B’Hadrei Haredim (a clever wordplay switching the terms “innermost rooms” and “rooms of the ultra Orthodox,” invented in 1994 by then Yedioth America columnist David Argaman), is the largest ultra-Orthodox portal in the world. It prides itself on offering surfers “a comprehensive and updated information in a variety of areas: news, rebbes’ courtyards, economics, consumer issues, culture, health and science, computers and the Internet, personal columns, ultra-Orthodox women’s issues, transportation, food, tourism, and videos and image galleries from around the world.”
But one very important news item which has been at the center of public curiosity for two days now, is missing from this website: reports of the arrest of four of its own top managers on suspicion of pervasive blackmail operations.
On Monday, the magistrate court in Jerusalem extended the arrest of the site’s CEO, who is suspected of ongoing blackmailing of prominent public figures in the Haredi sector.
According to Police, B’Hadrei Haredim’s CEO attempted to “squeeze” the top Haredi businessmen, as well as business outfits, threatening that if they did not pay him large sums of money, he would publish negative reports about them and block the posting of positive articles.
In the current wave of arrests, which may not yet be over, four senior site employees were arrested, and several other employees were brought in for questioning. Among those arrested was the director of the news section and his sales manager, both of whom are suspected of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from senior community members.
Another high level suspect, in addition to the CEO, is the website’s Content Director, who, according to Police, was part of a comprehensive extortion operation run by B’Hadrei Haredim.
The suspects have allegedly threatened rabbis, politicians and business executives over the past two years. Victims were told to pay tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars – some through advertising contracts – in return for removing negative articles and talkbacks. A number of companies were asked to pay not only for blocking negative comments, but also for publishing praising comments about them.
Police suspect that much of the commenting traffic on the website was being generated and directed by site employees.
The Central Investigation Unit of the Jerusalem District Police conducted secret investigations over a long period of time, but the sudden revelation of a new, “hot” extortion attempt of a well known Haredi community activist led to the decision to go public with the case.
It began with a rumor that was spread over the site, about an adulterous relationship in which Haredi businessman Jacob Berger was supposedly engaged. Berger met with the site’s CEO (whose name and the names of the other suspects have not been released). Three recording devices which had been planted in Berger’s office failed to record the conversation – Police suspect that the CEO was carrying a disruptive signal generator. Either way, a video camera hidden inside the office wall revealed all.
According to Ynet, the CEO told Berger, “I have very few customers – very limited. I make sure they’re happy. They can sleep peacefully. My smallest client brings in ten thousand dollars a month.”
The CEO’s detention was extended until Thursday this week and the other suspects have been discharged under restrictive conditions.