Jerusalem Haredi phone store destroyed in fire; owner claims foul play

Itzhak Deri says shop was set ablaze due to his refusal to stop selling a certain device deemed ‘non-kosher’ by some rabbis

View of a cellular shop that was allegedly set on fire early Sunday, in the ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem, October 2, 2022. (Yonathan Sindel/Flash90)
View of a cellular shop that was allegedly set on fire early Sunday, in the ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem, October 2, 2022. (Yonathan Sindel/Flash90)

A cellphone store in Jerusalem was gutted by fire overnight Sunday, with the shop’s owner claiming it was a deliberate attack over for his refusal to stop selling a certain device considered by some to be “non-kosher.”

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, use “kosher” phones — either older devices that lack internet access or smartphones with restricted access to certain websites, apps and features like social media and texting — on the advice of rabbis.

The issue and its regulation are largely controlled by a body called the Rabbinic Committee for Communications, which holds strong leverage over the “kosher” cellphone business across the country, as well as powerful tools that have societal and commercial effects.

Sunday’s fire erupted at a store called Kosher Phone, located in the ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood in the capital, where similar incidents have been reported before, especially at stores that have refused to cooperate with the committee.

While authorities have yet to determine whether the fire was the result of arson or of an accident, the shop’s owner is certain he was targeted by extremists after recently losing a certificate provided by the rabbinic committee.

Owner Itzhak Deri, 26, said he used to work closely with the committee and adhere to its instructions. But lately, his refusal to stop selling a Xiaomi smartphone deemed by the committee as “non-kosher” meant losing a certificate issued by the committee and widely accepted by the community as necessary for operating cellphone stores in Haredi neighborhoods.

“It was relatively quiet here lately,” Deri told the Ynet news site, “until a kosher inspector decided he was taking my certificate away.”

“Three weeks ago,” he said, “a kosher inspector sent on behalf of the Rabbinic Committee for Communications stopped by and said he was taking away my certificate because he believed I was selling ‘non-kosher’ phones.”

On Sunday, he received a text message from an employee notifying him that the shop was on fire. “I got there as fast as I could,” he said.

No injuries were reported in the incident, but the store was destroyed.

A statement by the Fire and Rescue Authority said the blaze had caused damage to several adjacent stores. The statement did not indicate what may have caused the conflagration.

Police opened an investigation into the incident.

Haredi Jews make up 12.6 percent of Israel’s population, or 16% of Israeli Jews, and are one of the country’s fastest-growing communities. And though the term actually refers to several diverse sects and denominations, all Haredim are united in their adherence to Jewish law in all aspects of their lives and their utter rejection of Western sensibilities. Rabbis learned in the law provide rulings on everything from modesty requirements for women to personal health to marital relations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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