Israel Pulse

Israeli ultra-Orthodox journalists in love with Twitter

Article Summary
Ultra-Orthodox journalists explain that the use of Twitter opened up their world to the general Israeli society, breaking several stigmas and misunderstandings.

Ultra-Orthodox journalists are increasingly dominating Twitter. What started as a marginal phenomenon has become over the past year a broad one, with growth in the number of ultra-Orthodox tweeters and the number of followers among the general public. The influence of ultra-Orthodox journalists on general discourse on the popular social media platform has also grown. The phenomenon is especially prominent in the current election cycle, in the course of which ultra-Orthodox journalists and politicians have been updating, and sometimes breaking, news from the sector, but also from outside it. 

Aryeh Ehrlich, editor at Mishpacha newspaper, is one of the pioneering ultra-Orthodox journalists on Twitter. He set up his account in February 2013 and has amassed more than 29,000 followers. “When I opened my [Twitter] account I was one of the first ultra-Orthodox journalists on this medium,” he told Al-Monitor. “In the beginning there were quite a few tweeters who asked me if it’s acceptable in the ultra-Orthodox community [to be on Twitter]. Today there’s nothing more natural. The deputy mayor of Jerusalem — ultra-Orthodox Yossi Daitsh — has an active Twitter account. Chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party Aryeh Deri is also an active Twitter user.”

Journalist Shimon Breitkopf, who has 11,000 followers, believes that the ultra-Orthodox presence on the social media platform shatters stigmas and myths. “Twitter has shown that the ultra-Orthodox are like everyone else,” he told Al-Monitor. “There are ridiculous people, there are brilliant people and there are those who don’t get jokes. Twitter has humanized the ultra-Orthodox, who have always been presented [in Israeli society] as a stereotype. In my opinion, this is important especially on Twitter, since it is a key medium for journalists and public opinion shapers. Those who are hurt by the phenomenon are journalists [who report] on ultra-Orthodox affairs at the main media organizations — those who flourished in the 1990s but in recent years have lost their primacy. Now you no longer have to have heroic courage to infiltrate the community as a journalist in order to document what’s happening in [Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of] Me’ah She’arim. Me’ah She’arim is on Twitter.”

“You could say that the best way to get to know the ultra-Orthodox world, relatively speaking of course, is through Twitter,” said Yerach Toker, a public relations expert with 25,000 followers and the spokesman for Knesset member Moshe Gafni [Yahadut HaTorah]. “Before the era of Twitter, there was a phenomenon of [secular] ultra-Orthodox affairs journalists. Today we hardly see this phenomenon. Even on TV talk shows where there’s a relevant topic, they bring ultra-Orthodox people and not analysts on ultra-Orthodox affairs. In my opinion, Twitter is responsible for this to some extent. The ultra-Orthodox tell about themselves in a much more authentic and reliable way, and they have their own voice. There’s no longer a need for someone to mediate them to Israeli society. Today when you want to know about the ultra-Orthodox, you just follow them on Twitter.” 

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He added, "This medium has almost entirely eliminated incitement against the ultra-Orthodox that came out of ignorance. There had been quite a few reports in the media that suffered from glaring distortion. I immediately tweeted about it and the media outlets understood their mistake and fixed it. We are a kind of first aid.”

Ehrlich also bolsters the argument that he and his friends render ultra-Orthodox affairs journalists redundant. “Journalists on ultra-Orthodox affairs have a questionable record of disseminating inflammatory, false and distorted information about the ultra-Orthodox,” he noted. “That’s the reason my ultra-Orthodox colleagues and I have issued a call to boycott the program 'True Face' by reporter on ultra-Orthodox affairs Amnon Levy, where we say ‘Stop the voyeurism and the hate — reveal the true face.’”

Ehrlich added, “Levy is one of those former ultra-Orthodox affairs journalists who have seen the ultra-Orthodox as perfect material for anthropological productions. He has led a series of voyeuristic and humiliating projects about the ultra-Orthodox. If for years this has gone over quietly, in the era of Twitter it’s done. We have stopped turning the other cheek.”

Levy rejects these claims, and said, “Ultra-Orthodox journalists are conducting a campaign against me out of frustration. I help the ultra-Orthodox.” 

Shahar Ilan of the Calcalist newspaper, who was the ultra-Orthodox affairs analyst at Haaretz, agrees that Twitter enables ultra-Orthodox journalists better access than in the past to secular journalists and politicians. “Twitter — just like online comment sections on news sites — has created a kind of democratization in the discourse,” he told al-Monitor. “But I don’t think the role of ultra-Orthodox affairs reporters has become redundant. To a certain extent ultra-Orthodox journalists on Twitter are acting as spokespeople for official ultra-Orthodox positions, and don’t necessarily do what’s required of journalists: internal critique and dredging up stories.” 

Journalist Shimon Breitkopf thinks Ilan is mistaken. “Twitter in particular and the ultra-Orthodox internet in general are pioneers where it comes to addressing problems within the sector and raising issues that haven’t been addressed. The ultra-Orthodox at times seem to be acting as spokesmen for ultra-Orthodox positions because the ultra-Orthodox are under constant attack in the Israeli media. Just as Arab tweeters explain the positions of Arab Israelis. But there is also a lot of internal critique.” 

For Ehrlich, the ultra-Orthodox presence on Twitter has brought them into the center of Israeli discourse. “Thanks to Twitter the ultra-Orthodox have become part of the general political discourse in Israel. It is the height of integration in Israeli society. Twitter has shown that the ultra-Orthodox have a say on any topic and any area. They no longer just talk about [Jewish Eastern Europian dish] kugel and news from the Hassidic circles — though there’s that too.”

However, Toker thinks that this should not be seen as a signal for the penetration of social media into the ultra-Orthodox sector. "Twitter is still a medium mostly for journalists and activists. Regular people [Israelis] are usually on Facebook. But ordinary ultra-Orthodox people are on neither platform. Having an account on social media is still taboo among most ultra-Orthodox communities. But when it comes to journalists and spokesmen, it is more accepted — although most ultra-Orthodox Knesset members and journalists from the main [ultra-Orthodox] streams still do not have social media accounts. However, many among the ultra-Orthodox political leadership understand the enormous positive influence of the ultra-Orthodox on Twitter," he said.

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Mordechai Goldman has served for the past few years as the diplomatic and military analyst of the ultra-Orthodox daily Hamevaser. He attended ultra-Orthodox rabbinical colleges and studied psychology at the Israeli Open University. He also participated in the national civil service program. Goldman lectures to ultra-Orthodox audiences on the diplomatic process and on the Israel Defense Forces and consults with companies in regard to the ultra-Orthodox sector.

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