The Rebbe and the Journalist

Independent ultra-Orthodox newspapers are breaking taboos and raising issues that used to be swept under the rug. Fifth in a series.

An ultra-Orthodox journalist recently had an audience with a Hasidic rabbi. When he left, he was asked about his impressions of the visit. "Once, when I used to visit the rebbe, my knees would tremble," he responded, "now, he is the one that trembles." This story hints at the change in the balance of power in ultra-Orthodox society, which for the time being is going on behind the scenes. Even if it is not in any way its declared goal, the existence of an extra-establishment press is gradually undermining rabbinical hegemony, first and foremost because this press shapes public opinion in a place where the voice of the ordinary citizen is completely silenced. The idea of holding virtual open primaries for the ultra-Orthodox parties on the pages of the newspaper Bakehila illustrates the subversion of the dominant establishment of rabbis, Knesset members and ultra-Orthodox politicians. This daring initiative belongs exclusively to the ultra-Orthodox journalist and publisher of the paper, Dudi Zilberschlag, who in the previous elections too called upon his readers to propose Knesset representatives from outside the existing list as well.

"The representatives of the ultra-Orthodox public, as we all know, are the emissaries of the rabbis, and only the Council of Torah Sages decides who they will be. But, as our sages said, representatives of the public should not be appointed without first consulting with the public," writes Zilberschlag in his unique style in the issue of his paper in which he launched the virtual primaries (November 14, 2002). As always, he accepts the rabbis' verdict and challenges it in the same breath. "The ultra-Orthodox press has redivided the centers of power in ultra-Orthodox society," says Dr. Neri Horowitz, a scholar of ultra-Orthodox society. The innovation, he says, is in the demand for accountability from ultra-Orthodox politicians and the shattering of the monopoly on the picture of reality presented by the rabbis, by means of independent journalistic reporting about the internal rifts within the various Hasidic sects or by revealing the social realities without mincing words, often in all their ugliness.

Thus, for example, in one of his editorials ("The cult of censure and negation") Zilberschlag openly lashed out at the activities of the "modesty patrols" and called those behind them "members of a cult" and "a lunatic fringe." Another unconventional view is his continued criticism of the ultra-Orthodox public's hatred of Tommy Lapid. In a personal column, he recently wrote that the election campaign should focus on positive aspects rather than on hatred. Horowitz says that Zilberschlag is "a real reformer from within, who is shaping a new agenda in a critical fashion."

Indeed, in addition to his principal occupation as a journalist, Zilberschlag has left his mark on many areas of ultra-Orthodox society, from a struggle over the environment in a Jerusalem neighborhood to the establishment of a kindergarten for autistic children in a religious high school in Petah Tikva. He is often attacked from all directions, but at the same time, he continues to maintain his strong status, perhaps thanks to a unique talent in public relations.

Test of public opinion

In this respect, he is indeed a major asset that should not be taken lightly. Only Zilberschlag has been able to pass on the open, critical message that the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members should be made to pass the test of public opinion. This criticism is published in the same issue in which the primaries were presented to the readers, in a major interview with Yisrael Eichler, the editor of Bamahane Haharedi, the organ of the Belz Hasidic sect. Without explicitly mentioning the word primaries, Eichler speaks in the interview about the need "to find a way in which the ultra-Orthodox public itself will choose its own representatives in the Knesset, under the supervision of the Torah sages."

Later on he adds, "I don't say that a representative should be replaced with every election, but the ranks need to be refreshed." The general enthusiasm with which the virtual primaries were received, despite the voices of protest that could be heard in the background, not only demonstrates the readiness of the ultra-Orthodox public for democratization in the choice of its representatives, but even more: It sends a clear message to the leadership, a cry from the field itself, that this is what the public wants.

From here, it is but a short hop until the rabbis adapt or at least silently accede, which is what has happened in many subjects with which they did not agree from the outset, such as academic studies or the use of computers. A question that naturally arises is whether the independent press is flying the flag of openness and pushing out the walls of the ghetto, or if it is simply feeling the pulse of the public and reflecting its views. And another question: Will insisting on the right of the public to have a say in the choice of its representatives ultimately lead to independent voting? Or in other words, are Zilberschlag's future campaigns, in another two or three years, or perhaps even earlier, likely to deal with the ultra-Orthodox public voting as its pleases?

