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Women's rights activist: We are reclaiming Judaism's holiest site

Anat Hoffman, longtime crusader for the advancement of progressive Judaism in Israel and a tireless activist for the rights of women to partake in religious traditions, was arrested last month while saying the Shma prayer at the Western Wall. Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and one of the founders of Women of the Wall (and a former Jerusalem City councilwoman) is no stranger to the law: it was the sixth time she has been arrested. Yet she says she has never been charged. When I interviewed her nine days later at a conference in Germany, the 58-year-old still had pink scars on her wrist, a story better than Alice’s Restaurant, and a fighting spirit. 

Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall (Nshot Ha-Kotel) arrested at the Western Wall, Old City of Jerusalem (photo: Women of the Wall)

What was the back story behind your recent arrest while praying at the women’s section of the Western Wall?

The Wall is totally managed by The Western Wall Heritage Fund, it’s quasi-governmental, but not managed like any NGO that I know. People sit there for decades and according to the NGO Registrar, they’re all Haredi (ultra-orthodox) men.

Rav Shmuel Rabinovich is the head. He decides to enforce the rules of the Kotel (Western Wall). Some he enforces, some he ignores. For example, he enforces modest dress, prohibition of performing religious acts that offend the feelings of others – these are the regulations within the laws of holy places. But he’s completely lax on regulation 7: no begging at the Wall.  it’s plagued with people who are begging, but I’ve never seen a policeman tell anyone to leave.

I can’t distribute a shred of paper at the wall; Chabad distributes parshat hashavua (the weekly Torah portion) regularly, I’m not allowed to bring my own prayer book to the Wall – we have our own … The wall is run like an ultra-orthodox synagogue.

So when women show up on Rosh Hodesh (the new moon), the rabbi knows when I’m coming. The people from his fund go straight to the police and schmooze with them devising a strategy for how to get rid of us.

The policeman does not schmooze with me. He does not ask how long the program is, what it consists of, how many women you will be, or when you will disperse. A wise policeman who wants to keep the peace would talk to everyone. I would have given him my program, and he would have seen that it’s ten minutes long.

On Tuesday 16th, 10:30 at night, I was arrested…when asked to wrap the talit like a shawl around my neck, I did, even though there’s no reason in the world for the Jerusalem police to become a fashion police.

When he asked me to lower my voice, I lowered it even though it was in the middle of the Shma prayer, and it’s basic courtesy you don’t ask a Jew anything while she’s saying the Shma. But the voices of 250 women were not silenced by me lowering my voice and that was the reason for the detention.

I think too much force was used. I escorted the policeman readily, no resistance whatsoever. There was a policewoman there holding me lightly, and that would have been enough. I didn’t need to have any physical contact with [the male policeman], it wasn’t necessary and if anyone had to touch me it should have been her, not him.

At the police station he told me I’m being detained because I resisted arrest. I think the photos show that there was no resistance whatsoever and that inspector is misrepresenting reality. So, to demonstrate “resistance” I decided [while at the station] that the next thing he asks me to do, I won’t cooperate. He asked me to move to another chair. I said I won’t. He put handcuffs on me and dragged me there [Anat holds out her wrists, nine days later, and shows pinks scars where the cuffs dug into her skin – ds]

Three and a half hours passed. He had me searched, she patted me, and then they took me to see an interrogator. He asked what I was doing at the Wall, what’s my connection to Women of the Wall. I was warned to be vigilant about the feelings of others in the future.

Then he asked me two questions: Why didn’t I take my talit off when asked, and why didn’t I become silent when asked?

I said I was not asked these things and whoever wrote this in the complaint is not telling the truth. I was asked to wear the talit differently, and I did.

The interrogator said: I’ll release you, but you cannot go to Wall for three weeks, and you’ll pay NIS 3,000 if you do go.

I refused to be released. I wanted to see a judge. Why? Because I’ve been released a few times already and every time, they release me with these conditions, to limit me. And I realized that the whole reason [for being arrested] is in order to put these constraints on me. Because they never charge me! If you have a case, you should charge someone. They always have those videos. Instead, they always send me a letter: your case has been closed from two years ago, due to lack of guilt.

‘Then they put me in a cell’

I wasn’t successful in convincing them about the judge. That’s when the ordeal began. They drove me to jail, I was strip searched, all my stuff and my phone was taken away. I was brought to a cell, wasn’t given bed or blanket because of a shortage. I sat on the cold floor with my talit, I felt sorry for myself. It was around 3:30, 4 a.m.

And at 5:45 a.m. there was a “count” – everybody had to jump out of bed, except for me because I had no bed. There were garbage bags where there should have been bed.

I said I wanted to talk to my lawyer. I was told I cannot. Around 7 a.m., I started calling out from the cell to my lawyer: “David, David.” Other cells and prison guards started imitating me, and taunting me, calling “David, Dudi’le – Go on – maybe he’ll answer you!” There were lots of taunts.

It took two hours. I was brought to see the social worker, who wanted to make sure that I’m not a psychiatric case. I saw a doctor who measured and weighed me, and I must protest: they said I weigh 72 kilo. I am 70 kilo! This is cruel and unjust!

