Rabbi Yeshayahu Rotter founded Rotter.net, one of Israel’s most popular gossip and news sites (Alexa ranks it 72nd of all Israeli sites). He is a Haredi Jew who teaches 12th grade at a Haifa yeshiva which belongs to the Bnai Akiva branch of Orthodox Judaism. Surprisingly, considering the extremism of his politics, Bnai Akiva is considered one of the more moderate sects in the Orthodox movement.
Rotter is one of the most far right-wing figures in the Israeli media world. He not only supports the most extreme of the settler movement, he advocates violence and defiance of state authority to enforce their prerogatives to settle and retain every inch of the Occupied Territories. His son, Meir, is a policeman known not only for beating up Sheikh Jarrah protesters at their weekly protests against Palestinian home expulsions, but for bragging about this at Rotter.net using a pseudonym.
Israeli blogger Moni Dvir just published a post (Hebrew) about Rabbi Rotter that made me realize I knew very little about him, and that what I did think I knew, was based on some suspect assumptions which the man himself has disseminated to the public. In a 2007 Maariv interview (Hebrew), Rabbi Rotter claimed he earned a PhD in Jewish Studies from Boston University. In a separate interview at his own site, he further claims he earned this degree in 1998. He also claims to have a BA and MBA from a third-tier Israeli private college, Yozmot (this link appears to be to the institution mentioned in the Maariv interview, though I can’t be 100% certain).
This bears inspection. A number of us have not been able to verify his doctoral degree. The BU alumni office cannot locate any alumnus by his name. Neither Google Scholar nor an online search of doctoral dissertations turns up anything by him. In reply to my specific request that he confirm the degree mentioned in Maariv, he would only say he had the degrees mentioned in the article from universitaot angliot, which could mean “British” universities or “English-speaking” universities. This seemed a deliberate obfuscation. Repeated civil attempts to get him to be more specific ended in some rather nasty, smearish threats on his part which I’ll go into later.
The best we can say is that while Rotter claims a doctorate, he either doesn’t have one or no record of one exists after numerous attempts to confirm one. I haven’t attempted to confirm with Yozmot whether he has the business degrees he claims from that school. Though it’s such a poorly considered institution I wouldn’t be surprised if he did earn degrees there.
UPDATE: An Israeli reader brought to my attention a story, which has been subsequently confirmed by someone formerly close to the Rotter family, and by this report (Hebrew), that the rabbi worked for Bank Yerushalayim in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Money was allegedly stolen, he was suspected of theft, the bank made a complaint and police opened a criminal file against him. No charges were ever brought, but he was forced to leave the bank, which was when he moved to Haifa where his parents lived. He appears to have an inordinate acquisitive urge, for which there’s nothing wrong in an ordinary person, but which for a rabbi seems somehow grasping and inappropriate.
Another claim made in the Maariv article is that Rotter is an IDF officer:
[He] served in an armored unit and was an officer.
This too is a fudge. In a separate interview the rabbi published on his own site, he notes that during his active service he was a sergeant (not officer-rank). He now serves as a chaplain, which automatically makes his an officer. So in the Maariv story, he appears to make greater claims for his IDF service than are actually warranted. He seems to want readers to believe he was a combat officer, which he was not. In addition, before his IDF service he attended a yeshiva whose students were largely exempted from military duty. Some students could attend a truncated version of service. Given his religious affiliation, my Israeli sources tell me it’s likely he didn’t serve the full three years other Israelis do when they do their duty.
Rotter reveals a rather extraordinary bit of deception, which he proudly claims for himself. He states he’s angry that the Israeli media doesn’t credit the scoops published at his site (as if he owned them or researched and published them himself). So he performed a test. After a terror attack during which the terrorist was wounded and captured, Rotter supposedly published a “scoop” saying that the Palestinian had AIDS. Sure enough, Alex Fishman published (allegedly) a story stating the militant had AIDS. Rotter even notes that all the soldiers involved in capturing the attacker had to get AIDS tests and endure extended exams to ensure they were not infected.
Don’t know about you, but I’m astonished a rabbi would engage in such deliberate infliction of suffering on all those soldiers and their families, who would not know for sure whether or not they had gotten AIDS from contact with this man. And Rotter even reveals this publicly in the newspaper with no shame whatsoever!
