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The Religious Extremists Who Want To Ban The Internet

On Sunday this stadium in New York packed in 40,000 people — almost full capacity. Why? Not baseball, but religious radicals who think the internet is a dangerous, mortal evil.

Godliness is often at odds with a web full of porn and piracy, but it’s usually the pot-clanging of the Christian right; cultural warfare of Jewish Ultra-Orthodoxy rarely takes the stage. But what a stage it took! The protest against the internet went on for over seven hours, at an organizational cost of $US1.5 million. Prominent leaders within the mega-traditional Hasidic community, a throwback isolationist sect that’s essentially the Amish branch of Judaism, allied with non-Hasidic rabbis to rent an entire major league stadium. Hardcore religious groups who quarrel over the nitty gritty of Old Testament law put aside their differences to throw down against the 21st century. Under broiling sun, tens upon tens of thousands were bused in from across state lines, rallying to denounce an existential threat to both their community and the swell name of God himself: the internet.

The people we talked to weren’t certain what they would learn at the Asifa (Yeshivish for “gathering”) but they knew vaguely what they’d be warned against — as well as what they feared. Some frowned at the popularity of online dating, and its potential to lead Jewish women — who were barred from attending the day’s events, but could instead stay home and watch a livestream over the you-know-what — to marry outside the faith. Almost all cited online porn and its tendency to directly cause molestation, rape, addiction, abduction, infidelity, and virtually every other moral perversion — a risk about which we were previously unaware. When we asked one young man, who had shown up to the rally because his rabbi had ordered him to, if he’d ever looked at porn online, he smiled and said nothing. “You have, haven’t you!” His face firmed up and he assured us he had never, but did use the open internet to help manage a catering business.

This was a common refrain: a free internet for the office, but a fettered one at home, where women, children, and tempted men would be safe from the perils of OK Cupid and PornHub. But bare tits and bad words were just the most libidinous terrors. As argued by one Orthodox (online) newspaper, Voz Iz Neias, the internet offers an unprecedented outlet for “Chilul Hashem” a term used to describe an act that casts shame on God, the Torah, or the Jewish community. (Think about the saga of Bernie Madoff, or this post itself.)

How do you stop that? Stop people from speaking their minds. Prevent, in the words of one Brooklyn dentist we chatted with, “unadulterated freedom,” which he referred to gravely as the cause of the internet’s power to ruin. Everyone we spoke with pointed to one solution: filtering. The same software that clogs up your local library’s PCs ought to be spread generously through every home — the same ham-handed initiative that blocks plenty of informative, non-pornographic sites through a clumsy keyword dragnet. It’s also the very same software conspicuously absent from the smartphones so many of these men clutched, without a sliver of irony.

But this was just the audience. None of the attendees milling around and queuing up outside of the stadium seemed sure of just how censored the net should be — they were waiting to be told how much inside by rabbinical edict. While they waited for an opinion, many in the throng were taunted by a group of Anonymous counter-protestors dressed as neanderthals, chanting and hooting at passersby. In the LulzSec era (well, post-LulzSec), it’s easy to forget the group’s origins as actual shoes-on-ground activists. One Anon told us they were treating the day’s rally just like they had Scientology — a threat to free exchange and democratic principles. They’d organised the gathering on Reddit, of course, and didn’t seem to want anything more than a rise out of the orthodoxy. They got a few stern looks and nothing more.

The picture inside the stadium sounded far more grim — the word from the powers that be wasn’t just pro-filtering, but arrantly anti-internet.

We tried to get behind the gates, with tickets purchased well in advance (online, of course), but were abruptly told that our space was no longer available, ex post facto. A later attempt to cop scalped tickets on eBay, in what was perhaps the most ironic online auction in history, also failed.

But of course, the holy words drifted outside the ticketed male-only audience via Twitter, as all things do. Rabbis told the crowd an unfiltered internet was “strictly forbidden,” that anyone who uses the internet without software censorship in place was violating holy rules, and that “internet is a fire that burns a person’s body and soul.” Influential figures from Israel phoned in with even more draconian edicts: the internet should be banned entirely at home, with its use permitted only where absolutely necessary for business, as modern life requires. Any family breaking these rules ought to have their children shunned from schools.

This is the stuff of the dark ages.

But does it matter? To anyone outside of the ultra-orthodox community, no, not really. Theirs are insular sects that, unlike their Christian turbo-traditional counterparts, don’t want to recreate the globe in their image, choking software filters and all. But even directed away from the rest of society, the spectacle of an enormous, enormously elaborate rally against the linchpin of modern civilisation is a jarring one — and wholly ominous. Should the movement to subordinate the internet beneath millennia-old doctrine succeed, it won’t just affect a handful of Stone Age religious scholars. A 2006 study pegged the Ultra-Orthodox population in the US at nearly half a million. That’s a lot of Americans to lock in the dark.