Hasid Versus Hasid - on the Internet

A legal suit is shedding light on the internal divisions among Gerer Hasidim and the importance they accord to the World Wide Web.

On March 11, 2004, at 16:25, a posting appeared on the Hasidic Courts forum of the Hyde Park idea exchange (Hebrew) web site. "Fierce blows again in the Gerer community: Ackerman vs. Levine," blared the subject line, followed by the information that "hundreds of Hasidim gathered to watch the sight of Ackerman knocking Levine down and hitting him again and again, and no one came to his aid... This man is a gentle, married yeshiva student, suspected by the bully Ackerman of loving the Torah and loving G-d and (justifiably) loving P.N.M. [see below]. Jews are crying out in pain, "How much longer?'!!!"

This passage is a quote from a slander suit filed in August in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court. Ostensibly, the case concerns two Haredi ultra-Orthodox men. The plaintiff, Yisrael Ackerman, is a married yeshiva student from Jerusalem, from a well-known family of Gerer Hasidim. The defendant, referred to as "Ploni Almoni" (the Hebrew equivalent of John Doe), is an anonymous contributor to the members-only Hasidic Courts forum, which addresses events among the various Hasidic groups.

Ackerman claims in his suit that the publication of the violent act attributed to him - which he denies vehemently - seriously harmed him, his family and his surroundings. Ackerman is not making do with a demand for monetary compensation, and is calling for the identity of the defendant to be exposed. Nonetheless, ultra-Orthodox Hasidim and analysts have raised the possibility that the motivation for the suit lies elsewhere, in the bitter internal struggles within Gerer Hasidism.

Immediately after publication of the posting, Ackerman petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to order Hyde Park to reveal the identity of the item's author, so that Ackerman could file a civil suit against him for slander. In 2005, Judge Boaz Okun ruled that the defendant's identity not be published, but that Ackerman could sue him under the name Ploni Almoni. The sides agreed that the slander suit would be heard by the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court. The defendant's attorney says the insistence on the disclosure of the posting's author is incomprehensible.

"Perhaps the issue of the [author's] exposure is the real story behind this suit," says attorney David Shava, who is representing the defendant. "If Ackerman's claim is proved, which is not likely, he will receive an apology and perhaps also money. I do not understand why the suit also insists on the exposure [of the author], unless there is only one goal: to hound the defendant."

The defense claims that when there is a clash between freedom of expression, the surfers' right to the protection of their privacy, and the prohibition against slander, protection of privacy must take precedence. This is because, as far as the defendant is concerned, the suit involves a principle and even a humanitarian issue - if the court accedes to the plaintiff's demand to expose the defendant's identity, he will be hounded and ostracized.

Even so, analysts familiar with Gerer Hasidim, including ultra-Orthodox researcher Benjamin Brown of Bar Ilan University, wonder how the hounding of Hasidim who have voiced criticism of the current Hasidic leadership could be the reason for the suit. The analysts explain that such persecution has occurred in recent years, on the background of the Gerer leadership's fears of a split in their Hasidic group.

'Loving P.N.M.'"Behind the suit," states the "respondent's position" published by the defense, which was filed with the District Court about two years ago, "is a deeply rooted and real ideological dispute between the heads of the Gerer Hasidic court. Indeed, it is only natural that every ideological dispute is accompanied by wild weeds that presume to act in the name of the truth that they do not understand and will not learn. Such is the plaintiff, who is not out to redeem his own honor, but rather the honor of an unknown ideology."

The interpretation arising from this document is that the grounds for the suit are not slander - the description of Ackerman as violent. The analysts believe that the real grounds are the sentence in the item published on the forum, that Levine was "suspected by the bully of loving the Torah and loving G-d and (justifiably) loving P.N.M." Brown explains that P.N.M. refers to the late Rabbi Pinhas Menachem Alter, the admired Admor, or Hasidic leader, of the Gerer community, who preceded the present leader, Rabbi Yaakov Alter, and was also his uncle.

