Study shows how religious group fended off the Internet — then adapted it

Twenty-first century technology has deeply penetrated even strict, self-contained religious communities that try to shut it out, University of Washington researchers have found. Despite a ban by their leaders on private Internet use, ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews who otherwise shun the modern world turn out to be avid and creative Web surfers, according to the study to be published in next month’s The Information Society journal.

The research was conducted by Karine Barzilai-Nahon, an assistant professor in the UW Information School, and Gad Barzilai, a visiting professor in the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies and Comparative Law and Society Studies Center.

Though the pair’s data source was an Internet-use record of 14,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, the authors said their findings could shed light on other ultra-strict religious groups around the world, including Christian and Islamic groups.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews — about 6 percent of the nation’s population, living in self-contained enclaves with few modern amenities — have long been barred by their leading rabbis from using the Internet for anything but work.

“When we started, we were almost certain this community would reject technology,” Barzilai-Nahon said. “Instead, we found they have modified it to meet their own needs.”

What the research reveals is a complex encounter between technology and an ultra-fundamentalist community struggling to stave off secular distractions.

The findings show that:

* Despite the ban on private Internet use, nearly one-third of the ultra-Orthodox surf the Web — a much lower rate than Israeli society overall, but still significant.

* Ultra-Orthodox Israelis who use the Internet are only half as likely as their secular countrymen to send e-mails, which would bring interaction with outsiders. But they are more likely than other Israelis to take part in online forums with members of their own community.

* Ultra-Orthodox women use the Internet far less than the men, despite the fact that more of the women than men hold jobs (husbands generally pursue full-time religious study). The researchers speculate that the men surf the Net from libraries and cafes.

* The “Digital Divide” along social class lines is less pronounced among the ultra-Orthodox than among Israelis as a whole, with lower- and upper-income Orthodox using the Internet at roughly equal rates.

“What this should do is demystify the religious fundamentalists,” Barzilai said. “After 9/11, there was a tendency to see a black-and-white distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ ”

In surveying Web sites of religious fundamentalist communities around the globe, the researchers found that few promote terrorist activities.

Barzilai-Nahon and Barzilai, who are married, joined the UW this year. She had been a lecturer in business administration. He is a political science and law professor at Tel Aviv University who is joining the UW.

Self-contained religious groups rarely volunteer information to outsiders. However, the UW researchers were able to draw upon an unusually large and reliable source: an Israeli online service called Hevre, which allowed them to examine use patterns among its 686,000 customers. Similar to America’s ClassMates.com, Hevre enables schools, workplaces, scout troops and other groups to create member forums, photo albums and other virtual “communal spaces,” which made it possible to identify approximately 14,000 Web users who belong to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

“It is very rare to have access to this data,” Barzilai said. “These people do not answer surveys.”

In examining the role of online forums among ultra-Orthodox Jews, the researchers found them to be an outlet for anonymous gripes and even challenges to authority that a community member would never have dared to make in person. Yet despite such occasional “scandals” and two recent libel suits, most of the ultra-Orthodox used the Internet for exchanging ordinary information about community events, religious law and national affairs.

Either way, the researchers say, the Internet offers a safety valve that allows various internal voices to be heard without having to drastically challenge the community from within.

“Paradoxically,” the article states, “information technology has affected this community, has intruded into it — but has strengthened it, as well.”

From University of Washington

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