The Beit Din approved

Until about 10 years ago, two newspapers, full-fledged party papers, Hamodia of Agudat Yisrael and Yated Ne'eman of Degel Hatorah, exclusively dominated the ultra-Orthodox press. The appearance of the new independent newspapers, especially Mishpaha and Bakehila, marked a revolution in the way of thinking of the average ultra-Orthodox individual (although these papers were established as weeklies and have chosen to remain as such rather than compete for the ultra-Orthodox readership during the week). In addition to the criticism they voice, these publications are revolutionary in their form and appearance as well. Unlike the veteran newspapers, whose language is not always completely intelligible to the non-ultra-Orthodox reader, the newer ones are written in up-to-date, flowing language. Their graphics are user-friendly, and one might add, very Israeli. Mishpaha looks like a conventional magazine, printed on chromo paper, with photographs and ads and various supplements (e.g. "For Mother and Child").

The ultra-Orthodox public pounced greedily on the new and modern papers. The attraction for the written word is a given in this public, which is not exposed to the visual enticements of television and cinema. But it was the critical content that was the real magnet.

At present, it appears that the proportion of readers of the independent press is now almost on a par with the established veteran papers. According to a survey conducted by the TGI survey institute, 33.1 percent of the population that defines itself as ultra-Orthodox reads Mishpaha, compared to 34.3 percent that reads Hamodia and 30.4 percent that reads Yated Ne'eman (Bakehila was distributed free until this month, and consequently, there are no market figures yet). These figures relate to the weekend edition. A market segmentation of the various groups within ultra-Orthodox society shows that unlike the selective reading of Yated Ne'eman by Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox society and of Hamodia by Hasidim, Mishpaha is read equally by all ultra-Orthodox movements across the board.

Mishpaha also has readers among regular religious, non-ultra-Orthodox readers. In all, Mishpaha has 118,000 readers (of which 74,000 are ultra-Orthodox), compared to 93,000 for Hamodia and 79,000 for Yated Ne'eman. This striking change in ultra-Orthodox journalism was of course not received well by the more extreme elements in ultra-Orthodox society. Two years ago, the "Committee for the Preservation of the Purity of our Camp" tried to fight against the appearance of independent ultra-Orthodox newspapers and to bring about the closure of the newspapers by publishing petitions signed by numerous rabbis against them. The committee was a pseudonym for a militant group of extremists in the ultra-Orthodox community which has been conducting an all-out war against what it views as even the slightest deviation from the straight and narrow, from its opposition to natural hair wigs for married women to the Internet, radio, compact disks and more. One of these very strongly identified with this fight is the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, MK Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism.

For a short time, Mishpaha contended with a drop in the number of subscribers (Bakehila, which was distributed free until last month, costs NIS 3). But the battle ended when the Beit Din of the Eda Haredit ruled that the independent press should be permitted to continue to publish. This decision was handed down despite the fact that the members of the Eda Haredit sect are known not to subscribe to either Mishpaha or Bakehila.

"This struggle proved that it is impossible to do away with the independent press," says Eli Palei, the publisher of Mishpaha. "The period in which cynical politicians could collect signatures against a newspaper and drag the entire public into a conflict like sheep is over." @CROSS:Contributing to normalization

In the past two years, the independent ultra-Orthodox press has bolstered its position and become an inalienable part of the ultra-Orthodox cultural experience. In the shopping bags brought home from the supermarket on Friday, two or three newspapers will be found: Hamodia or Yated Ne'eman - in accordance with the buyer's party affiliation - Mishpaha and Bakehila.

In his new book, "The Haredim - Who We Really Are" (Keter publishing), Moshe Grylack, one of the best-known representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community, who at present is the editor of the prominent ultra-Orthodox independent weekly, Mishpaha, describes the development of the ultra-Orthodox press as the direct result of voluntary segregation of this community. Grylack compares ultra-Orthodox literature and journalism and presents both as a cultural alternative, a response to the secular culture that ultra-Orthodox society opposes. This description misses the point because it diminishes the value of the independent press as an internal, subversive community phenomenon par excellence.

Mishpaha, incidentally, is opposed to the discussion of ultra-Orthodox primaries. Publisher Palei describes "the space within which we work as the twilight zone of social issues." He understates the issue when he presents Mishpaha as a newspaper that complements Hamodia or Yated Ne'eman, which deals with "the trivialities of daily life."

