Israel’s Chief Rabbis Escalate Their Fight Against ‘Kosher’ Phones Reform

Rabbis criticize planned change, which would allow owners of ‘kosher’ phones that can’ t go online to keep their number after switching to a smartphone

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Aמ ultra-Orthodox man talks on the phone in the Old City of Jerusalem, 2016.
Aמ ultra-Orthodox man talks on the phone in the Old City of Jerusalem, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

Warning of spiritual destruction, Israel’s chief rabbis demanded this week that the government back down from a planned regulatory change that would allow members of the ultra-Orthodox community to keep numbers assigned to their so-called kosher phones even after buying a smartphone.

In a public letter, Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef asserted that while internet connected devices can be used constructively, they also pose “grave danger” and can lead to “spiritual destruction.”

The rabbis declared that the ultra-Orthodox community, which is focused on maintaining its spiritual purity, “should not be prevented from living and maintaining its way of life” and “a path that may severely damage its faith and worldview should not be forced on it.” They added that the use of a kosher phone is “necessary and essential” for those looking to avoid “unworthy and dangerous” content.

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel has stated that he intended to apply an an amendment to the Telecommunications Law allowing cellular consumers to switch carriers while retaining their phone number to kosher phones, which have been exempt until now.

Kosher phones — which cannot send text messages or access the internet — are under the control of a shadowy “Rabbis’ Committee for Communications Matters,” which holds a rabbinically-endorsed monopoly on phone certification and has been harshly criticized for arbitrarily blocking access to government services and sexual abuse hotlines.

Hendel’s decision would upend the current status quo, in which Israel’s cellular carriers, in cooperation with the committee, have blocked off a dedicated series of numbers for kosher phones, allowing easy identification of owners of forbidden devices.

Rabbinic efforts to limit their followers’ access to the internet may already be a lost cause, however, with a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute finding that two-thirds of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews are online.

According to the institute’s annual report on ultra-Orthodox society, 64 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews accessed the internet in 2020. Fully half of those online reported using social media, while one out of every ten Haredim who went online did so for the purposes of gaming.

And while 42 percent said that they used their home computers to access the internet, 30 percent said they were using their phones to go online.

While conservative elements in the ultra-Orthodox community boycott the internet, others have taken a different approach in recent years, said IDI researchers Dr. Lee Cahaner and Dr. Gilad Malach.

Those online are split between the pragmatic camp, which “recognizes the need to use the internet and adopts it for communication, information, work and a variety of services, with reservations regarding its social functions,” and “modern” Haredim who adopt “most of the innovations available online.”

Those belonging to the second group “make use of the various online platforms, including social media, and do not see the internet as a threat to their lifestyle,” they said, adding the caveat that even the more liberal Haredim tend to limit their children’s access. Only 13 percent of ultra-Orthodox children and youths use the internet.

Lau and Yosef have been vocal opponents of the government’s effort to change the current religious status quo, slamming moves to end their exclusive monopoly over kashrut certification and conversion.

Last week, Hendel called for Lau’s ouster after the chief rabbi threatened to withhold Jewish status from numerous proselytes in order to protest the government’s new conversion outline, under which municipal rabbis will be empowered to perform conversions.

Recent months have seen a surge of protests and vandalism against cellphone shops in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods around the country. In Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood, where protesters recently tried to set fire to one such store, activists told Haredi news site Kikar Hashabbat that they would not be deterred from shutting down any retailer without a kosher certificate.

“Arrests at night will not stop us,” activists told the site. “We do not want our boys and our children to have access to the internet.”

A video of one such protest last December showed two police officers holding back a mob attempting to storm a Jerusalem cellular retailer while another clip from October, which was widely shared on social media, showed an elderly Haredi man assaulting young man attempting to buy a smartphone. A video from August posted by Kikar Hashabbat journalist Chaim Goldberg showed two men threatening to start demonstrations outside a cellular shop in Kiryat Sefer unless they were paid 10,000 shekels.

In July, Channel 13 reported that the police had begun investigating allegations that the Rabbis’ Committee was operating an extortion racket.

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