Reclaiming the ultra-Orthodox narrative, one Facebook ‘like’ at a time

A subversive ensemble of Haredi volunteers takes to social media and court to oppose negative media portrayals

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Dosim volunteers in Gan Sacher on Memorial Day (screen capture: Youtube)
Dosim volunteers in Gan Sacher on Memorial Day (screen capture: Youtube)

On the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day, a Channel 2 journalist – tasked with an annual media ritual as familiar to Israeli viewers as the radio’s mournful playlist and the TV’s ongoing stories of heroism and loss – spotted a group of white-and-black clad ultra-Orthodox men huddled around a barbecue on the sprawling lawns of Jerusalem’s Sacher Park.

Gearing up to record a segment on the Haredi desecration of the national holiday, as evidenced by the insolent celebratory dinner coinciding with the memorial siren, the cameraman slowly discerned that instead of coals, the grill was loaded with lit memorial candles, the group was fervently reciting Psalms, and the area was festooned with fliers and a large banner reading: “Stop the incitement! Dosim commemorate differently.”

The stunt, devised by the two-year-old Dosim organization and coordinated by a group of some 100 volunteers, is the latest of the group’s subversive attempts to undercut what it says is the negative representation of the ultra-Orthodox in the media. Part informal think tank, part grassroots organization, intent on raising awareness and voicing dissent via social media campaigns, Dosim has made waves since its inception – boasting changes in legislation, and large-scale social media effects.

But it is primarily its distinctly self-aware, tongue-in-cheek style that has proved an effective way to draw attention and catch viewers off guard. It starts with the organization’s name — a reference to a semi-derogatory term for the ultra-Orthodox, culled from the exaggerated Ashkenazic pronunciation of the word “dati,” religious. And if the surprised and discomfited stare of a passerby asked for directions to the Dosim office is any indication, the title is successfully jarring.

Shmuel Drilman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shmuel Drilman (photo credit: Courtesy)

“That’s part of our way of thinking,” the director of Dosim, Shmuel Drilman, says. “We take a harsh statement and mitigate it.”

Drilman, a social media professional, says the organization was established as a direct response to a 2011 incident at a modern Orthodox school in Beit Shemesh, in which an ultra-Orthodox man spat on 8-year-old Naama Margolese.

While the organization fiercely condemns the incident itself, the media uproar that ensued signified a “turning point in the [fracture] between Haredim and the secular,” Drilman says. More importantly, as later revealed by a blogger, the Israeli press was first introduced to the Beit Shemesh conflict via press release. Riding off of that information, Drilman decided to adopt traditional PR strategies as well to shape up the image of the Haredi community — albeit never to defend those who spit at little girls, he maintains.

“We decided, okay, if there are parties utilizing PR against us; let’s try a bit to help, to balance it out, through our [own] efforts,” Drilman says.

While the group has seen a positive shift in the media’s treatment of the ultra-Orthodox since it began, “When we started the project, there was this feeling that we were about to lose our legitimacy to be here, as citizens. That’s why we founded the project, and this is what we are fighting for,” he explains.

Dosim does not have an institutional definition of “incitement.” It tackles incidents of generally derisive comments on the community on a case-by-case basis, and aims to clarify misinformation about its political or economic standing and religious practices.

Most recently, when an Army Radio guest star recently called the ultra-Orthodox “bland,” and “smelly,” and the host suggested it was due to their matzo ball consumption, Dosim activists stood outside of the studios handing out matzo balls. Referring to the campaign, Drilman insists that “it’s not that we can’t take a joke, it’s just that some jokes create social delegitimization.”;

Dosim volunteers distribute matzo balls outside of Army Radio (photo credit: Dosim/Courtesy)
Dosim volunteers distribute matzo balls outside of Army Radio (photo credit: Dosim/Courtesy)

In a separate campaign, when the left-wing Meretz party published the slogan “Together, we will halt the Haredization,” as part of the local elections campaign in Jerusalem, the group responded with an online campaign called “Together, we will halt the racism,” which urged users to petition Meretz and garnered the support of various MKs, including Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich. Dosim’s website also features articles critiquing research and media reports about the ultra-Orthodox, and job listings tailored to the community’s religious standards.

Tzipi Yarom, a software engineer and energetic mother of three who does much of the organization’s research and data analysis, is adamant that the group does not attempt to represent the broader Haredi population.

