The dispute over kosher phones engulfs the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Tel Aviv

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Yet in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb just a few miles east of Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers, a vicious fight is being waged over whether smartphones are compatible with traditional Jewish law, and who should have the power to decide on internet access.

Israel’s Haredim are restricted from using smartphones by an opaque committee, but many are nonetheless using the internet. In Bnei Brak, close to Tel Aviv, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish guy is seen using his phone. Quique Kierszenbaum and Bethan McKernan in Bnei Brak Israel has acquired the moniker “start-up nation” thanks to its thriving scientific and technology sector, which is supported by graduates of top army intelligence units.

Highlights

  • The rise of the smartphone, however, is making it harder for the community to get by without using the internet. In Israel, as in many high income countries, municipal service provision, filing taxes and accessing bank accounts has mostly moved online. The Haredim’s solution so far has been to continue with “dumb” phones, or to allow smartphones that come with content blocking filters preinstalled: the only apps on a typical kosher smartphone’s home screen are a clock, calculator, and navigation software.

  • Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, population, has grown to make up 12% of the country; according to one study, they will make up one in four Israelis by 2050. Much of the community still shuns television and other mass media, which is viewed as a threat to their way of life. The first wave of mobile phones was dealt with by creating kosher handsets, which could only make and receive calls from other blessed numbers, identifiable by the prefix 05331, and did not have cameras or internet capability.

For Uriel Diament, who runs a small phone shop on the main shopping street in Bnei Brak, change can’t come quickly enough. His kosher certificate was suspended earlier this year after he spoke out against the monopoly; his business and staff have been attacked several times, and the windows and door broken by crowds of angry young men he says were whipped into a frenzy by their rabbis.

Only one body – the Rabbinical Committee for Communications – has the power to issue kosher certificates for Israel’s estimated 500,000 kosher mobile phones. It is an opaque and influential operation which can screen numbers, content and the flow of information as it pleases. “The rabbis used to say: ‘Stay away from Allenby Street in the middle of Tel Aviv, it’s sinful.’ But now anyone can go to Allenby Street on their phone. The idea originally was to keep the community safe from impure culture,” said Israel Cohen, a prominent Haredi political commentator.

“The strategy is to go shop to shop and intimidate the sellers. The [demonstrators] are lied to, they tell them I’m selling iPhones with internet access to 13-year-olds, but that’s not true. It’s not about serving God; they’re a mafia,” the 39-year-old said. During the Guardian’s visit to Diament’s shop, a middle-aged man entered and shouted at the staff, calling them “collaborators who are disobedient to the rabbis

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