A long-planned reform which would effectively break up the shadowy Rabbis’ Committee for Communications Matters’ monopoly over cellular access for hundreds of thousands of Israelis is set to go into effect this summer, portending significant changes within the ultra-Orthodox community.
The new regulation, created by the Communications Ministry, will allow members of the ultra-Orthodox community to keep numbers assigned to their so-called kosher phones even after buying a smartphone, and will go into effect on July 31, despite vigorous rabbinic protests, the ministry announced on Sunday.
The Rabbis’ Committee is a private group, backed by leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, which has entered into a series of deals with Israeli cellular providers, allowing it to assume monopoly control over the certification of cellphones aimed at the Haredi market.
These deals give the committee incredible power over what services members of the community are allowed to access. In the past, the committee has been harshly criticized for arbitrarily blocking access to government services and sexual abuse hotlines.
Kosher phones — which cannot send text messages or access the internet — are considered de rigueur among the ultra-Orthodox. Israel’s cellular carriers, in cooperation with the committee, have long blocked off a dedicated series of numbers for kosher phones. This allows easy identification of owners of forbidden devices, who can face significant social sanctions for violating community norms.
“The reform in the ultra-Orthodox cellular market comes after more than a decade in which about half a million ultra-Orthodox cellular consumers were discriminated against in the cellular field,” the ministry said in a statement.
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“The decision made by the Minister of Communications will allow the ultra-Orthodox public to continue using kosher phones and at the same time the opportunity to fully enjoy the fruits of competition in the Israeli cellular market, which is currently one of the most competitive among developed countries.”
Some ultra-Orthodox leaders have described Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel’s plan as “worse than the Holocaust” while Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef warned that any change to the status quo could lead to “spiritual destruction.”
The rabbis’ 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.
Thirty percent of those polled said they were using their phones to go online, a number which is likely to increase now that phone number portability will allow Haredim to continue using “kosher” numbers with proscribed devices.
Hendel predicted Sunday that “opening the market to competition will dismantle the dominant monopoly in the kosher cellular market” and lower prices for consumers, asserting that he had made his decision “for the good of the state” and not any particular “power group or sector.”
“Ultra-Orthodox citizens deserve to be equal to the rest of the citizens in the country and enjoy a free and competitive cellular market,” he said, adding that numbers belonging to minors would be exempt from the new regulations.
“In the State of Israel, there should be one law and equal conditions everywhere. It is important to emphasize that there is no coercion on anyone here, only freedom to choose.”
Late 2021 saw a surge of protests and vandalism against cellphone shops in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods around the country. In Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood, where protesters 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 a 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.
Last July, Channel 13 reported that the police had begun investigating allegations that the Rabbis’ Committee was operating an extortion racket.