'Kosher phone' blocks crisis hotlines
Emergency numbers for mental counseling, sexual assault victims unavailable for subscribers of kosher-certified mobile service. Cellphone providers claim to be pressured by Rabbinical Committee for Communications, which is threatening to cancel service if numbers are integrated into devices
The numbers for rape crisis centers – 1202 for women and 1203 for men, as well as the ERAN emotional first-aid hotline, are all non-accessible for subscribers of kosher-certified mobile services for the ultra-Orthodox public in the different cellphone providers.
An attempt to dial these numbers from cellular phones subscribed to the "kosher" service leads to a recorded message saying that the number dialed is not accessible in accordance with the terms of the program.
The ERAN hotline is accessible from phones registered with the Partner mobile provider, while the rape crisis centers' numbers are blocked.
In March 2012, the Knesset enacted a law determining that emergency numbers – including the ERAN and rape crisis centers hotlines – would be toll-free. According to a bill initiated by Knesset Members Orly Levi-Abekasis (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Gideon Ezra (Kadima), calls made to these numbers will not appear on the phone's dialed numbers in order to make the service discreet and as accessible as possible for all parts of the population.
But now it turns out that as a result of grey areas which are not defined in the law, cellphone providers have been subject to the pressures and dictations of a body known as the Rabbinical Committee for Communications.
'Companies committed to rabbis' terms'
Sources in two of the large mobile providers note that the decision to block certain numbers was made exclusively by the Rabbinical Committee for Communications, which is responsible for permitting the kosher-certified mobile service.
According to one of these sources, the committee submits a list of numbers to the cellphone providers which it asks to block to the subscribers of the "kosher program."
"Criticism in regards to the committee should be directed at the Communications Ministry, which allows it to block certain numbers," source notes.
"The mobile providers' hands are tied. As long as the Communications Ministry allows the committee to block these numbers, we are committed to the terms set by the committee. Otherwise they will cancel our kosher program."
The Communications Ministry, however, says that emergency numbers according to their definition – 100, 101, 102, 104 – are accessible on "kosher" phones as well, and that the law does not clearly define the inclusion of ERAN and rape crisis centers' hotlines in the basic cellular programs, a matter which the ministry is now holding a special inquiry into.
'Will rabbis block MDA tomorrow?'
Y., a haredi using a "kosher" cellphone wanted to call the ERAN hotline. He told Ynet that at the time, in the great state of distress he was in, he was not interested in turning to aid centers for the haredi population, and wanted discuss his emotional situation with a neutral service provider.
He quickly learned that he was unable to access the general emergency services from his cellphone. "Blocking such a crucial service should lead to a huge public protest," he told Ynet. "It's unthinkable that I would be restricted, as a citizen, from turning to whoever I want to at a time of distress."
"What next?" added Y.'s friend. "Tomorrow they'll tell me I can't call Magen David Adom, but only a haredi rescue organization? There is a reason why these are emergency numbers, and it's unthinkable that the State of Israel as a governmental body lends a hand to such blatant blocking."
ERAN CEO David Koren says he is aware of the problem. "The haredi establishment is the one blocking the access to our hotline," he says, referring to the Rabbinical Committee on Communications. "What we can do in order to help those in need is to provide them with a regular number. The alternative number does not provide all services given on the regular line, but it still allows them to seek aid."
The alternative number, needless to say, is not toll-free.
"At the end of the day, we receive quite a lot of appeals from the haredi sector," Koren adds. "We haven’t officially approached the rabbis with a request to stop blocking the number, but we would be glad to cooperate with the committee or with any other body, so that the people from the sector will be able to turn to us and get help as well."
'Sexual violence is a national problem'
Sources at the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, which is responsible for the 1202 and 1203 emergency numbers, were surprised and astonished to hear that their hotlines had been blocked to subscribers of the "kosher" service, and offered the following response:
"Sexual violence is a wide social phenomenon which goes beyond communities and sectors. Like in the secular sector – in the religious sector as well, due to the feelings of shame and guilt accompanying sexual assault, many victims are afraid to report the abuse or file a complaint against their attacker.
"In the religious and haredi sectors, these feelings are accompanied by additional concerns and difficulties, which sometimes leave the victims to deal with the ramifications of the abuse on their own."
According to the organization, the law maintains that the emergency numbers for sexual assault victims must be integrated into all phones and set as toll-free numbers.
"The law, essentially, expresses the acknowledgement that the sexual violence phenomenon is a national problem that must be eradicated, as well as the understanding that the Rape Crisis Centers are the main address and the main body providing emergency support to the victims.
"The 1202 line for women and 1203 for men constitute the first critical stop, which serves as an "initial emergency room" and a system receiving the appeals of sexual assault victims.
"The Association of Rape Crisis Centers recognized the special needs of the religious and haredi community," the organization added, "and therefore in 1993 we established the crisis center for religious women and the hotline for religious men.
"Today a religious or haredi victim can turn to the hotline and receive counseling, guidance and support from the center's workers and volunteers, who understand her and are familiar with the sensitivities and the unique difficulties characterizing the religious society. Religious men and youths can turn to the hotline for religious men.
"The hotlines for religious women and men are not blocked. The number for religious women is 02-6730002, and the number for religious men is 02-5328000."
Ministry: 'Kosher' service is consumer's choice
So is blocking victims' hotlines legal in the State of Israel, or is it a blatant violation of victims' rights using a "halachic pretense"? This is where the grey area lies.
According to the Knesset spokesperson's statement, amendment No. 52 to the Communications Law specifically states that "a phone call to an emergency hotline for victims of sexual assault or to an emotional first-aid hotline will be a toll-free number from any phone, including a public and mobile phone."
The Communications Ministry offered the following statement in response: "The 'kosher phones' arrangement was approved in 2007 by the Communications Ministry at the request of the haredi public and cellphone providers.
"At the consent and on behalf of the haredi public, the Rabbinical Committee determines and defines the numbers which will be open for the use of the haredi public.
"It must be clarified that emergency numbers according to their definition – 100, 101, 102, 104 – are accessible on the 'kosher' phones as well. There is no need to mention that joining the 'kosher' services is an independent choice made by the consumer.
"Nonetheless, the Communications Ministry is looking into the issue and into the validity of the arrangement, and has turned to the Rabbinical Committee to inquire why the numbers to the hotlines mentioned in the articles are not accessible to everyone."
Chaim Lang, secretary of the Rabbinical Committee for Communications, was unavailable for comment.