Memo to Jews close to God; porn and online gambling are your friends

The intention of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel to ban access to an open internet in Israel isn’t going too well:

Are Israel’s Haredi religious authorities losing control of their followers?

In December, leading Israeli rabbis launched a new push to curtail Internet use among ultra-Orthodox Jews, emphasizing that their longstanding ban on Web surfing applied to sites geared toward the Haredi community as well. They threatened stricter penalties than ever before for those who disobeyed. But rather than showing their power, the battle against Haredi Internet use has exposed the rabbis’ weakness, as large parts of the community resolutely remain online.

The Israeli rabbis first came out against Internet use in January 2000, when more than 30 Haredi leaders forbade Internet connections at home. Back then, the main concern was the easy availability of online pornography. The ban was not particularly controversial, as Israeli Haredim had long accepted a similar ban on owning television sets.

Many Haredim, however, circumvented the ban by using 3G phones, which allowed Internet access — until the rabbis forced them to buy “kosher-certified” sets in which the Internet feature was disabled. Others frequented Internet cafés. Still others brought computers into the home for work purposes, a practice that the Rabbinical Commission for Media Affairs — established by leading Haredi rabbis to set policy — was forced to permit in 2007, conceding that the Internet was essential for many businesses.

Senior rabbis continued to emphasize the ban on casual Internet use. But it was too late. Although no accurate figures for Haredi Internet use exist, the Israeli phone company Bezeq claims that a quarter of the Haredi households that it serves have a Bezeq Internet connection. Many others, presumably, use different service providers.

Meanwhile, blogs written by Haredim who have theological doubts or misgivings about their closed society have flourished. And Israeli Haredim developed an online network of news sites, whose existence is by now taken for granted. Along with hard news, the sites feature gossip from the rabbis’ courts, discussion of intra-communal scandals and forums in which any aspect of Haredi life can be criticized.