But there’s an even worse problem with this story, according to the Seventh Eye, Israel’s major media watchdog publication, Rotter’s story is a crock (Hebrew). Never happened. Not a word of truth in it. The reporter queried Alex Fishman, who denied he’d ever written any such story and a search of Yediot Achronot’s archive never turned up one.
So now we have an Israeli rabbi who not only boasts of deceiving his readers, the Israeli media and the IDF by trickery, but who made the story up in its entirety. I’d guess that one of the reasons Rotter chose Alex Fishman to smear is because he thinks he’s a filthy traitor and media leftist, phrases which commonly echo through the Rotter website in comment threads. I have reported on, and spoken with Fishman a number of times in the past few months due to his excellent reporting about Iran. And this is not the kind of journalist who comes anywhere near doing the sort of shoddy journalism of which Rotter accuses him. In fact, it is Rotter himself who is the shoddy liar, it appears. Though you’d never know it from the rabbi himself, who continues to claim the incident happened precisely as he presented it in the interview. Except somehow he couldn’t manage to provide any proof to the reporter when it was requested. Does this remind you of the story about his alleged PhD?
Now, let’s look at how the good rabbi operates his website. In 2007, he claimed he had 50,000-100,000 visitors every day. By 2011, that number had risen to 1-million according to the marketing come-on offered to potential advertisers. That’s a mighty big jump. But if you’re Matt Drudge or Wonkette, I suppose it’s possible. But is Rotter.net in that league? Readers of the site (and I) have noticed a rather peculiar behavior. If you keep a page of the site open in your browser open for any length of time, when the page refreshes it doesn’t take you back to the same page. Rather, it takes you back to the site’s main page. If you want to continue reading the original page you have to go back to it. That means for every one page you actually visited, three page views might be counted.
I’m not an expert in SEO and how these things are done. So I don’t know for sure whether his claims for his site are legitimate or not. But given his lack of candor (to say the least) it’s highly likely that his claims for site traffic may be as highly exaggerated as his claims of having a PhD. I would hope that anyone thinking of advertising at his site would do their own due diligence to ensure that they’re getting what they expect and what they paid for.
Returning to the Maariv interview, Rotter makes some rather extraordinary claims about his own and his site’s moral and Jewish standards, which bear examination:
Lashon Hara [“gossip” or “slander”]
Journalism is the antithesis to lashon hara. The learned rabbis permitted [Jews to be] journalists. Therefore we should rely on their authority that journalism’s purpose is to warn people about crooks.
Considering the level of sludge and smears in the Rotter threads, it’s astonishing that the fact that his site is a leading source of lashon hara is completely lost on him. Just to take a few wee small examples. When I publish my own blog scoops there, I’m invariably referred to as “traitor,” “saboteur,” etc. Members have threatened to put a bullet in my head. One even created a hoax FBI press release claiming I’d been arrested for making kiddie porn. That post, at least the good rabbi removed because he likely realized that I might have legal recourse to sue him, as so many others have apparently done before me.
Returning to lashon hara, tell me if this sounds like someone for whom this is a cardinal value:
Write whatever you wish. I have nothing to hide. Here in Israel am totally transparent. In fact, it would be fitting to engage in this two-man battle. In Google, we’re finding some interesting things about you. I’m not sure they’re true, but I’m sure they’re written in Google. It’s always possible to quote [them] alone. [After reading these items about you] They’ll no longer ask why we sink to this personal [low] level, as they once asked me. Your profile in Israel is quite interesting.
Can you believe that someone who claims to oppose lashon hara would stoop to trashing me with the muck and mire that deranged folk have written about me online? Clearly, he didn’t care whether any of it was true or not. Just smearing the kaka around would give him joy. I read that e-mail as a quasi threat, and not being one to take threats lightly, I responded decisively:
I would love for you to disseminate some of the nuttier things written about me on Google. Because if you do it will show you to be an utter fool. So please go right ahead.