"A newspaper like Yated Ne'eman aspires to deal with the correct worldview, faith and opinions. We do not deal with the crucial issues on the ultra-Orthodox agenda, such as faith or religious education, not even politics in its broadest meaning. Our mandate is to deal with mundane issues," he says.

However, even these "trivialities" can be explosive in ultra-Orthodox society, after years in which ultra-Orthodox politicians and representatives took such care to present ultra-Orthodox society as one that is unblemished and free of problems. Mishpaha managed to place on the agenda a number of social issues, which had for years been swept under the rug, and conduct a public debate on them. Its contribution to the normalization of ultra-Orthodox society, says Neri Horowitz, is enormous.

Recently, the paper has been publishing a series of social articles on subjects such as unemployment among ultra-Orthodox women, the distress of poverty in the middle class and the problematic norm of having to find a financial "arrangement" when children marry. It frames its views subtly, sometimes with considerable circumlocution, but the ultra-Orthodox audience, skilled at reading between the lines, has no trouble understanding what the writers are getting at.

Mishpaha was responsible for an open campaign against quotas for the acceptance of Sephardi girls to the ultra-Orthodox Beit Yaakov seminaries and also raised awareness of the problem of delinquency among ultra-Orthodox youth, who were dubbed by the paper, "the fifth son." However, for this subversiveness the newspapers pay regular lip service in the form of columns such as "Yiddishe Neyess" (in Mishpaha), a quasi-gossip column in which all the rabbinical celebrities and their families are photographed. Additionally, all such newspapers have a supervisor or spiritual committee that is responsible for making sure the newspaper does not deviate from the ultra-Orthodox line.

However, mistakes cannot always be prevented. An article that recently triggered a veritable deluge of furious responses was given the headline, "And in the role of babysitter, the kollel student." The article, which aimed to shed light on "the conflict that lies in the combination between the home, work and the kollel (yeshiva for married students)," as the paper put it, raised the dilemma related to the sensitive situation created by an ill child. Which of the parents should remain at home with the child? Should the mother absent herself from work or should the yeshiva student stay away from the yeshiva? Dozens of long, chiding letters to the editor were received - including many from proud wives of yeshiva students - who said the article attempted to undermine the standing of the Torah students.

A number of these letters were published in the letters-to-the-editor column along with an apology. Grylack says, however, that he does not regret the article itself and maintains that the subject may not have been presented properly. However, between the lines, as a number of readers understood very well, it was enough just to raise the subject in order to break the taboo and initiate the beginning of a debate on the subject.

Mishpaha has allowed itself to break a number of taboos and change norms in its quiet and seemingly non-revolutionary fashion. It knowingly appeals mainly to the middle class among the ultra-Orthodox community. This is a growing class, which is viewed as more open in its views and more Israeli in essence, and is made up of people who work for a living and want to live a normal life as part of the ultra-Orthodox community. In the view of students of ultra-Orthodox society, this class will tip the scales in the struggle currently being waged between the conflicting trends of openness and conservatism.

In Mishpaha's advertising supplement, geared mainly at advertisers, the paper presents its typical reader as having a mobile phone and a credit card and goes on vacation in hotels. According to a TGI survey, about 60 percent of Mishpaha's readers have mobile phones, as compared with only half the readers of Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman. About 50 percent of the readers own their own car, compared to 30 percent of Hamodia readers and 35 percent of Yated's. About 85 percent of Mishpaha readers went on vacation in the past year and about 60 percent spent it in a hotel, compared to 75 percent and 40 percent respectively among the readers of Hamodia and Yated.

To say that Grylack, one of the founding fathers of the independent ultra-Orthodox press, does not like the expression "the new ultra-Orthodox" would be an understatement. He says that years ago, there were already many people who went out to work or to study a profession and those who lived outside the ultra-Orthodox ghetto and knew how to combine both worlds. He is not moved by this new phenomenon, in which the independent ultra-Orthodox press is creating new stars of its own and sending out representatives to the mainstream Israeli media in the form of commentators on news programs or as token ultra-Orthodox guests on talk shows. He presents himself as an example.

For years, Grylack wrote for Ma'ariv. However, while he wrote a column called "Know your Judaism" and viewed himself - with the encouragement of the newspaper - as being in charge of bringing readers closer to Judaism, the independent press and the ultra-Orthodox journalists he has fostered are no longer interested in that dubious role.