At a time when regular media consumers are drowning among the dozens of newspaper pages devoted to the disappearance of a little girl named Rose Pizem, readers of the country's ultra-Orthodox newspapers can breathe freely. Since they are faithful to their editorial policy and the edict of the spiritual committees that instruct them to keep their pages "clean", the editors of the Haredi press have refrained from dealing with the violent fate of the little girl from Netanya and ignored the fuss being made on the banks of the Yarkon River [where her stepfather claimed he threw her body].
Instead, they have chosen to hypnotize their readers with a modest scandal of their own. The party dailies, Yated Ne'eman (affiliated with the Degel Hatorah faction of United Torah Judaism party) and Hamodi'a (affiliated with the party's Agudat Yisrael faction) both recently published on their front pages a letter from Rabbi Eliahu Weintraub, a prominent rabbi of the Lithuanian branch of Orthodoxy represented by UTJ. Weintraub lashed out in his missive at the popular independent Haredi weekly Bakehila, comparing it to a pig, and describing it as and "defiled," while warning that anyone who flips through the paper is likely to have problems in the next world. The letter, which was distributed also in the form of a pashkevil, a poster glued to the walls of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, appeared the day after Bakehila had published an interview with that very same Rabbi Weintraub.
Bakehila published the interview to mark the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. Journalist Tzvi Yakobson conducted the interview, and it was fairly unexceptional for the ultra-Orthodox press, dealing as it did with matters of morals, Torah study, and the return to a more religious way of life, in anticipation of the month of mercy and penitence. Its title was a quotation from the rabbi: "Superficiality destroys everything."
Weintraub, however, attached a completely different headline to the updated version, noting that it was actually the commercial Haredi press that "destroys everything." In his letter, Weintraub said: "Recently two yeshiva students came to me to speak about moral affairs and the month of Elul in our generation, and I had no idea what was hiding behind their 'rabbinical manner.' I spoke with them in all innocence, unaware in advance that they were among those who distribute an infamous weekly to the public. They put the remarks into a paper called 'Bakehila,' which has a bad name and which has caused many heads to roll, and continues to possess such intentions, Heaven forbid! Putting my remarks inside this defiled weekly served them as an authorization of the importance of the abovementioned weekly, and thus the pig was able to remove its hooves and to declare that it had been purified." And the letter continued: "It should be made clear and simple to anyone who reads weeklies of this type that he is playing with his entire future in the next world, whether by the distortion of Torah wisdom or by insulting the honor of learned sages." The rabbi called for a boycott of the journalists who work for Bakehila and noted: "Even though our words are directed at one specific weekly, I declare that the remarks relate to all those newspapers distributed every single week whose management is not placed in the hands of the great scholars of our generation, may they live long. And the individual will bear testimony for the entire public."
Who was really alarmed?
It is clear to every reader of the ultra-Orthodox press that it was not only Rabbi Weintraub who was alarmed when he saw the interview with him in Bakehila, but rather, and especially, the editors and managers of the political press. In the two decades of their existence, the commercial Haredi newspapers have grown at a dizzying speed, and they regularly take a big bite out of the influence wielded by the party-backed papers on the religious public. This finds expression not only in the media surveys carried out by the TGI company, which place the weeklies Mishpacha and Bakehila ahead of both Yated Ne'eman and Hamodi'a, but also in interviews such as that with Weintraub.
What is particularly disturbing to the people who run the political press is that rabbis of the first order prefer to express their thoughts in papers that are considered unworthy. In the past, Agudat Yisrael prohibited storekeepers from selling Mishpacha, which was the first independent Haredi newspaper, founded in 1987. In the past few years, the party organs, in particular Yated Ne'eman, have been satisfied with carrying out an all-out war via letters and virulent editorials attacking "the weeklies" that are published far away from the influence of the rabbis (even though they also have their own spiritual committees).
The publisher of Bakehila, Dudi Silberschlag, prefers not to get into an argument with Weintraub. "A learned scholar is always correct," he says, adding however that the rabbi was well aware that he was being interviewed by "a weekly" and that the paper has a recording of the interview that can prove this. But when he speaks about the political organs that published the rabbi's letter, and according to him actually composed it on Weintraub's behalf, Silberschlag removes the gloves. He describes the letter as "the crazy phrases of someone with hallucinations, someone who is not living in reality. In the interview that we published, Rabbi Weintraub is portrayed as a righteous man. In Yated and Hamodi'a, he is seen as a villain. "The real story here," Silberschlag adds, "is about the party faithful. They see how Mispacha and Bakehila are growing, and passing the establishment papers in circulation and in their slice of the advertising, and the influence they have on Haredi public opinion. The main issue is their influence. Once upon a time, the weeklies were just a mere little brother who could be ignored - and I'm not just talking about us, but also about Mishpacha. But today it's the weeklies that are in the role of the big brother, and that is what is frightening the party bigwigs. So what we see is dark envy on the part of people who want to keep mouths shut."