Anti-Internet Rally Yields Cacophony of Voices
Amid the din of choppers circling overhead and the number 7 trains hurtling into the CitiField station, the only voices even more discordant were those of the rally and anti-rally “Internet is Not the Problem” attendees. When asked why they were there, almost as many different reasons were cited as the number of their exponents. Among the people we interviewed two were dressed haredi and supported the main rally, one wore a yarmulke but buzzed about among the counter-protesters. Three others appeared to be overtly non-religious and some even reveled in their having successfully escaped the haredi fold.
An additional counter-rally –whose participants were dressed as cavemen and were not necessarily Jewish– was held nearby. They demanded that haredim make up their mind: if they choose to reject the Internet and technology “let them not wear cotton clothing and drive in technological cars”, as one of their lot put it.
The stated purpose of the rally, to curb inappropriate Internet use among haredi members, mattered little to most of the individuals we surveyed. They utilized the spotlight to voice their individual opinions and express their disparate values regarding the latest challenges facing the haredi community and those who have left in recent years.
Avi Burstein, wearing a yarmulke like many others in the counter-rally crowd, argued that the rally was a misplacement of priorities. Acknowledging that Internet filtering and other guards may indeed be appropriate for the haredi community, he asked why the community was investing so many resources in Internet control while simultaneously ignoring the more pressing concern of child sexual molestation. Even more suspicious, he added, is the fact that Internet was the medium responsible for bringing sex abuse to the fore.
Watch HN Interview with Avi Burstein
“Ten years ago before the Internet there was no concern about sex abuse, but now people are talking about it, so we feel that a lot of the anti Internet effort is really trying to stifle the discussion”, he said, adding that the Rabbis are curtailing Internet access because they feel that in general it poses a challenge to their concentrated authority by allowing community members to express their dissatisfaction with the system and its leaders. He cited FailedMassiah.com as an example of a dissenting, muckraking voice in the community that is largely responsible for uncovering many of the sex abuse incidents but has been named a rekhilut (gossip) and lashon hara (defamation) website by community leaders and blacklisted by some of the haredi Internet filtering companies.
Sara Erenthal, a young woman who grew up in a fanatical Neture Karta household and subsequently left the community in the late 90′s, agreed that the resources should have been allocated to sexual molestation programming instead. Ms. Erenthal, whose photo was featured on the front page of the NYT Metro section last week in its coverage of the Weberman rally, said “I’m here to defend my friends, my family members and myself, who have been abused by the system — physical abuse and mental abuse. Look at this stadium filled with black and whites. Why are they here? They rented out this frickin place for like three billion or like three trillion –I’m joking, million– dollars when there are so many problems in the community. Why don’t they put the money where the money really needs to go, to so many abused, to so many victims.”
Wtach HN Interview with Sara Erenthal
For others, among the “Internet is not the Problem” demonstrators the issue was a lack of proper secular education in the Haredi community. Naftuli Moster, founder of YAFFED, whose mission is to champion the cause of better education in haredi schools, was seen holding up a poster and chanting the slogan “education, not molestation”. He declined to be interviewed. Shulem Deen, founder of unpious.com was seen participating passionately in the counter rally, even engaging Haredim across the street in polemics. He too declined to be interviewed. (Read his recollection of quips from of the event).
The narrower issue of sex abuse was completely lost on still other, less wonkish, members in the crowd who were proud to declare themselves out of the haredi bubble altogether. Max Moster explained why he was there: “I came with a bunch of friends who said they were going to a rally against religious people. I’m not against anybody really; I think anybody can do whatever they want. If I have to choose where to go I’d rather be with my people that I go around with.” contentedly adding that “I’m happy to see myself having changed to this lifestyle –it’s amazing. I could have been standing there like a fool praying to hashem (God). Right now I’m here with my friends in my shorts.” said Mr. Moster, a brother of Naftuli Moster and regular host to popular Friday night parties to like-minded individuals in Brooklyn.
Watch HN Interview with Max Moster
Shauli Grossman spoke in a similar vein but preferred to emphasize the bold social progress made in recent years by those who have left the community, many of whom participated in the counter rally. “The point is we’re actually doing something. Two years ago if you wanted to go to college it was hell. You had no one to talk to and to associate with.” said Mr. Grossman who along with his girlfriend Perry Reich are cast member of the reality TV show “Shunned”, currently in pre-production.
