Kosher phone dispute grips ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv | Israel

Tel Aviv’s burgeoning science and technology industry, backed by graduates from elite state intelligence units, has earned Israel the nickname “start-up nation”.

Yet in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb a few miles east of Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers, an uphill battle is unfolding over whether smartphones are compatible with traditional Jewish law — and who should have the right. power to decide on Internet access.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox or Haredi population has grown to 12% of the country; according to a study, one in four Israelis will be ultra-Orthodox by 2050.

Much of the community still shuns television and other mass media, which are seen as a threat to their way of life. The first wave of mobile phones was addressed by creating kosher handsets, which could only make and receive calls from other blessed numbers, identifiable by the 05331 prefix, and had no cameras or internet capability.

However, the rise of the smartphone is making it harder for the community to get by without using the internet. In Israel, as in many high-income countries, the provision of municipal services, tax filing and access to bank accounts have mostly moved online.

So far, the Haredim’s solution has been to continue with “dumb” phones or allow smartphones with pre-installed content blocking filters: the only apps on the home screen of a typical kosher smartphone. are a clock, calculator and navigation software.

Only one body – the Rabbinical Committee for Communications – has the authority to issue kosher certificates for Israel’s approximately 500,000 kosher cellphones. It is an opaque and influential operation that can filter numbers, content and the flow of information as it pleases.

“Rabbis used to say, ‘Stay away from Allenby Street in the middle of Tel Aviv, it’s a sin.’ But now anyone can go to Allenby Street on their phone. The idea behind it was to protect the community from impure culture,” said Israel Cohen, a prominent Haredi political commentator.

“It’s rare for the Haredi community to agree on anything, but a lot of people think the committee is out of touch.”

Members alleged that blocked numbers include information lines and public transport helplines still widely used by Haredim, and even numbers for medical and domestic violence services. Kosher numbers also cannot be transferred to non-kosher providers, which greatly limits competition.

The Guardian made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the committee for comment.

Lawsuits challenging the monopoly, which Israeli media say are worth more than 75m shekels (£18m) a year, have had limited success. Late last year, Israel’s Communications Ministry attempted to hold hearings on abolishing the system, based on a legal opinion from the national competition authority, but was met with fury some community leaders. These proposals have now been thwarted by the collapse of the short-lived coalition government last month.

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Ultimately, however, the Rabbinical Committee for Communications could be fighting a losing battle. Recent research from the Israel Democracy Institute found that members of the ultra-Orthodox community are gradually integrating the online world into their way of life, with two-thirds using the internet for basic needs such as email, work , access to government services, banking and information searches. . About half of those online also use social media.

For Uriel Diament, who runs a small phone shop on Bnei Brak’s main shopping street, change can’t come fast enough. His kosher certificate was suspended earlier this year after he spoke out against the monopoly; his business and staff have been repeatedly attacked, and the windows and door smashed by mobs of angry young men, he says, driven mad by their rabbis.

“The strategy is to go from store to store and intimidate the sellers. The [demonstrators] we lie to them, they tell them that I sell iPhones with internet access to 13-year-olds, but that’s not true. It’s not about serving God; it’s a mafia,” the 39-year-old said.

During the Guardian’s visit to the Diament shop, a middle-aged man came in and shouted at the staff, calling them “collaborators who disobey the rabbis”.

“Times have changed,” Diament said after the man left. “They can’t put their head in the sand forever.”

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