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A libel suit is being pursued against an ultra-Orthodox Haredi man who criticized the actions of a member of his community on a Haredi Internet forum. Here is just one more indication that the Haredi world is starting to transfer part of its internal battles to cyberspace.

It also indicates how the Internet is penetrating Haredi life and the Haredi community can no longer allow itself to ignore it. This is not the first Haredi suit concerning Internet use. It was preceded by a libel suit about a year ago, against the Hydepark Hebrew forum site, on the grounds that it allowed surfers to publish inciteful statements against Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The plaintiffs, some of whom were the sons of then Shas spokesman Rabbi Yitzhak Suderi, claimed that a member of the Haredi forum "Behadrei Hadarim" had accused them of secularism and heresy.

"The fascinating thing," says Gad Barzilai, a professor of law and political science from Tel Aviv University, who is currently on sabbatical at the University of Washington in Washington State, "is the fact that the plaintiffs solved a clear community problem - which at one time would have been solved within the community - via a process that involved turning to the secular courts."

Barzilai and his wife Karine Barzilai-Nahon, a lecturer at the University of Washington Information School, recently completed a study of the effect of the Internet on the Haredi community. The study, titled "Cultured Technology: Internet and Religious Fundamentalism," was published last month (in Hebrew) in the online magazine of the Israel Internet Association.

In the study the researchers write how this suit reflects "how much the Internet has altered the traditional communication borders." Even more than that is the extent to which it has made the Haredi community more democratic and pluralistic, in that it allows internal criticism without overly endangering those who voice it.

Still, the identity of the author of the disputed inciteful statements, apparently a familiar and veteran participant of the forum among Haredi surfers, has so far been closely guarded.

In their study the two researchers examine the results of the meeting between Haredis and the Internet. This is the first study that depicts a comprehensive profile of the Haredi surfers and their various uses of Internet technology, or as the researchers put it - how Haredis adapt this technology to their culture.

Yeshiva buddies

The researchers reinforce the impression that the rabbis struggle against the Internet has failed and that the use of the Internet is no longer esoteric. Unlike previous studies or assessments of Haredi Internet use, the Barzilais succeeded in revealing and characterizing a whole new population of Haredis who surf in their spare time from public places and not from their homes.

The Haredi community is difficult for social researchers to study. It usually does not gather data on its own and also does not volunteer data when there is any. Haredis are also known for their lack of enthusiasm for answering questionnaires.

The Barzilais' research was therefore based on information drawn from the database of the Israeli Internet site "Hevre." This site facilitates the establishment of virtual communities according to a common background, such as high school class, Scout troupe or army unit, and also Hassidic court or yeshiva.

A surfer interested in joining one of the communities at the site is not anonymous. He has to introduce himself using true information. He does not know it, but from the moment he is registered, his general activities on the Internet - sending emails, SMS and surfing - are documented and can be tracked.

Although the use of computers and the Internet were permitted for work purposes, about two years ago Haredi rabbis officially forbade them for any other use. Even so, Prof. Barzilai found that massive use of the Internet among Haredis, but not from their homes. The percentage of surfers from their homes is still low compared to the general population.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics' data from 2002, in Bnei Brak alone 37 percent of homes have computers but just 6.4 percent of them are hooked up to the Internet - compared to 57 percent and 33.2 percent of the homes in Tel Aviv, respectively.

The Barzilais' research is based on the use of secular platforms - surfing done not via a private Internet account but via public places, such as Internet cafes. Out of a database of 686,000 Israeli surfers who could be clearly classified as secular, national-religious or Haredi, the Barzilais identified 14,000 Haredi surfers - about 2 percent of the Haredi population.

These surfers introduced themselves as Haredis and were also identified as Haredis by their addresses and occupations - yeshiva student, for example. The figures obtained are much lower than their proportion in the general population - 2 percent of the surfers compared to 6 percent of the general population - but is still surprising considering the prohibitions. As mentioned, however, this is just part of the population that uses the Internet, and in any case, the researchers believe this phenomenon is growing.

Defensive discourse

The Barzilais found that the surfer population is quite young and precisely the one that troubles the spiritual leaders in everything connected with purity, more than any other group. Soe 23 percent of Haredi surfers are high school students and 44 percent of them are aged 19-28 and study at the advanced yeshivas. The gender gap is particularly wide - just 35 percent of Internet users are women.

"Unlike the men, who spend their time at yeshivas," says Karine, "Internet access for women, who are juggling jobs and motherhood, is much lower."

Prof. Barzilai says the Internet and Haredi society "seemingly create an oxymoron, since it's a closed society, interested in remaining isolated; a hierarchical society that revolves around a closed textual world and is driven by rabbinic supervision and discipline. The Internet, on the other hand, is an equality medium. We thought it would be interesting to see to what extent Internet technology has penetrated the Haredi community despite the rabbis' ban on interacting with the computer."

The study refers to this as how Haredis "manage the contradictions between social discipline and the limited personal freedom in the Haredi community on the one hand and modern telecommunications technology that is perceived as secular, on the other."

The Barzilais also examined the extent to which the Internet reduces the closed nature of the community and violates its natural tendency to isolationism. Sometimes, say the researchers, the Internet actually creates isolationism.

For example the study "Pew Internet and American Life Project" found that most - 67 percent - of religious surfers are searching for religious material on their own religion and not about other religions.

The tracking of the Internet activities of the Haredi surfers found that they preserve their unique characteristics as a community. They quickly find members of their own community and are in no hurry to make contact with others. They are very involved in intracommunity activities - surfing to forums - and are far more engaged in "bath-house gossip" than in sending e-mails or in e-commerce.

In general, the Barzilais note that Haredis are a group that uses forums far more than any other Internet feature and far more than any other population group. The researchers found a high level of discipline among the Haredi surfers. The rate of complaints against members of the virtual group is low and Haredi members are practically never ousted.

"They do not air their dirty laundry in a non-Haredi place," says Karine.

Media consultant David Zilbershlag concurs, adding that the Haredi discourse pattern on the Internet is as defensive as always. "This can be seen in the responses of Haredis on general news sites. They still behave like a minority."

Although the Internet has become a balancing force in the Haredi community and opens it toward pluralism, it is not harming its existence.

"The study found that despite the rabbis' fears and despite the criticism on the forums, particularly on the `Behadrei Hadarim' forum at the Hydepark site, the Haredi community is preserving its fundamental structure," says Prof. Barzilai.

"Even though the rabbis are losing some of their fold, the hierarchy, the discipline and the isolationism are ultimately unharmed." Still, says Barzilai, in the future this group of young surfers, with its common interests, is liable to become a political opposition to the Haredi establishment.

Zilbershlag, who in the past had reservations about Haredi surfing in forums and often paled at the spiritual breaches of the Internet, now sounds much more placid when he speaks of the Internet, even if he still views it as a spiritual hazard. He says he is not surprised by the proportion of young surfers.

"I anticipate that in the future the use of the printed press will decline. We must therefore hurry and prepare Internet content services for Haredis."