Saturday, December 25, 2021

Breaking Israel's Charedi autonomy via kosher phones - interview with Yoaz Hendel


It was a video that spread like wildfire on Israeli haredi corners of the Internet – ironically since it’s a video featuring haredi rabbis who don’t want their flock exposed to the Internet.
On November 30, Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel (New Hope) sat in his office, across from senior rabbis from the hassidic, Lithuanian and Sephardi haredi communities, such as the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Mir Yeshiva head Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel (II), Shas Torah Sages Council member Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, Yeshivat Porat Yosef head Rabbi Moshe Tzedaka and others.
The first thing that may strike someone familiar with meetings between politicians and haredi rabbis is how different this scene looks from the usual scenario, in which the politicians make their way to the home courts of the rabbis. They sit at the rabbis’ tables, with floor-to-ceiling cases of holy books covering the walls of the room. They wear a black kippah and show deference.

Instead, Hendel was at the head of the table, and the rabbis were his guests at the Communications Ministry. In addition, Hendel is an observant Jew, who keeps Shabbat and kosher but chooses not to wear a kippah on weekdays, and in his meeting with the rabbis, he was bareheaded as usual.
And rather than ask the rabbis for their advice or their blessing, Hendel addressed them like equals.

Speaking to them, Hendel made reference to a story his audience surely knew well. In 1952, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion met with Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish, the leader of haredi Judaism in Israel at the time, to discuss matters of religion and state. The Chazon Ish cited a Talmudic discussion in which a camel without a load on its back must make way for a camel loaded with goods when on a narrow path, as a metaphor for Israeli society. That story, which mistakenly became known as “the empty wagon and the full wagon” to most Israelis, is meant to say that haredi society is the “full wagon” – full of values – to which the “empty wagon” of secular Israeli society must defer, such as by not requiring haredim to enlist in the IDF.

“I feel that I am a totally full wagon,” Hendel told the rabbis sitting before him. “I feel comfortable sitting with you and respect you very much, but I feel comfortable telling you that I care about my children just like you care about your children.
“The real argument that is here on the table is how we look at the State of Israel and whether the State of Israel can regulate what happens in its space,” he added.

Haredi media and politicians exploded over the meeting.
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni compared Hendel to a “paritz,” an Eastern European nobleman to whom the Jews of the shtetl had to show fealty.
“A minister in the government spoke with such arrogance and audacity to rabbis who have thousands and thousands of families standing behind them, who accept their authority,” Gafni said in the Knesset soon after. “Ben-Gurion at least respected the Hazon Ish enough to come to his house in Bnei Brak... [Hendel] sat like a paritz, without a kippah... He said terrible words... We’ve never seen anything like this in Israeli public life. Even people who think differently don’t speak like this. He should be ashamed!”

THE RABBIS asked for a meeting with Hendel to discuss “kosher phones,” a special phone service widely used by haredim in Israel. The cellphones in question are configured only for calls and text messages, no Internet, no apps. A committee determines that certain phone numbers are blocked and cannot be reached from those phones. They also have designated phone numbers so that kosher phone numbers can be easily identified.
Hendel, however, has pointed out that kosher phones are a sort of fiefdom within Israeli telecommunications. Unlike other phone numbers, kosher numbers can’t be moved from one company to another, severely limiting competition. The committees that block numbers lack transparency or recourse so that a business – the example Hendel gave is a kosher pizza place – has no way of knowing why a crucial communications tool has been cut off, and reversing the decision is near-impossible.
Though Hendel went into the meeting knowing that he and the rabbis disagree, he maintained in an interview for The Jerusalem Post Podcast this week that he was trying to show them respect.

He didn’t wear a kippah, because he doesn’t usually wear one in the office, and he didn’t think it made sense to do so in a performative way.

