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An Israeli Mobile Phone Provider’s Hasidic Blues

Cellcom, the country’s biggest mobile carrier, is in trouble due to a marketing campaign aimed at Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Haredi Jews reading poster

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An Israeli mobile phone provider is in trouble over an aborted ad campaign aimed at Hasidic and
ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Cellcom,
the country’s most popular mobile carrier, received a rare order from
the Israeli Communications Ministry to stop a marketing campaign
targeted at haredi (ultra-Orthodox
and Hasidic) Jews. The laws of the Middle Eastern country grant the
Communications Ministry wide latitude to intervene in the business
practices of mobile phone providers.

The trouble comes from a price war
between Cellcom and Mirs, a
smaller mobile carrier with extensive ties to the haredi community.
Mirs has become popular among Israel’s haredi Jews thanks to their
aggressive marketing of kosher
phones
–inexpensive handsets that are crippled in order to
disable their text messaging, voice mail, gaming and application
functionality.

While most kosher phones are blocked from accessing
the internet entirely, several high-end models permit access to a
handful of websites approved by influential haredi rabbis.

In a legal development that would be
unlikely to arise in the United States, Mirs filed a cease and desist
order against a Cellcom marketing campaign targeting haredi Jews.
Surprisingly, the Communications Ministry acted on their behalf and
forced
Cellcom to end their haredi marketing campaign
.

Mirs alleges that
Cellcom’s intentional poaching of their customers violated Israeli
law. According to Gad Perez of the Israeli business daily Globes,
“the ministry based its decision on the grounds that if Cellcom had
targeted the haredi community as a whole, it would not have
intervened, but the direct targeting of Mirs’ customers violated the
terms of Cellcom’s license.” According to a letter sent by Mirs
to the Communications Ministry, Cellcom’s pricing plans were
“predatory.”

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Cellcom
was offering a highly-discounted package to haredi customers which
included 2,000 minutes of airtime a month for US$10, a handset rebate
and compensation for any costs incurred by changing carriers.

Israel has approximately 730,000 haredi
Jews. Haredi clergy have largely frowned upon the use of mobile
phones while accepting them as a necessary evil. One influential rabbi, Ovadiah Yosef of the
theocratic-leaning Shas parry, formulated a missive urging
yeshiva students to avoid purchasing smartphones
:

We heard of small, new devices that
let you watch movies and surf the internet, heaven forbid, and reach
all sorts of foul places–in one instant a man can stumble and fall,
heaven forbid, to the bottom of the pit […] Therefore […] we urge
[you] to keep as far away from these dangerous devices as possible,
keep restraint and beware.

Other statements made by the sometimes
controversial Rabbi Yosef have targeted women, homosexuals, atheists,
liberals, Arabs, and Jews of Eastern European descent.

Mirs specifically targeted the haredi
community with a series of pricing plans that catered toward
members’ lifestyles with low monthly subscription fees, cheap extra
handsets and free minutes monthly for all family members.
Haredi Jews, following the Biblical injunction to “be fruitful and
multiply,” traditionally have had large families. A large portion of
the Haredi community lives
on public assistance
, which has also assisted Mirs in market
penetration through low-cost, no-frills plans.

Micromarketing of custom-tailored
mobile phone plans to specific demographics is common practice in
Israel among all mobile providers. These include special phone plans
tailored
toward soldiers
, Arabs
and Israelis
working in foreign countries
.

Cellcom did not incur any fines or
penalties due to the Communications Ministry’s ruling.

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[Image by Wikipedia user Effib]

Follow the author of this article,
Neal Ungerleider, on
Twitter
.

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