Communications minister dials back ‘kosher phone’ reforms opposed by ultra-Orthodox

After meeting with Haredi faction heads, Likud’s Karhi scraps moves aimed at integrating internet-less phones into wider telecoms market, delays plan to phase out 2G, 3G service

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi at the Knesset on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi at the Knesset on January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

New Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi announced Tuesday after meeting with Haredi party faction heads that he will be canceling the previous government’s reforms aimed at integrating ultra-Orthodox consumers into the broader cellphone market.

The reforms had dealt with so-called “kosher phones” used by many in the ultra-Orthodox community who shun unfiltered access to the internet. Kosher phones are stripped of features such as web browsers and messaging apps, come with cheaper plans as they are only used six days of the week, and have phone numbers with distinct digits that differentiate them from regular smartphone users.

Karhi’s predecessor Yoaz Hendel had implemented a reform that made it possible for kosher phone plan holders to keep their personal phone number when moving between cell phone companies, and also passed regulations so sim cards used in kosher phones could also be used in regular phones.

Previous regulations would have led to the user’s kosher phone package being invalidated by such a move.

The reforms were vehemently opposed by Haredi lawmakers, who claimed Hendel was trying to impose a more modern way of life on the ultra-Orthodox community. It led to several massive riots by Haredi extremists, who torched electronic stores in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak where ordinary cell phones were being sold.

In his statement announcing the roll-back of Hendel’s reforms, Karhi stressed his determination to hold a “respectful” conversation with the ultra-Orthodox political leadership in contrast to his predecessor’s attempt to “force a change of lifestyle on an entire community.”

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel visits the Museum of Antiquities in Gush Etzion, December 8, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/FLASH90)

The reversal is the latest instance of Israel’s new hardline government, dominated by the far-right and ultra-Orthodox, rolling back reforms passed by the previous government opposed by the Haredi community. On Sunday, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich instructed ministry officials to roll back tax hikes on single-use plasticware and sweetened drinks, staples of many Haredi homes, as his first act in office.

In his meeting with United Torah Judaism’s Yitzhak Goldknopf and Moshe Gafni along with Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, Karhi also discussed ongoing effort to phase out 2G and 3G devices to make room for more 4G and 5G cell towers.

Hendel’s reforms would have shuttered 2G and 3G service starting this week, hampering kosher phones which mostly rely on the low-bandwidth networks.

Karhi announced that the move to 4G and 5G would continue, but the deactivation of 2G and 3G devices would be delayed six months to give more time for ultra-Orthodox users to make the switch.

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