir, might be an achievement for the conservatives, but it will not be able to block the neo-Haredi movement gaining strength in the margins of the ultra-Orthodox community. Ten years after Behadrei Haredim’s establishment, the movement no longer needs the legitimacy granted by a lone website in order to formulate a model of a different Haredi – one who works, studies in an academic institution and surfs the internet.

Read this article in Hebrew