Anat Hoffman Dares to Take On Israel’s Orthodox Establishment. Can She Win?
Hoffman became involved in women of the Wall at its inception in 1988 by accident. About 100 women, many of them American, were attending the First International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem and decided to gather at the Wall for prayers and Torah reading. They needed someone to bring a folding table to hold the Torah, and Hoffman, who was attending the conference, volunteered. When she got there, Hoffman saw the women being assaulted—both physically and verbally—by angry ultra-Orthodox men. The experience ignited her deep-seated sense of justice. “I have a unique ability to get pissed off,” she says.
Despite the harassment, a small number of women—modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and other denominations—continued to gather at the Wall once a month to celebrate Rosh Hodesh. Sometimes only a handful of women came, and according to Hoffman, the fact that WOW endured through the decades is nothing short of “miraculous.” Their persistence set the stage for a long battle with the ultra-Orthodox and the state.
The Wall is located in Jerusalem’s Old City at the western side of the Temple Mount, where the Jewish Temple once stood. Long a place of prayer for Jews, it was closed to them from 1948 to 1967 while it was under Jordanian control. In the weeks after Israel captured the Old City during the Six-Day War in June 1967, Jews from around the world flocked to the holy site for the first time in a generation. At first, men and women prayed side by side, but a month later, a spokesman for the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which was dominated then, as now, by Orthodox political parties, announced its intention to separate genders at the Wall. Within weeks, the chief rabbi ordered the installation of the barrier known as a mechitzah, creating the men’s and women’s sections. In 1998, the government handed control of the Wall and the surrounding plaza over to The Western Wall Foundation, an ultra-Orthodox group that maintains the holy site.
With only minimal police protection, and assaults continuing unabated, WOW submitted a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court with the help of IRAC, asking for an order that would allow the prayer group to hold a service that included reading the Torah at the Wall. But in 1994, the judges decided that the court was not the proper forum for the discussion and created a government commission tasked with coming up with a solution that would allow WOW to pray the way they would like at the Kotel, while also taking into account the religious sensitivities of the ultra-Orthodox.
The commission’s recommendations, issued in 1996, proposed three alternative places for the women to hold their services: a section of the Wall located in the middle of the Muslim Quarter (it was rejected by the police); an ancient wall outside the Old City (it was rejected by the group); or Robinson’s Arch, a nearby archeological site that is an extension of the Western Wall, but which was cramped and not wheelchair accessible. The women again petitioned the Supreme Court, this time with the help of leading Israeli feminist legal scholar Frances Raday. Unlike IRAC, Raday is not affiliated with a particular religious stream and was therefore deemed a more appropriate representative for the multi-denominational group. But in 2003, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to WOW, ruling that despite the group’s legal right to pray at the Wall, the right “was not without boundaries,” so reading the Torah or wearing a tallit there were illegal. The Court insisted that it was “obligated to minimize the harm felt by other worshippers” and “prevent violent incidents between the two warring camps.”
The women were ordered to accept Robinson’s Arch as an alternative, and after several delays, the state made repairs, adding ramps and elevators to make the site wheelchair accessible. From then on, the women gathered first at the Wall for prayers and afterward at Robinson’s Arch for Torah reading. In the ensuing years, they grew bolder in skirting the law: At first they wore prayer shawls under jackets and sweaters but then began to arrange them as scarves around their necks. For the most part, police tolerated this, as long as the women did not drape the shawls around their shoulders as men traditionally do during prayer, which violated what the police considered minhag hamakom (local practice). Around 2009, tensions increased and the police began to crack down: Since then, members of the group have been detained or questioned 33 times, although no charges have ever been filed.
The standoff between the women and police reached a boiling point when Hoffman herself was arrested. On October 16, 2012, she gathered to pray at the Wall with 250 Hadassah women from the United States as part of the organization’s centennial birthday. They were reciting the Shema prayer when a police officer separated Hoffman from the group. The way Hoffman tells it, she said to him, “I’ve been breaking the law for 24 years; either charge me or let me go.” And so he arrested her. Although never charged with a crime, over the next 24 hours, she says, she was handcuffed, strip searched, shackled, dragged on the floor and forced to spend a night in a tiny cell in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound prison, alongside a car thief, a prostitute and a woman who was charged with hiding evidence of child abuse in an ultra-Orthodox polygamous sect. A police spokesman called the allegations “not accurate and not right.”
