"This is going to be one of the biggest extortion scandals in the history of Israel," a senior ultra-Orthodox figure told Haaretz Sunday, following the arrest of four directors of the popular Haredi website Behadrey Haredim.
Police placed a gag order forbidding publication of any details of the affair, but revealed that more arrests are expected.
The four senior directors of the website were arrested Sunday morning at their homes and the website's offices in Tel Aviv, and taken for questioning in Jerusalem.
Some of the website's employees told Haaretz they were completely taken by surprise by the arrests, but rumors circulating in Haredi circles for the past year describe a system of extortion by the website's directors against dozens of Haredi figures, some of whom are very well known. According to the rumors, the directors would approach well-known figures and demand a sum - anywhere from several thousand dollars to NIS 100,000 - in return for withholding publication of potentially damaging information. On Sunday, the police interviewed dozens of people who revealed various details about the website in past few years.
Behadrey Haredim, established in 2000 - and especially the public forums associated with it - is the leading Internet site among the ultra-Orthodox, with as many as 5,000 users making the forums a center of Haredi Internet activity, despite the opposition of senior rabbis. The opposition reached its peak in 2009, when 20 leading rabbis published an excommunication of Haredi Internet sites.
The two founding directors of the site, David Rottenberg and Dov Fobarski, then retired from the website, which continued to function since it was owned by Guy Cohen, a secular businessman and CEO of Global Networks, who acquired the site before it was excommunicated.
In October 2010, the rabbis orally rehabilitated the site, and Rottenberg and Fobarski returned to their posts - saying they did so with the approval of the rabbis who originally issued the excommunication.
The two directors claimed that the problem with the site was the forums - which were also the main reason for the excommunication, as they were fertile ground for various serious sins, beginning, according to Fobarski with "lashon hara" (slander) - spreading vicious rumors about people, and leading to a general rebellious spirit toward the Haredi way of life, and worse - toward the rabbis as well.
"This was the first website to bring sensationalism to the Haredi world," a senior media expert in the ultra-Orthodox community told Haaretz on Sunday. "The forums suddenly enabled people to express themselves naturally. The more Haredim used the Internet - nowadays around 30 percent of Haredim do - the easier it was to spread sensationalist stories. The Haredi community is naturally a closed community and everyone knows everyone, so naturally the forums gained a lot of power, especially since information of that sort was new to them. Rumors could easily ruin families," he added.