The prostitute sharing my cell was from Siberia, she’s been in Israel for five months. She was beautiful. When she tried to find out what I’m in for; I pointed to my talit, and I told her, this is for God. I prayed for God in the wrong place. So she goes blank. And then she  says “Oh! Pussy Riot!” And I said yeah, like Pussy Riot.

Around 1 p.m., the two of us were taken to the court. We were handcuffed and legcuffed… I lodged a complaint against the police for using excessive force and doing a strip search, as well as against the prison authority for not giving me a bed or a blanket.

But my biggest complaint is unanswered: why does the state arrest me again and again and others from Women of the Wall? Why doesn’t it charge us? If there is a felony here, let’s find out what it is. I want my day in court. But using the tool of detention and arrest is just a way to intimidate our groups, frighten our women, paralyze our leadership. It’s frightening!

What has changed since Women of the Wall began?

There are tens of thousands of men and women, girls and boys around the world who find the story inspiring and it reminds them how lucky they are to be able to perform their Judaism openly and freely and express themselves. Israel needs the Diaspora.

Israelis can’t even imagine a Wall that is a national monument, welcome, open, friendly to every gender, background. That’s why I can’t get into the Israeli press. Israeli journalists couldn’t see it as anything but banging your head on the wall. Don’t you know the wall is Haredi? Don’t you know they’ll get upset? Wake up and smell the hummus! You want to do this? Only Ynet took interest. They asked me: did they really strip search you? When boobs are involved they pick up the phone.

Why is Israeli society so threatened by you?

First, we’re not women victims; Israelis love women as victims, bereaved mothers, bereaved wives, the raped woman, the abused wife – then the media and the heart is opened. We are not victims, we are reclaiming Judaism’s holiest site, and that challenges one of the two major forces in Israeli society: military and religion. It’s the final frontier. These women are not [just] Reform, Conservative or Orthodox – they are all together, praying together. So we defy gravity. We are challenging feminists who think that if you buy into a patriarchal religion you deserve all the punishment you can get. We are challenging religious women, who think that if you buy into the patriarchal religion, you can’t demand any change.

Since Anat Hoffman’s arrest on October 16, individuals and communities all over the world have expressed support by reciting or singing the Shma prayer in solidarity, in various forms, (including a Shma flash-mob in Zion Square), sometimes recording themselves and sending the images to Women of the Wall. One such individual is Anat’s daughter, whose video is here:

Read Also:
3 women arrested while praying at Western Wall in 24 hours
Women of the Wall and Pussy Riot: Unlikely partners in the same struggle

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    1. aristeides

      Hoffman says, “basic courtesy you don’t ask a Jew anything while she’s saying the Shma.”

      But there is the problem. SHE isn’t a Jew. A Jew is only a HE. A SHE isn’t deserving of courtesy and her prayer isn’t a prayer, thus deserving no respect.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        You’re trying too hard.

        Reply to Comment
        • aristeides

          I would have prefered italics.

          Reply to Comment
    2. The obvious: repeated, identical arrests without charge move from police discretion to police harassment for purposes of State policy; when the police act as an enforcing arm of an NGO, that NGO’s policy is attached to the State. That makes both the police action and the NGO policy subject to judicial review.

      Under the rule of law, one never punishes a detainee for asking for a court hearing or her lawyer. When the courts have bite, the police will limit such reply to those unable to legally defend themselves. An independent judge would take one look at this treatment and slap down the officers and perhaps their command. But it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that the courts’ bite requires judicial courage–something clearly not that common among judges in your land.

      Your courts have yet to declare their independence as guardians of the law–and the law is much more than what the Knesset whims it to be.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Aaron Gross

      The more I read by this woman, Anat Hoffman, the more I like her. She lacks the strident, patronizing self-righteousness that’s common among dissidents (including some contributors to +972). You get the feeling that she’s reasonable, that she thinks for herself, and that she’d be willing to talk with you, not lecture you.

      Plus, in this interview, she shows a sharp understanding of Israeli media and culture. The “women as victims” point was especially good.

      I don’t like her religious views or her views about the Western Wall, for reasons I’ve given before. So I cordially wish her complete failure in her work with Women of the Wall. But she seems an admirable woman.

      Reply to Comment
    4. sh

      The background to Anat’s daughter’s video was very funny. Ladies section: beefy guy with capacious, white satin kipa uncomfortably perched atop head unused to such encumbrance, shoulder to shoulder with cop, warily face fearsomely serene Women of the Wall, letiferet Yisrael.

      As is well-known, before the Wall was given over to the haredim, who comprise little more than 10% of Israel’s Jewish population, men and women prayed there without a barrier and without fuss.

      As Anat Hoffman says in this article, “Israel needs the Diaspora.”.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Susan

      “We are challenging feminists who think that if you buy into a patriarchal religion you deserve all the punishment you can get.”

      I have never met a Jewish feminist who feels that way. Is this a common Israeli view? It sounds the opposite of feminism to me. It seems to me that the Jewish religion is too important to leave to the Haredi Jewish men.

