There Is Haredi Public Opinion

The truth is that the sociological importance of the Haredi press is much greater than the phenomenon of internal criticism, no matter how important that might be.

The start of the school year is when dozens of Haredi boys and girls, mostly Sephardi, stay home because of acceptance quotas at Haredi schools. In the past, this apartheid practice was never mentioned in the Haredi press. But in recent years, independent Haredi newspapers unaffiliated with specific Haredi parties or groups, have been following the story of the children without schools. The publisher of Hakehila (The Community), Dudi Zilberschlag, attacks the problem repeatedly and vehemently, and apparently the pressure each year helps such children find a school to take them in.

Haredi newspapers are generally considered of very low quality when it comes to journalism and professional ethics. As a result, there's a tendency to believe that the overall importance of the Haredi press is as limited as the esoteric element of many of its components. That is a big mistake. The Haredi press is a sum whose importance is much greater than its parts.

It is true that all the Haredi newspapers take great care to maintain a high level of self-censorship, which turns all the private and independent newspapers into a type of willing institutional organ. But each newspaper has two or three painful subjects about which they are ready to write bluntly and with visible freedom. Together they provide an impressive range of information in which very few secrets can be kept. And all this is taking place in a society that only 20 years ago did not allow any internal criticism and conducted self-examination through anonymous wall posters and libelous leaflets distributed on the streets.

Hakehila, for example, deals with the racist quotas against Sephardi pupils in Ashkenazi schools. Yom Hashishi (Friday), writes about corruption in state grants to yeshivas. Mishpacha (Family) deals over and over with the shabab, the Haredi street kids, and once even dared to write about violence within the Haredi family.

But the truth is that the sociological importance of the Haredi press is much greater than the phenomenon of internal criticism, no matter how important that might be. Over the years, we've been told by Haredi politicians to think they don't have public opinion, only "Torah opinion," meaning the opinion of the main Haredi rabbis known as the Torah Greats. As long as there was only one Haredi newspaper, Hamodia (The Informer), there was nothing to contradict that. But the independent Haredi press has for the first time created public opinion - or perhaps merely exposed a long-existent public opinion, to view.

The independent Haredi press, like any commercial press, tries to flatter its readers. The Haredi politicians spent years trying to make us believe that their public, led by the Torah Greats, is moderate on political issues. The editors of the independent Haredi press live among the people and know otherwise. They know their public is the most right wing in the country. So do the privately-owned Haredi papers. Presumably, the Torah Greats don't really think the Deri affair should take up much of the Haredi agenda. After all, he was just a politician, not an important rabbi. But the Haredi newspaper editors know who their readers really love and like, so Deri gets positive press - and a lot of it.

The Haredi journalists, including the editors, are not Torah Greats, just ordinary people who work for their living, and yet have become public opinion makers. That means that as the Haredi press grows in strength, the influence of the Torah Greats will decline. Is that axiomatic? Of course not. First, the private Haredi press obeys rabbinical prohibitions and is used by them to enlist the masses, for example, in protesting against the Internet, the Jerusalem central bus station and the cellular phone companies.

Second, there are a lot of other factors responsible for the decline in the Torah Greats' influence, including factional fighting within the community. When all the Torah Greats think alike, the lowly yeshiva bocher (student) must obey. But when each great rabbi has his own view, then the bocher can choose which one to follow - or even come up with his own halakhic ruling.

The private Haredi press may be careful about not showing any disrespect to the sages, but it avidly covers the factional political fighting among the Haredi parties. In that sense, it repeatedly makes clear that the politicians actually don't simply obey the rabbis. The endless coverage of the fighting between the Yishai and Deri camps in Shas makes clear to any reader that the question of what Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wants is very incidental as far as the combatants are concerned.

When Yom Shishi covers the quarrels between Shas and Degel Hatorah about the immigration of the Falash Mura, it is really writing about the clash between the rabbis of the two parties. Even if there's not a single word of criticism about their holinesses, when the parties scuffle, casting aspersions and plotting against each other, the Torah Greats look very small.