Only someone familiar with the internal politics of Gerer Hasidim can understand the true meaning and incendiary nature of those seemingly innocent words. The background to this matter, continues Brown, lies in the internal struggle within the Gerer community and the threat to its leadership that the current Admor fears from the direction of his cousin, Rabbi Shaul Alter, head of the Sfat Emet yeshiva and the son of Rabbi Menachem Alter. The current Hasidic leader managed to quell the challenge about four years ago, but the struggle crops up time and again.

In other words, Ackerman ostensibly hit Levine because he was suspected of being a follower of Shaul Alter. One of the questions arising from this assumption is whether Ackerman was acting of his own accord or if he was sent by someone politically senior to him. Now the Hasidim closely associated with the Gerer court wonder whether the suit is another attempt at silencing opposition in the leadership struggle. The item by the anonymous forum member was written during a period when there was open opposition to the Hasidic leadership. Since then the current Admor has made a number of muscle-flexing moves to prove his leadership, most notably the closure of the Haifa Gerer yeshiva, which identified with Rabbi Shaul Alter.

Gerer sources claim that various elements are operating within the Hasidic group to silence any murmurs of critical discussion within its ranks. These sources say that such actions reflect the atmosphere within the Gerer community, and that the suit is a continuation of this policy. No response was available from Ackerman's lawyer regarding the above claims before the publication of this article.

The case currently under way in the Magistrate's Court is fascinating for a few other reasons. First, it shows the weight attributed to the Internet among the ultra-Orthodox in general and Hasidim in particular, despite the attempts by their rabbinic leaders to ban its use. The suit also sheds light on the launching of dozens of Internet forums on ultra-Orthodox topics in recent years. A few of these sites, such as Hasidic Courts are quite lively and boast thousands of visitors a day. It is also a known fact that certain discussions (threads) on the forum are printed out and publicized in local Hasidic synagogues the following day.

As much as the plaintiff is interested in presenting the Internet as a significant influence in Hasidic life, in order to prove that it caused harm, the leadership is striving equally to minimize the Internet's value. Ackerman's lawyer, Yechiel Weinroth, claims that following the item on the forum, one of the leading rabbis at Ackerman's yeshiva advised him to stay away from his studies until the matter was resolved. The suit claims that Ackerman subsequently suffered severe humiliation, because being suspended from one's studies is akin to being suspended from one's job. The suit further contends that Ackerman's father was ridiculed in synagogue, and that Ackerman became a victim of telephone harassment.

By contrast, the defendant claims that Hasidic Courts is an inconsequential forum that is closed to non-members, and items posted therefore have little reverberations. The anonymous defendant's lawyer notes that on the day his client's item was posted, there were thousands of other postings, so why should anyone focus specifically on a marginal statement concerning Gerer Hasidim?

Unseen censorThe analysts point to the recent removal of the thread on the Hasidic Courts forum discussing a division within the Gerer community, as part of the censoring by unseen Hasidic elements. Another thread dealt with the continued leadership of the various Admors, including that of Gerer. One surfer wrote that one of the previous leaders of Gerer, Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter (the father of the current Admor), said the group might one day split. The surfer commented, "What's the big deal? There can be two." One of the Hasidim who participate in the forum reported that the administrators of Hyde Park apologized to surfers for erasing the thread, noting that they had received a request from the leadership of Gerer to do so.

"That thread discussed how Gerer would look after the death of the Admor - whether there would be power struggles," explained Lior Weitz, content manager for the Hevre ("Buddies") portal, which operates Hyde Park. "The thread, from beginning to end, was composed of suppositions and guesses - nothing illegal. The thread was removed after I was told that the continuation of the discussion while the current Admor is alive and well would lead to divisiveness, dispute and even violence. I am not prepared for that sort of thing to be on my conscience and for Hyde Park to serve as a forum for arguments and splits. This is even in the regulations of the web site."