For the past 14 years, Israelis have been able to change their cellphone provider and keep their phone number. Since the amendment was passed on the matter in 2007, only one group in Israel has been excluded from this option – the ultra-Orthodox, who at the command of their rabbis use “kosher” phones – from which access to the internet and social media is blocked. If they move to another provider, they can’t keep their old number.
This restrictive arrangement, which is illegal, allows rabbis to limit this community’s access to outside information. Moreover, with the quiet support of the mobile phone companies and previous communications ministers, “kosher” cellphones are blocked not only to the internet, but to a secret list of phone numbers determined by the so-called “Rabbis Committee for Communications Matters.” Among these numbers are government information lines and the numbers of help lines for victims of sexual assault.
Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel of New Hope is promoting a welcome change to this situation, which would give ultra-Orthodox customers the same rights as other cellphone users. Of course, customers can decide if they want to block their cellphone to certain sites and services, and even to the entire internet. But restricting customers who have purchased a “kosher” line to a number with a permanent area code, preventing customers from transferring their number to another provider and preventing access to the web – all provide rabbis with leverage on people who want to stay within the fold, but at the same time remain connected to the outside world.
Hendel’s intention to equalize the rights of Haredi customers has frightened the rabbis, who took the uncharacteristic step of going to his office, and warned of “spiritual annihilation” by smartphones and the internet. Their fears are justified, because direct access to communication networks indeed undermines the sole authority of the rabbis among their followers in the Haredi community.
In their meeting with Hendel, the rabbis didn’t try to explain why their followers can’t make their own decisions whether to access information. This is precisely what they fear. If the members of this community are given the option and are no longer subjected to pressure to keep their “kosher” number, they will probably choose to connect to the outside world.
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- Ultra-Orthodox Jews must choose between obedience to their rabbis – or to their smartphone
We can only hope that Hendel won’t fold under the rabbis’ pressure, because this is a matter of basic equal rights and uniform enforcement of the law. Free access by the ultra-Orthodox community to information will help members make informed decisions about their lives, as they choose and without coercion.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.