“We are not the community representatives,” she says. “We are a group of young Haredim who are fed up, who are speaking for themselves, and are simply fighting or attempting to create positive things as well, not only in the combative sense.” Among the volunteers, there is much disagreement on most issues, she says, but ultimately they band together to launch their campaigns.

Drilman, too, denies Dosim is the mouthpiece of the ultra-Orthodox. “We don’t do public advocacy; we are not the spokespeople of the Haredi world,” he said. “We would never justify any Haredi injustice, or any Beit Shemesh spitting [incidents].”

Tzipi Yarom (photo credit: Dosim/Courtesy)
Tzipi Yarom (photo credit: Dosim/Courtesy)

Both Drilman and Yarom insist that the media’s negative portrayal of the ultra-Orthodox is not representative of Israeli society. The two cite a recently published survey on anti-Haredi sentiment, widely publicized in the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha magazine, that unraveled notions about the secular views of a community that has long felt itself the subject of national contempt.

“I don’t think there is hatred among the people; the survey in central Israel proved the people don’t hate,” Drilman said. Rather, the bulk of the damaging exposure in the press results from ignorance, journalistic unprofessionalism, and the knowledge that a story that prominently features the ultra-Orthodox caught in the wrong will garner a great amount of exposure, he said.

Social media and the Haredim

The Dosim project – with its over 8,500 Facebook likes — also points to an increased number of young ultra-Orthodox Israelis engaging with social media to advance their social and political cause, in a community where recreational internet use is largely frowned upon. In launching the project, the Dosim volunteers consulted with a rabbi to confirm that the project falls within the realm of the socially permissible, and were surprised to note that they were granted relative freedom to proceed as they wish. For the volunteers, this lenient approach, which Drilman calls “a very, very long rope,” and Yarom qualifies as a “kosher certification,” is due in part to their use of social media within the confines of “work.”

While many volunteers consult their individual rabbis as various issues arise, the project itself has a rabbi on staff.

Yarom describes closing her own Facebook profile after becoming “fed up,” and opening a new one under a pseudonym exclusively to keep track of the projects. “Oh, so finally you can confirm male [friend requests,]” Drillman says. “No!” she responds forcefully. “I will not open [it up] to male [friendships].” Pausing, she adds with a smile, “I just don’t want to see you on my feed.”

“Ah, that I understand,” Drillman replies good-humoredly.

The viral Dosim "equality sign" (photo credit: Dosim/Courtesy)
The viral Dosim “equality sign” (photo credit: Dosim/Courtesy)

In its most far-reaching online campaign to date, the group encouraged users to change their Facebook profile pictures to the equality sign in black-yellow-and-white (the Dosim colors) last December, in protest of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s statement that the ultra-Orthodox should not receive additional employment benefits, because “they don’t want to work.” The campaign, which reached an estimated “hundreds of thousands,” according to Drilman, also saw the ultra-Orthodox news website Kikar HaShabat change its logo in solidarity.

The project also has six or seven volunteer attorneys filing incitement complaints on behalf of the group. One notable petition that was approved allowed ultra-Orthodox IDF soldiers to participate in the “March of a Million” anti-enlistment prayer rally last March, overturning army protocol that forbids soldiers from engaging in any political activity.

Looking inward, looking forward

While Dosim refrains from dealing with internal ultra-Orthodox reform, it nonetheless engages in group introspection periodically. “We sit together and think, why do they see us this way, what’s not okay?” Drillman says.

“And those conversations are the most monstrous,” Yarom interjects.

While these discussions are inevitably dropped so as not to “lose the internal consensus,” Drilman also insists that regardless of any internal issues the community has, the incitement against Haredim is inexcusable.

With regard to repeated statements against the government, or Nazi parallels, emanating occasionally from the Haredi sector, Drilman stresses that “of course there is no justification.” With that, Drilman says, “One must remember that the government is actively fighting against the basic rights of the Haredi community members, and therefore draws much opposition.”

Looking ahead, he hopes to see the day that the organization becomes obsolete and Dosim can shutter its doors.

With the self-deprecating attitude that characterizes their activities and persists on the personal level, Drilman and Yarom turn to the volunteer who pops his head in the door, late. “Shirker, all you Haredim are shirkers,” Yarom calls playfully. He introduces Benny, who coordinated the protest outside of Army Radio headquarters. “Do you have any matzo balls? I’m so in the mood.”

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