As the succession war in Haifa's Seret-Viznitz Hasidic sect heats up, one of the warring parties has resorted to the Internet as a weapon.
In recent weeks, video footage has begun circulating in emails and on the ultra-Orthodox website Behadrei Haredim that shows Rabbi Baruch Hager, grandson of the sect's current admor (rabbinic leader ), maligning key leaders of Haifa's Viznitz community to his 86-year-old grandfather and even managing to get the admor to speak out against them.
Hager's allies say the recordings are fake, and that they are being distributed by another grandson of the admor - Baruch Hager's cousin, Yisrael Shpitatz - who hopes to ensure that his father, a Neturei Karta Hasid, will inherit instead.
Seret-Viznitz is a branch of the sprawling Viznitz dynasty. It sits in a closed-off neighborhood of Haifa and totals some 400 families. The current admor is Rabbi Eliezer Hager, 86, a cousin of Bnei Brak's Viznitz admor. Rabbi Eliezer is popular with secular Jews because he served in the army, is willing to see visitors from every walk of life and allows women to meet with him on their own.
Some years ago, his daughter Miriam married Aharon Tuvia Shpitatz, a member of the radical Neturei Karta sect, known for its anti-Zionist and anti-Israel views. Despite the controversial marriage, the admor remains in touch with his daughter. But the young couple relocated to the United States, and the community interpreted this to mean that the admor had banished them.
Baruch Hager's close allies believe that Miriam's son, Yisrael Shpitatz, broke into his cousin's secret email box and then used that address to circulate the politically explosive footage, which they claim is fake. They say his goal is to secure his own father's appointment as the next admor, despite the fact that the designated heir is currently Yaakov Hager, Baruch's father.
Either way, after the videos began circulating, Baruch Hager left his post as head of the Haifa kollel (yeshiva for married men ) in a bid to lower his profile.
Posts on Behadrei Haredim report that flyers have been distributed in Haifa's Hasidic community urging Baruch's father, Yaakov, to renounce the admor's throne. Moreover, accusations of misconduct have proliferated. "One of the admor's grandsons has crossed a red line and announced that he intends to sue his grandfather, the Seret-Viznitz admor, in a religious court," charged one post.
Though the community is trying to keep the conflict quiet, the clash of the admor's grandsons is now routinely discussed on ultra-Orthodox websites. Seret-Viznitz recently went as far as hiring hackers to try to erase the compromising video footage from the Internet, but so far without success.
Succession wars are nothing new in the Hasidic movement, but the extent of Internet use in this one is unusual. Until recently, much of the ultra-Orthodox public would not even use the Gregorian calendar, much less text messages or the web.
"Just as in the revolution sweeping the Arab world, many in the ultra-Orthodox sector are connecting with the Internet, where anonymity prevails," said ultra-Orthodox businessman Dudi Zilbershlag. "This is a community where it's very difficult to release internal pressure. In the past, wall posters were used to allow people to express themselves; now it's the Internet."
"It's not considered legitimate for Hasids to talk about the succession, not even about the fact that the admor will pass away, so no one will admit a succession war is on," Zilbershlag added. "But in any case, Haifa yeshiva students have decided not to open these emails, so I hope this will reduce interest in the story to zero."