Hendel also said he listened to the rabbis for an hour.
“They said they’re not willing to compromise, which means I have to be willing to compromise,” he recalled. “They talked about how the education of their kids is important for them – as if for us it’s not that important. And they talked about the ghetto and the Holocaust that if I make a decision regarding their mobile phones... it’s a Holocaust for them... The whole conversation was very philosophical.”
And when Hendel told the haredim that he too has a “full wagon,” he wanted them to know that “I also have a philosophical view; I also have ideas.
“I say Israel is the place of Jews from all over the world and I cannot accept the idea that there is a monopoly of Judaism that only belongs to the haredi community,” he said. “My wagon is full of the Talmud, Jewish heritage, Jewish sources, and in the same wagon I also have [poets] Bialik and Rachel and Leonard Cohen and other Jewish creators... When I served in the Israeli Navy SEALS, I was no less determined than a yeshiva [student] learning from morning until night.
“What I’m trying to say, in the subtext, is that you cannot think about yourselves as the only determined people in Israel. And yes, I am willing to have this discussion, but in an equal way,” Hendel stated.
The problem, according to Hendel, is bigger than just phones. The kosher phone conundrum is like the Hazon Ish’s camels or wagons.
“It’s about the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” Hendel asserted. “We have to agree that there are no autonomies in Israel.
“In the last two or three decades, we lost our sovereignty over different parts of Israel,” he explained. “If we look at the Ben-Gurion period, he talked about how to unite the country and how to bring tribes from different parts of the world into a melting pot. Today... we have four tribes, or five or six, and we live next to each other. From my point of view, we need to change direction. We need to go back to the core of Zionism.”
That core, Hendel said, is one Jewish and democratic state with equal rights and duties for all, and it must be emphasized to groups like Bedouin in the Negev, Israeli Arabs more broadly, and haredim.
“We will not be able to maintain the State of Israel, this miracle, if we will allow ourselves to become tribes or to allow autonomy everywhere, and to allow ourselves to ignore the fact that there is one law... that in Tel Aviv, you have law and order and in the Negev, in the Bedouin community, you have nothing, and in the ultra-Orthodox community, we have to change direction. And for many years, the governments of Israel ignored it,” Hendel said.
Hendel’s job, in that respect, is as a regulator who wants to make sure the same regulation applies to all.
“The kosher phones are a kind of monopoly, outside of law and order. There’s a vacuum.”
Hendel said he agrees with the haredi rabbis that it is important to filter Internet content for children, and he respects that aspect of the “kosher phone” norm.
But at the same time, the rabbis “used the word ghetto. They want to keep Israel out of their ghetto.
“You cannot hold the stick at both ends – on one end, to have the power and be part of the government for many years and have ministries, but on the other, to say ‘I don’t want the State of Israel to interfere with my life,’” Hendel said.
Plus, Hendel has pointed out that kosher phones are an illusion, and that 50-70% of haredim have the Internet anyway, with many carrying multiple cellphones so they can use the kosher phone in some circumstances – such as to register their children for prestigious schools – and a smartphone at other times. For example, Hendel gleefully recounted, the rabbis’ aides filmed his meeting with their smartphones. And Hendel confronted the rabbis with this reality.
Using a kosher phone number as a sort of social signifier is “not the role of a mobile phone,” Hendel said. “As a regulator... I have to let the Orthodox citizens in Israel have competition so they can pick whatever phones they want and no one can pick for half a million people what they can or cannot do.”
Hendel argued that the angry reaction to him, and to Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana (Yamina) who seeks to reform government kosher food supervision and conversion, from haredi media and politicians is because “this government is doing a lot to break up some of [the haredi] hold on religion and state issues in this country, and it’s something they’ve never experienced before.”
Ministers like himself and Kahana and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who are Orthodox, are willing “to take the hot potatoes” in a way that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not, Hendel said, suggesting that it may be because Netanyahu doesn’t keep kosher and therefore doesn’t see the matter as a priority.
As for Gafni calling Hendel the paritz, Hendel retorted: “We are not in exile... We are in the sovereign State of Israel... You can take some Jews out of the Diaspora, but you cannot take the Diaspora from the Jews.”
HENDEL’S VIEW on Israel needing to root out autonomous, lawless behavior in Israeli society is not only limited to haredim.
He lamented that there has been “an Arab autonomy and for many years, the former prime minister and other ministers chose not to make any decisions, and then we found ourselves in the last military campaign with an Arab population that rose up against the State of Israel.”
The remark was a reference to internecine violence in mixed Arab-Jewish towns like Acre and Lod during Operation Guardian of the Wall in May, in which Israeli Arabs burned down synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses and assaulted Jewish residents, and there were a smaller number of retaliatory attacks by Jews.
But Hendel also spoke out against illegal construction in Arab areas, along with pirated electricity, water and communications infrastructure.
“We have to try to organize the chaos,” he said. “I chose to tell those pirates that they have two options, to go to the Communications Ministry and start the process to get a license, and we will regulate you, or we will use legal tools to make sure you cannot work anymore.”
As a result, 29 out of 30 such communications “pirates” have applied for licenses, Hendel said.
“We need a very strong stick in the Negev and Galilee, but on the other side, to have the carrot. Unfortunately, in the State of Israel in the last 20 years, we chose not to pick neither the stick nor the carrot,” he stated.
THE COMMUNICATION Ministry’s slogan under Hendel’s leadership is “to connect Israelis,” and his flagship project to that end is building a fiber-optic network throughout Israel. In 2018, only 2% of Israeli households had access to fiber-optic cable, and now 50% of them do.
“Israel is connected to high-speed Internet and we increase the numbers day by day. I hope that by the end of 2022, we’ll have 70% [fiber-optic access],” Hendel said.
He has specifically focused on getting high-speed Internet to Israel’s periphery, in order to make working from home easier.
“This is about money and work conditions and about encourage people to move from Tel Aviv and the Center to our borders, to the Galilee and the Negev, instead of being concentrated in the center,” said Hendel.

The complete interview with Hendel is available on this week’s episode of The Jerusalem Post Podcast, available on and all major podcast platforms.


The Rebbe said...

The Rebbe Bob Grant would probably call Hendel a smart caphone. Cafon is the Italian slang word he famously used to refer to idiots during his many years on ABC & WOR radio.

But seriously DIN, you don't agree it was a lack of respect by Hendel to meet bareheaded with gedolim who discussed Torah? The only 2 points here that I don't understand the gedolim fighting is to maintain the monopoly and to secretly blacklist #s without answering to anyone. There can be competition to bring down prices while still maintaining standards & there can be a panel of non-political rabbonim to posken on blacklist appeals.

Unknown said...

Dunno where this article took it's info from, but Hendel is not an observant Jew, and doesn't try to act like he is one. He comes from a religious family, but has openly left observance.