The arrest coupled with the image of women being hauled away for wanting to pray was a dramatic PR coup for Hoffman, who by now has become WOW’s mascot and symbol, as well as its direct conduit to IRAC. On February 11 of this year, the group again made headlines: 10 women were detained, including Hoffman but also Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi who lives in Israel and is the sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman. At that same gathering, a group of IDF veterans who had wrested the Wall from the Jordanians in 1967 also came out in support. WOW has reached a tipping point: With every arrest, the group gains an even higher profile, with photos splashed across newspapers around the world.
Conflicts between the ultra-orthodox and the rest of Israeli society have increased generally in recent years, and tensions have spilled over into unlikely places. And so one day in 2004, novelist Naomi Ragen, who is Orthodox, boarded a nearly empty Jerusalem bus and sat down, immersed in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. A few stops later, an ultra-Orthodox man demanded that she move to the back of the bus, together with a handful of other women. Ragen refused and the man verbally assaulted her throughout the bus ride. She wrote about the incident in a widely circulated Jerusalem Post article, “Egged and the Taliban,” as well as in columns for Moment, where she is a regular contributor.
Not long after the incident, IRAC contacted Ragen, asking if she was interested in becoming a plaintiff in the case against Egged, the national bus company, and the Ministry of Transportation, arguing that gender segregation aboard public buses was illegal. “They had heard lots of horror stories, mostly from Orthodox women,” Ragen recalls of her conversation with IRAC lawyers. “From that point on, they did everything: They filed the case, made legal arguments, gathered plaintiffs, set up meetings with the Ministry of Transportation and distributed information to the local and foreign press.”
Hoffman directed the IRAC campaign and waged a media war alongside the legal battle. IRAC monitored the estimated three dozen segregated bus lines throughout the country, collected stories of women who were attacked for refusing to sit at the back of the bus and demanded that the state ensure the safety of its female passengers. The bus issue became a line in the sand, and Hoffman made it clear that she would take on misogyny in all its state-sponsored permutations. “You can’t use public resources in Israel to discriminate against women under the guise of religious modesty,” she says. In building a coalition of women, from ultra-Orthodox to Reform, she also made buses a human rights issue, rather than a progressive Jewish cause. As a result, Israelis all over the country paid attention, and most were enraged.
In this legal battle, IRAC prevailed. In 2011, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that sex-segregated buses were illegal. In his decision, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein ruled that a public transportation company “cannot say, ask or order women where to sit on a bus simply because they are women… They must sit wherever they like.” He added, “As I now read over these lines emphasizing this, I am astounded that there was even a need to write them… Have the days of Rosa Parks, the African American woman who collapsed the racist segregation on an Alabama bus in 1955, returned?”
Ragen says she could never have pursued the case alone. “I don’t have the time, money or experience,” she says, “but IRAC fought a good fight, and their legal arguments held water. Without them, nothing would have happened and we would still be sitting on segregated buses.”
Aware that ultra-Orthodox men would balk at the Supreme Court ruling, Hoffman didn’t stop after the group’s legal victory: The IRAC team launched an enforcement program, dubbed “freedom riders,” to ensure that passengers and drivers comply with the court. The program is popular, and American women who vacation in Israel often ride the buses during their tours of the country. Hoffman herself has participated in dozens of rides, and if a bus driver tells her to sit at the back, she simply takes him to small claims court. “Seven drivers paid about $1,000 and you can be sure you can’t find a bus driver who will tell a woman to sit in the back of the bus anymore,” says IRAC director Noa Sattath, who works closely with Hoffman.
IRAC counts the bus victory, as well as the public support for its work, as one of its most significant accomplishments. Its mission ranges from lobbying for civil marriage to tracking the amount of money allocated to Orthodox institutions and rabbis as compared to non-Orthodox organizations. The group’s $1.5 million budget, much of which comes from the Reform movement in the United States, supports a staff of 26, many of whom are lawyers. Many of its court battles have resulted in significant change. In 2012, the state finally announced it would pay a salary to Rabbi Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi from Kibbutz Gezer, making her the first non-Orthodox rabbi to be awarded a government salary. The announcement came in response to a 2005 IRAC petition, and though the funds are slated to come from the coffers of the sports and culture ministry, not the religion ministry, it was nevertheless hailed as a triumph for progressive Jews in Israel. But since Gold has yet to receive her salary, IRAC is headed back to court.
The foot-dragging evident in Miri Gold’s case is not unique. In Israel’s current political climate even large political parties often need to form coalitions with smaller ultra-Orthodox parties to form a stable government, and politicians often appoint committees as a way of buying time. Staying power is key, and in this, Hoffman excels. “More than just exposing injustice, Anat has stamina and she builds momentum that can be sustained,” says Sattath. “That is crucial to her success.”