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Israel’s “Haredim” which are commonly referred to as “Ultra-Orthodox” (although that term is generally disliked by the community) (Katz 2018) are distinctive in their overall separation from the rest of Israeli society. As the Israel Democracy Institute describes, “Haredi Jews in Israel have chosen to erect ‘walls of holiness’ to separate themselves from society at large. This voluntary segregation is virtually all-encompassing, extending not only to beliefs and opinions unique to this community, but also to the spatial, educational, cultural, communicational, and political spheres.” This wall also includes the Haredi media environment.
Haredi Jews make up roughly 11% of Israel’s total population and 8% of Israeli adults. They are also Israel’s fastest growing population (Pew Research; Israel Democracy Institute). However it is important to note that Haredi Jews themselves are not a monolith either religiously or culturally. Among Haredim there are currents such as “Hasidim,” “Lit’aim” and other groups which themselves contain different streams and subgroups. Hassidim are best known for their distinctive dress such as long beards and “peyot” (sideburns) and their greater social seclusion, although these practices are not necessarily limited to Hasidim. Culturally there are Ashkenazi (European-descended) and Sefardi and Mizrachi Haredim (Spain and Middle East descended) Haredim. In the Israeli Knesset the United Torah Judaism and Shas political parties generally represent the interests of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Haredi respectively. Many in the Ashkenazi Hasidic community speak Yiddish alongside or even opposed to Hebrew.
Close adherence to Jewish practice dominates the Haredi way of life. This results in the general social seclusion of the Haredi community, as their religious practices compel them to avoid “immoral” activities of secular society. The result of this seclusion is that Haredi Jews’ overall consumption of media is far less than that of other Israels. Only 5.3% of Haredi Jews watch television, 46% do not listen to radio, and one third do not read any newspapers. Only 31% of Haredi household have an internet connection compared to 79% of the rest of the population (Cohen 2017; Evans 2011). While many in the Haredi community use cell phones, smart phones are uncommon.
The underlying reason why Haredim avoid mainstream media is that secular media can contain content that is offensive, “immoral,” or otherwise incompatible with the religious practices and values of Haredim. However there are other reasons such as secular media failing to cover issues that important or relevant to Haredim, or being regarded as being a “distraction” from religious obligations (Evans 2011).
In order to protect the Haredi community from the secular influences of mass media while satisfying demand for news media within their own communities, the religious and political leaders of the Israeli Haredi community established alternative outlets intended for Haredi audiences. The first Haredi papers, Hamodia and Yated Neeman, were instituted by and remain affiliated with Haredi political parties. Since the eighties, following a general trend in Israeli media, these have been joined by independently owned outlets such as Mishpacha and Ba-Kheilla (Cohen; Evans). The first Haredi radio stations Kol Chai and Kol Berama were established in 1995 and 2009 respectively.
Haredi news media focus on issues relevant to the Haredi community, while presenting general news in accordance with Haredi religious norms. As a result these outlets engage in high levels of censorship; the papers do not publish any content that their rabbinical boards deem to be in violation of their religious standards (ibid.). Sports, gossip, and crime are generally not discussed in these outlets, while references to sex are extremely restricted (ibid). Notably, images of women are forbidden in Haredi newspapers. During the 2016 US Presidential Election, it was a major concern within the Haredi community that the papers would not be able to show any images of the President of the United States if Hillary Clinton became president (CJR). Words or concepts that are deemed inappropriate are often substituted. In 2015 when an ultra-orthodox man stabbed six people at a Jerusalem gay pride parade, Haredi news outlets referred to the parade as “abomination parade” (Forward).” While editors of Haredi news outlets are responsible for ensuring that their content is “kosher,” Haredi journalists themselves engage in high levels of self-censorship, choosing what topics to cover and what wording to use in accordance with the norms of their community. In cases where a topic that would not normally be covered is of such importance that it must be, Haredi outlets will often leave out specific details that refer to the immoral act. For example, when President of Israel Moshe Katzav resigned over charges of rape in 2007, Haredi outlets merely referred to “criminal charges” or “suspicions” as being the cause for the resignation. Haredi radio stations broadcast the news conference in which he announced his resignation only after all mentions of sexual activity were edited out. (Cohen; Evans). This censorship conducted by the Haredi press, rather than being imposed unwillingly on the Haredi community, is accepted and demanded. For example, in 1990, Yated Neeman was stirred in controversy after it published an article that contained the word, “rape,” with many Haredi readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions (Evans).
There are slight differences between the practices of various Haredi outlets. Newspapers tied to political parties will give more time to feats of that party, associated rabbis, or movements or candidacies that they support. Independent papers may be more critical of the Haredi parties than the establishment outlets and more open to gossip pieces (Cohen). Haredi radio stations generally consult with rabbis more closely than the independent newspapers, and, being publicly funded radio stations, are bound to different sets of broadcasting laws. Haredi websites such as Kikar Shabbat and B’Hadrei Haredim while still geared towards a Haredi audience, do not subject themselves to strict rabbinical oversight. Dealing with a Haredi audience more comfortable with the internet, they are generally laxer in terms of censorship. They are generally more willing to cover gossip such as Haredi party infighting, and offer Haredim a relatively uncensored news source. Kikar Shabbat even has pictures of women (Coehn).
The Haredi Press serves two main functions: The first is to provide Haredim with “information they should be thinking about and protecting it from information that may be contrary to the desired
moral values” (Evans, 246). Secondly it is to influence and direct the political activity of Israel’s Haredi community which constitute a powerful voting bloc in Israeli communities. Haredi outlets (especially those tied to political parties) may publish articles in support of a particular candidate, policy agenda, or encouraging Haredim to participate in a certain political activity (such as protesting against ending Haredi exemption from compulsory military service) (Evans; Times of Israel).
The interplay of religion and media in Haredi media outlets results in a situation where both the producers and consumers of information uphold a paradigm of censorship. At first glance this would appear problematic in that it keeps Haredim ignorant of the world around them to a certain extent. However the result it is not necessarily a bad thing. Self isolation has been core to the Haredi way of life since the time of the European shtetls. By allowing Haredi access to news media in a way that is agreeable to their religious practices and sensitivities, Haredi news media allow the Haredi community to access and engage with the outside world through means that they otherwise would have avoided altogether.