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Communications minister faces Haredi backlash after easing kosher phone rules

New law will allow consumers to switch plans, choose their own level of content restriction, without rabbinic supervision, as of July 31

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

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel decided Sunday to loosen restrictions on kosher cellphone plans and open up the market for so-called kosher lines, sparking a backlash from ultra-Orthodox leaders.

Many Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, use “kosher” phones — devices on which social media, texting, and most other apps are blocked — on the advice of rabbis, and the phone numbers associated with such devices and lines are easily identifiable.

The new reforms will allow full number mobility on kosher lines, meaning all kosher phone users over the age of 18 will be able to retain their original phone numbers even if they transfer to a new service provider and begin using a fully capable smartphone — something strongly opposed by many rabbinic authorities because it will limit oversight.

The group in charge of the kosher phone services is known as the Rabbinic Committee for Communications, which holds strong leverage over the kosher cellphone business, as well as powerful tools that have societal and commercial effects.

Kosher phone numbers are distinct, and have specific digits following the company’s prefix, so that until now, if someone called from a phone service not approved by the rabbinic committee, it was immediately apparent that the caller did not have a supervised phone number and device and was flouting rabbinic-approved community-wide norms.

After a hearing held at the Communications Ministry on Sunday, Hendel moved ahead with allowing full mobility for kosher lines. The reform, which was first floated last month, will take effect on July 31.

Under the new plan, companies will be able to offer content restriction according to the consumer’s request. The Communications Ministry said it expects that the opening of the Haredi cellular market to competition will encourage companies to offer services at competitive prices and will spur the establishment of additional kosher bodies that will benefit consumers.

Leading up to the announcement of the decision on Sunday, ultra-Orthodox leaders voiced strong opposition to the reform. Many argued that allowing people to switch their numbers with supervised prefixes to a non-supervised cellphone service would compromise the ability of institutions in the Haredi community to maintain oversight over their members.

The head of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, Moshe Gafni, attacked Hendel on Sunday on Kol Chai radio.

“Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel is trying to harm the lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox public,” Gafni charged, claiming Hendel had refused to meet with a group of rabbis on Sunday.

A teacher holding up his cellular phone certificating that it is a ‘kosher’ one, at the entrance to at an Ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“I decided to allow the mobility of numbers, even for ultra-Orthodox citizens,” Hendel wrote on Twitter following the decision. “The role of a minister in government is to make decisions — even when there are those who oppose it — for the good of the state and not for the good of a power group or a sector.”

“Today we are correcting a consumer tort that has harmed half a million customers in the ultra-Orthodox community, and shifting the power from the activists to the consumers,” he said.

Protests in Jerusalem over the new plan for kosher phone lines have at times spilled into violence. Haredi protesters have also rioted against the opening of non-kosher phone stores in their neighborhoods.

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