      Reply to Comment
    6. XYZ

      I am glad that Hoffman confirmed what I said in an earlier thread…her demonstrations have nothing to do with religious piety and the desire to serve G-d, it is to make demonstations and provocations against the military and the religious estabishment, which she apparently views as being male-dominated. She views her presence at the Kotel as “challenging a patriarchal religion”.

      What I thought was particularly amusing was the sympathetic demonstrations her supporters around the world are doing by reciting the Shema Israel in “solidarity”! Apparently they are not aware that there is a religious obligation to recite Shema twice a day and both men and women in the ‘patriarchal religion’ have been doing this for thousands of years. This includes the women at the Kotel who oppose her demonstrations and provocations. This proves what I said..they are using the mitzvot of Judaism AS A WEAPON against those Orthodox who disagree with them. Dr Einat Ramon (in an interesting interview in teh Makor Rishon newspaper) who was the first Israeli-ordained Conservative woman rabbi but how has disassociated herself from the Conservative movement and who no longer uses the title of rabbi has confirmed this…there are many feminist Orthodox and non-Orthodox people who use Judaism as a weapon against more traditionalist/conservative Jews and view themselves at being at war with their ideological opponents, instead of using Judaism, at whatever .evel of observance they may be at, as a vehicle for personal spiritual growth.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        And the haredi cultists who throw chairs and stones at the women aren’t using weapons? Could it be that their motive is not to serve God but to establish political control over the site?

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          Typical of you to assume that because I oppose Hoffman’s antics, that I then support what violent extremists on the other side do. Automatically stereotyping your political opponents, as usual.

          Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Missing the point, X.

            It’s not a question of whether you support the haredi violence. It’s a matter of your singling out the WoW for politicizing prayer at the location while ignoring the fact that the haredi activity is at least equally politicizing.

            The wall has become a political venue, and prayer there is a political activity. But you only criticize one side of it.

            Reply to Comment
    7. First of all, I wish to say a thank you to Dahlia for writing this article and bringing this very important issue/event to our attention.

      This is an Absolute Outrage!!

      All Liberal, Conservative and Orthodox Jews around the world must unite in using all possible diplomatic means to pressure the Israeli government to right this terrible injustice.

      If we do nothing, we are just as responsible as the police in perpetrating a crime against defenseless women merely wishing to freely practice their religion – JUDAISM!

      At the very least, we in the diaspora should engage in a letter-writing campaign to Israeli embassies throughout the world, expressing our dismay and disgust at the way these women have been treated.

      The status-quo cannot be allowed to continue!

      As a journalist I usually prefer to stay impartial, but in this case any attempt at so-called “objectivity” would make me guilty as a bystander.

      Anyone who agrees similarly, should contact me here: daniel.easterman@gmail.com

      Enough is enough!! We cannot allow incidents of this nature to take place on our watch.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Piotr Berman

      Ximena-Yolanda, “challenging patriarchal religion” is also a mark of piety. People have different vision of G.d (or God), natural law etc. When Muslim utter similar views as the adorable Orthodox rabbis, they are derided as backward, pedofiles etc. (Talmud has some rules what a newly wed husband should do with a bride: if she is past her puberty, sex should commence of the first night after the wedding, if before, 3 nights later ?!?)

      Clearly, religious rules should adapt to the changing world. To the Orthodox, this means inventing some strict rules for electric appliances. Particularly suspect technology, like the one that allows to post here, should not be used at all. Can a women go to office during her period? According to Orthodox, she should stay at home.

      An average Jewish woman (and man) views such opinions as idiotic. The question is: is Judaism inherently quaint and idiotic. Some do not care, some disagree, their vision of G.d is not a ruthless pedant but someone benevolent and just.

      Reply to Comment
      • “Clearly, religious rules should adapt to the changing world. To the Orthodox, this means inventing some strict rules for electric appliances.”

        I like you, Piotr.

        Reply to Comment
    9. XYZ

      I am sorry to be the one to break the news to you, but Judaism does not accept the new soft-totalitarian-‘progressive’ ideology that Anat Hoffman and others here are propagating. Hoffman wants to “reclaim” the Kotel. Was it ever hers to own? When did she and her followers control it in the past. Communal Jewish prayers have been conducted in Eretz Israel for a couple of thousand years a certain way, and this is the way it is done at the Kotel. It is true that there was no mehitza (physical separation) between men and women before 1948 because the Arabs wouldn’t allow one, not because it wasn’t thought to be necessary.
      No “progressive” has the right to come along and change things more to their liking simply because they believe their ideology is the “true religion”.
      As far as I am concerned I would let these groups conduct their own prayer groups at Robinson’s Arch on a permament basis and I would not want the Orthodox to interfere in what they do, just as the Orthodox do not go into Reform congregations and tell them what to do. Tradition, regardless of what the “progressives” think carries a lot of importance for a lot of people and it can no simply be chucked out because the new religion of ‘progressivism’ doesn’t like it. Just ask the Muslims if you don’t believe me.+

      Reply to Comment
    10. shaun

      “We are reclaiming Judaism’s holiest site” Isn’t that that the temple mount?

      Reply to Comment