BTW, I’ve never claimed an academic degree I didn’t earn and anyone asking me which ones I have and from which universities gets a straight answer no matter who they are. I’m sorry you didn’t feel you could show the same candor. And the fact that you threaten me with smears because YOU refuse to confirm where & whether you earned degrees, means you are both defensive and appear to have something to hide…
Rotter prides himself on all the wedding ceremonies he’s performed. In fact, as part of his entrepreneurial spirit, he’s created his own website to promote Jewish matrimonial bliss and shiduchim (matchmaking). But if you’re disabled or divorced, you’re outa luck. Not allowed. I suppose they’re not good for business. Another itty-bitty problem though–guess who’s divorced? You got it, the good rabbi himself. Dya think he bans himself from his own website? Not on your life. When I first read of this oddness I laughed and laughed. Can you imagine someone who is such a hypocrite?
In Maariv, he further waxes rhapsodic about the beauties of Shabbat spent around the dinner table with family and friends. He’s a big devote of Shabbat as any observant Jew should be. There’s only one itty-bitty problem. Rotter.net isn’t shut down on Shabbat. Not only can you access its pages, you can violate the laws of Shabbat by posting there. That’s probably not the worst Shabbat violation though. Rotter is chock full of ads. Anyone who clicks on an ad makes Rabbi Rotter money. He earns money whether they click on a weekday or on Shabbat. But it is a grave sin for a Jew to earn money on Shabbat, which is the supreme day of rest.
I don’t know how such a learned rabbi justifies this violation of a halachic prohibition. I don’t even know if anyone’s asked him. No doubt, as with many Orthodox Jews, he’d say rather cynically what non-observant Jews do at his site is their own business and not his. In that sense, he’s the ultimate Jewish libertarian. Though I don’t believe halacha would countenance libertarianism defined in that way.
To be clear, I don’t keep the laws of Shabbat. I publish posts on weekdays and on Shabbat. So I’m not criticizing Rotter’s behavior in a blanket or categorical way. I’m saying that on his own terms as an Orthodox Jew, he’s violating halacha and that he’s a moral hypocrite for doing so.
A commenter here in the threads noted that in the very early days of the site, it specialized in offering illegal downloads. Now, I have nothing particularly against such sites and won’t argue there’s anything particularly immoral about them (the RIAA takes a different view). But it does seem to me that a rabbi should feel an obligation not to earn money off such an enterprise. Jewish tradition says that a rabbi should hold himself above questionable activities which might be acceptable to an ordinary Jew. Since Jews look to rabbis as moral arbiters, they could construe this type of activity as morally approved when a rabbi does it. A rabbi should set an example, not pander to the lowest moral common denominator. That may be why he has claimed that in those days, his son Noam ran the site. There are reports by Israeli media that he used this story to brush off precisely the moral questions I raised above.
I’ve hardly spoken yet about Rotter’s political views, which are also quite interesting: after the Fogel murders he advocated violent price tag attacks against Palestinians. In fact, his comments sounded very close to calls for genocide. He declared he had no faith in the State to avenge Jewish blood and urged settlers and other extremists to do it on behalf of the Jewish people. He was all defiance of the State. In fact, it seemed rather clear that the entire idea of a secular state was rather repulsive and that he would far prefer a halachic theocratic state in which a settler “Judean” ideology reigned supreme.
The Rotter forum is also being used (Hebrew) by radical settlers as a sort of real-time emergency band radio to broadcast the movement of the IDF in the Territories so wanted settlers may avoid capture at roadblocks set up outside the most extreme settlements, which house Jewish terrorists who resist evacuation of settlements or engage in acts of violence against local Palestinians and their activist supporters. This adds to the image of Rabbi Rotter and his media enterprise as a form of resistance to the secular state and its authority. Not that he’s above benefiting from the advertising revenue generated from citizens of that secular state.
While Rotter’s claim that he allows free speech for right and left at his site is mainly true, it’s clear that some speech is more free than others. Though I have published many scoops there, I have also had many taken down. And for no apparent reason since they violated no Israeli laws, gag orders or censorship. It appears that Rotter can remove anything he likes and for any reason. So his claims of a free-wheeling website with virtually no ideological limits are largely, but not entirely true.
To its credit, Rotter.net is a freer site than many in Israel if you can stand the death threats. I was banned from another site, Fresh, when I posted about Anat Kamm. No reason was given. I was just shown the door.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.