One ironic aspect of Anat Hoffman’s fight for Jewish religious equality in
Israel is that in her early life she was devoutly secular, avoiding synagogues,
disdainful of rabbis, not at all interested in Judaism.
Today, she is the
Reform Movement’s most visible warrior, waging a struggle against ultra-Orthodox
dictates over the role of women. She calls herself a datiya reformit – a Reform
religious person. She admits the phrase sounds like an oxymoron.
focus of her struggle is the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem,
Judaism’s holiest site, “a very concrete visual symbol,” in Hoffman’s
Her struggle turned violent on October 16, a nightmare from which
she has yet to recover. Police arrested Hoffman at the Western Wall for wearing
a tallit (prayer shawl) and reciting the shema prayer while she was surrounded
by 250 Hadassah women in Jerusalem for their annual convention. Then, she says,
police officers physically abused her for the next eight hours. The police deny
Strip-searched, her arms and legs shackled, dragged on the
ground, then forced to sleep on the floor of a jail cell that she shared with a
prostitute and a car thief, Hoffman says she had never experienced such police
abuse in the 24 years she has been leading her Women of the Wall movement in
monthly prayers at the Wall.
Upon her release, she was barred from the
Wall for 30 days.
Why have the police victimized the 58-year-old Hoffman?
The rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, directed the police to make
the arrest, Hoffman believes. After all, she tells The Jerusalem Report, “he is
under pressure to become more and more Haredi. He is drunk with power. He can
tell the police what to do. He can tell anybody what to do.”
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office at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem 11 days after her arrest: She is on
the phone exhorting colleagues to urge the police to cease the violence against
her. She is still traumatized. She displays bruises on her arm from the
handcuffs, but says she cannot talk about that night. The memory is too
emotional; to talk about what happened would make her physically ill, she
asserts. Instead, she hands over a detailed, nine-page document describing
moment by moment her interactions with the police on October 16.
helped found Women of the Wall in December 1988, when 100 non- Orthodox women
showed up at the Wall to pray. They were taunted and physically abused, but not
deterred in their mission to have the same right to pray at the Wall as the
Orthodox Jewish men who run the place through the Western Wall Heritage
Foundation. Hoffman serves as Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action
Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.
1988 to 2002, she was a member of the Jerusalem City Council, fighting the
city’s right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc on a variety of issues. She once
unsuccessfully sought a Knesset seat, but the need to woo voters is not a skill
she says she possesses.
Today she seems at her most content, fighting on
her own, running her own shop.
From her earliest days Hoffman has had
political activism in her blood. Born in Jerusalem in 1954, she became a
champion swimmer, competing in the Maccabiah Games, and holding titles in nine
events. But she preferred art to swimming. Attending the Bezalel Academy of Arts
and Design in Jerusalem, she noticed that the school did not have a student
union. She spent much time there defending students’ rights. A professor told
her, “Anat, you belong in politics more than art.”
She grew up in a secular Zionist environment inspired by her parents – Varda
Blechman, the first child born at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in Jerusalem in 1930, and
American-born Charles Weiss, the long-term correspondent in Israel for the Voice
of America. The family treasured ideas. “We were a family that read newspapers.
Everyone at the breakfast table was reading a different newspaper.” One result
was that Hoffman became a diehard secularist, averse to anything to do with
Jewish religion, synagogues, rabbis, and ritual. She had feminist impulses, but
knew little of what it meant to be a feminist.
Then she and her
then-husband Michael traveled to the United States in 1974 to take up their
studies. Obtaining her BA in psychology from UCLA in 1980, she founded the
Israeli Student Organization. She still had no interest in Judaism. UCLA Hillel
Director Chaim Seidler-Feller, an Orthodox rabbi, got her excited about Judaism
and feminism. His Orthodox Judaism was not the “my way or the highway” kind. “I
found that Reform Judaism was not in collision with my feminist views. It
inspired my desire for pluralism.” For the first time a rabbi had been friendly
and accepting of her. She now realized there was more than one way to be a
While in the United States, she grew to envy the American
Constitution because it committed its citizens to strive for social and
political equality. “I wish we in Israel had pledged our allegiance to political
and social equality. If we had I would be unemployed. We would have our own
constitution tomorrow, if it weren’t for the Orthodox Jews.”
to Israel, eager to become an activist for religious pluralism. Her life took a
religious turn. She helped found what would become the Kol Haneshema Reform
synagogue in Jerusalem. Gradually she began living a Jewish life. “In my weakest
moments it is Jewish texts that I think of.
And in my most miserable
moments, it’s Jewish people that I look to for support.
