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What the Sold-Out Ultra-Orthodox Anti-Internet Rally Was About

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From Motherboard:

“What do you think this is about?” was the question that bounced back when I asked the same of Sruly, a smiling, bespectacled twenty-something Hasidic student and erstwhile packer and shipper from Williamsburg. We were on the G train, on our way to what may have been the largest “anti-Internet” rally in history, held last Sunday at Citi Field in Queens, home to the Mets. It wasn’t hard to detect his skepticism about talking to a journalist, especially given how the asifa, organized by Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane, or the Unification of the Communities for the Purification of the Camp, had been portrayed in the media: as a backwards rally against the future, a farcical and confused debate over an unavoidable technology, a sign of the olden days’ fear of the new, a call to put an end to Internet masturbation, a giant meet-up for the Haredi patriarchy (only men were invited, as providing a separate section for women would have been too problematic).

Sruly was getting a feel for an outsider — the sort of person who, admittedly, browses the Internet wantonly, without any filters, on his cell phone even, getting distracted this way and that by an unending stream of links that are full of schmutz and have nothing to do with the only valid reason for the Internet: strictly business, of course.

“Distractions, Jewish, non-Jewish, that’s for everyone,” Sruly says. “But the problem is that whatever a person sees goes into his body, goes into his brain. Whatever you see, you comprehend something you’re allowed to do. You can see the worst of the worst. Whoever doesn’t need it shouldn’t have it and whomever does need it should use it as little possible.”

Television, with all of its pop culture lewdness had already been banned, he pointed out; but using the Internet was necessary for business, and therein lied the rub, and, he said, the reason for this rally — not a protest, not an anti-Internet event — just a coming-together of various sects within Ultra-Orthodox Judaism to discuss one of the biggest bugaboos of its time: how to ensure the Internet is kept kosher, and only used for business — not for gossip, not for learning, not for, ahem, pleasure. “Sure, sometimes friends will send me jokes by text message, but I have to write back and tell them, ‘sorry, this isn’t why I have a phone.’”

By the time we squeezed into the above-ground train car, Sruly already had his phone out and slid open, so he could find out where his friends were on their own trips to the stadium. A bus broke down on the BQE, he reported, and a busload full of Hasidic Jews were now marching along the highway, hoping to get picked up by one of the other hundreds of buses ferrying some 50,000 attendees to the home of the Mets. An older man nearby me pulled a phone from his coat to survey Twitter for news; people were gathering in parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey and Israel to watch the event on simulcast, streaming via Internet.

The event had already become the butt of jokes and the target of ridicule — on the Internet of course — and so concern about outsiders had transmuted into a kind of low-level paranoia.

Photo: Getty Images

Sruly, however, was happy to talk about the dangers of the Internet and the need for restrictions — he doesn’t own a computer, relying instead on the computers at the local library, where you have 30 minutes of use time and are surrounded by others who can see what you’re looking at. We happily walked and talked up to the stadium entrance, where we were suddenly interrupted by a spokesman who noticed I was of the media and, speaking rapidly, insisted that I put any questions I had to him. We outsiders — a reporter from The New York Times, the Awl, even the Jewish Daily Forward — may as well have been the Internet.

Because of “homeland security,” the media was not permitted inside the stadium, and the event’s 40,000 tickets, along with those for a simulcast at Arthur Ashe stadium nearby, were sold-out. In the crowd outside the stadium entrance, men were handing out fliers about the risks of the Internet, while others were taking the opportunity to gather petitions for Jacob Ostreicher, an Orthodox Jew who had been sentenced to prison in Bolivia. Scalpers were few, and prices were hovering around $40. I managed to buy a ticket at face value of $10 from another reporter but, when I tried to enter, the ticket scanner rejected it.

The spokesman looked exhausted as he declaimed the problems of the Internet to a group of reporters and attendees. I introduced myself to a man named Yakov, who wore a kippa but no beard and had been speaking animatedly in Yiddish to a couple of other men. He said he didn’t want to speak on camera, but he had a familiar question for me: what did I think was really going on here? I told him something reasonable and honest — the Internet is a new force, a source of distraction, and it deserved some kind of public discussion, though I had never heard of anything like this — and he shook his head no. The Internet, he explained, is full of “wrong” and misleading information that could harm the community, echoing the event’s refrain. He knew: “I began using it in the days of AOL and Compuserve.”

The best approach, he said, was the one he practiced: white labeling — effectively blocking the web but for only a certain list of sites. Along with “Internet accountability” – giving your rabbi access to your web history – web and phone filters were a popular tool among attendees I spoke to. Indeed, rumors had circulated that the rabbinical group behind the event has links to a software company that sells filtering software. Also awkward: the speculation, circulating online, that one of the largest donors for the $1.5 million event was the owner of B&H Photo and Video, one of the city’s largest electronics retailers. A planned exhibition of products was cancelled at the last minute.

In an article published online in early May, the organizing group said they had opened technology offices in various Ultra-Orthodox communities as well as a hotline that will “enable locals to obtain advice on specific devices and filters or modify them to block undesired material, at no cost.”

At one point, as thousands of men were streaming into the stadium and a police helicopter hovered overhead, we were interrupted by an older man in a long coat and scraggly beard who began singing, in a loud, comic baritone, “we are Jewwwwwwwwws!” Our camera captured this. Yakov stared at the man, then at Josh, the Motherboard cameraman, then back at me. He shook his head again, this time more sternly. “This is a misrepresentation of what we’re doing here! This is not what this is about!”

But that's also what this was about: not just a fear of pornography, but a concern about presentation and perception -- the creeping suspicion that information could not be controlled, that the Internet was importing, copying and pasting, all sorts of things from the outside world that the community had spent so many decades trying to keep at bay. This was understandable. And it wasn’t hard to agree with the most basic message: the Internet is an always-on firehose of misinformation, useless information and distraction, a phantom-vibrating font of knowledge that parents, religious and non-religious, should allow their kids to see only in measured doses, and should probably wrangle in for their own media diets too.

The Internet was a distraction from the Torah, but it also threw open the door to the outside world, where lewdness and heresy abound. “I heard quite a few times this wishful thinking from Haredim,” a Jewish man I met at the rally told me, “that once you start talking frivolously to a shiksa, 15 minutes later you’ll end up having sex with her.”

Read the rest and see photos at at Motherboard.