Not all haredim corralled themselves on stadium grounds. Some came out to the protesters to engage them in conversation. One such man identified himself as Yanky Schnitzer, 43. He said he was a regular worshiper at the Kremnitz shul in Hews Street, Williamsburg but insisted that he was an “International Hasid” (that is, unaffiliated). His chief concern was that “the youth was falling away from the community because of the Internet and all kinds of things like this”.
Asked about about the sexual abuse issue, he cited an unattributed statistic that “three out of four women and two out of four men” are molested in the general population, as proof that it is no more an issue in the haredi community than elsewhere. Since prisons were already overflowing with inmates and they were, at any rate, ineffective at rehabilitating criminals, Mr. Schnitzer argued that the best approach to dealing with sex abuse incidents is to refer the matter to rabbanim. ”Nobody’s getting the message [of the protesters]. Take the victims to the Rabbis. There are Rabbis who would do something. People are ready to make changes… I’m ready to go with the victims to the Rabbis… you’re making a hilul hashem (profanation of God’s name)” he pleaded.
Labeling the dollop of protesters osgeshpigene hevrah, meshugaim and meturafim (rejected folks, eccentrics and lunatics) and contrasting them with the 60,000 happy and successful members of the community in the main rally, he contended that “most of these people are not victims of molesting, they’re victims of the Internet”.
The solution, in Mr. Schnitzer’s opinion, is turn back the clock on technology. Reminiscing how his father, a Torah scribe, foresaw the disaster technology would wreak back in the 80′s when he wisely decried the new computerized proofing of Torah scrolls, he argued for the elimination of technology altogether. “Computers is the problem for the whole world; we’re becoming robots”, he said.
Watch HN Interview with Yanky Schnitzer
The Cavemen –whose derision is usually directed against the Church of Scientology but today were protesting the haredi anti-Internet rally– agreed, oddly, with this radical view. According to a representative of the Cavemen at the protest: “we, being from the Internet and the Internet generation are saying: hey, if you’re gonna go ahead and do that [censor the Internet] go the whole nine yards. Forget all technology and go back to caveman times.”
Watch HN Interview with Cavemen
Mr. Grossman disagreed with Mr. Schnitzers juxtaposition of the large numbers of the main rally attendees vs. the puny numbers of the protesters. He argued that “many more from the Haredi community would have been in the protest rally if they weren’t afraid of retaliation and social isolation: “I got a ton of people calling me and telling me ‘I support you but we have kids in the mosdos [institutions]‘. Now there’s a voice to all these people who say I have kids in the mosdos but I would have [supported you]“. Contrasting the deliberate move protesters made to critique the system with the lackadaisical attendance of the rally by the haredi masses, he added: each person here took time from his day to come, not like a bunch of Yeshiva bahurim (lads) packed in the bus and told ‘let’s go’.
Deborah Feldman, bestselling New York Times author of Unorthodox, showed up at the protest rally unexpectedly with who appeared to be her boyfriend. In a chat with a New York Times reporter who was mingling with the protesters Ms. Feldman was ecstatic about the loud, uninhibited stance the protesters were taking. “The trend of speaking up isn’t gone. It’s a storm, a tidal wave. I’m not the only one, not the first, not the last; I’m just part of the wave” she exclaimed triumphantly.
The most lucid and informed expose in support of the Anti-Internet rally was articulated by Yoely Katz, a handsome and intelligent young melamed (teacher) in Lakewood with splendidly perfect sidecurls, whom we buttonholed at the entrance to the stadium. He explained at length how tight regulation and censorship of the Internet is self-imposed by community members to guard against inappropriate lascivious impulses and their easy satisfaction through online channels. For a young adolescent who grapples with burgeoning sexual impulses, the Internet is just too tempting too resist. “Even if you don’t want it, you get pulled in”, he cautioned. The sensible solution, therefore, is self-censorship in accordance with guidance by the Rabbis.
When asked whether the Internet posed an ideological hazard through exposure to heretical content, he firmly dismissed it as a component in what “our leaders are concerned about”. He explained that his life was “totally unaffiliated with the Internet… the Yiddishkeit that is provided to us is a very healthy balance, a very enjoyable way.”
He added that he read Deborah Feldman’s book (whose name he mistook for “Untraditional”) but was unmoved. “What I see is a child coming from a disturbed home, an extremely unhappy child. For us, every shul is like a little bar. The only way we survive is by creating our own entertainment”.
Watch HN Interview with Yoely Katz
Indeed, the very rally itself was arguably just such a form of entertainment. In casual discussions and exit surveys with rally attendees many openly admitted that they were going for the sheer spectacle of it.