And I have
devoted my adult life to what I see as Jewish values.” Surrounded by Jewish
texts in her office, she notes that she hosts a Jewish study group in her house.
Of learning about Judaism, she says, “I love the stuff.”
In the early
years of their struggle, Women of the Wall appeared to win support from the
Supreme Court. Three and a half years after Women of the Wall was formed, it
sought Supreme Court sanction for its activities at the Wall – and
On May 22, 2002, a three-judge panel of the 15-member court ruled
that it was legal for Women of the Wall to pray and read from the Torah
undisturbed on the first day of each Hebrew month, rosh hodesh, in the women’s
section of the main Western Wall Plaza. But four days later, Haredi political
parties introduced legislation that would have overturned the court decision and
made it a criminal offense, punishable by up to seven years in prison, for women
to pray in non-traditional ways at the Wall.
The legislation did not
pass, but the court agreed to reconsider its 2002 decision.
On April 6,
2003, reversing itself, the full 15-member court upheld the government’s ban on
the Women of the Wall reading Torah or wearing tallit or tefillin i n t he main
public area of the Wall; the court reasoned that such behavior constituted a
threat to public safety and order. It did require the government to come up with
an alternate site, and Robinson’s Arch, along the Western Wall but at a distance
from the Wall plaza, was chosen.
From 2003 on, Hoffman and her Women of
the Wall grudgingly held prayer services at Robinson’s Arch, acknowledging that it was part of the Wall, but, as Hoffman
notes, “just not the part of the Wall where Jews go. It’s separate all
right but it ain’t equal. We don’t believe in separate but equal.”
adds, “I want to be where all the Jews are. I want to be seen, not because I am
an attention-seeker or a provocateur, but because I want to inspire women to
know that in many places in the world it’s the norm for a woman to wear a
tallit, to pray out loud, to read from the Torah.”
One argument that the
Orthodox Jewish leadership at the Wall makes against the Women of the Wall is
that by wearing a tallit and reciting the shema, they are not following the
accepted customs of the place, the principle of Judaism known in Hebrew as
minhag hamakom. Hoffman balks at that argument. “The Wall has been in Israeli
hands for 45 years, and for 24 of those years the Women of the Wall have been at
the Wall. How long do we have to be there to qualify to be minhag hamakom? I
think I am minhag hamakom. My rule of thumb is that if someone is doing
something for 24 years, it doesn’t qualify as a provocation. You don’t
provoke for 24 years.”
Following her arrest, she has continued her fight
for religious equality at the Wall.
Though she knows it may make her
sound like a provocateur, she argues. “If I have broken the law, charge me and
let’s work it out in court. I don’t think the State of Israel has an interest in
charging a woman for wearing a tallit.”
Nor should the State have an
interest in keeping the ultra-Orthodox in charge of the Wall, she maintains. “I
want the Wall to become a national monument open to all, including the
ultra-Orthodox.” She wants to replace the Heritage Foundation with a council
that would represent all groups with an interest in the Wall. “If we can share
with the Muslims the Tomb of the Patriarchs,” says Hoffman, “we Jews can share
the Western Wall.”
The trouble is that Hoffman has gotten little support
from her fellow citizens who “dream about this but don’t believe it’s possible
to liberate the Wall again.” She finds it odd that those citizens express far
greater support for gay rights and animal rights than for her fight for
religious equality. But in the days after her arrest, parts of the public seemed
to shake itself loose from the indifference it had shown toward Women of the
Reform leaders called for an investigation into police abuses
against Hoffman. In New York and Jerusalem, Jews recited the shema in flash mob
events. Two weeks after Hoffman’s arrest, the Jewish Agency passed a resolution
calling on the government to revisit its opposition to women praying at the
Wall; it stopped short of demanding that the Orthodox be stripped of control
over the Wall.
Jews in the Diaspora have long been supportive of Women of
the Wall, finding Hoffman combative, articulate and exotic.
As a result,
she gets dozens of speaking invitations a year, accepting only six. In her view,
Women at the Wall has become one of Judaism’s most important issues worldwide –
and she looks to world Jewry to help her win her battle.
When the Woman
of the Wall convened at the Wall on November 15, Hoffman did not attend. The
police detained six women.
Hoffman vows that she will be back at the Wall
on the next rosh hodesh. Meanwhile she plans to petition the Supreme Court again
next April to strike down its decision a decade earlier allocating Robinson’s
Arch to Women of the Wall.
“Even if people don’t realize it,” says Anat
Hoffman, “the Wall has to be reliberated.”
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