Anat Hoffman Dares to Take On Israel’s Orthodox Establishment. Can She Win?
Hoffman’s persistence on behalf of WOW has not gone unnoticed by Israeli politicians. “The Israeli government finally realized that its policy is causing serious damage in the U.S. among American Jews,” says Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. “That, together with the fact that American Jews are now more willing to be critical of Israel on certain issues, has really brought [Hoffman’s] struggle to the forefront. There is no serious security situation, which everyone can really rally around. That means that there is more room for discussion about domestic and political issues.”
In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked former Soviet dissident and Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky to suggest ways to make the holy site more inclusive. “The Prime Minister thinks the Western Wall has to be a site that expresses the unity of the Jewish people, both inside Israel and outside the state of Israel,” Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s senior adviser, told reporters at the time. “He wants to preserve the unity of world Jewry. This is an important component of Israel’s strength.”
Sharansky, who is close to Netanyahu and an admired figure in the diaspora, has already received tens of thousands of emails. Insiders say that he is contemplating turning Robinson’s Arch into a plaza equal to the one at the Kotel. Rosner, who has written about the issue, says one of the first steps is to stop calling it Robinson’s Arch. “It’s a part of the Western Wall and so one of the first steps to finding a reasonable resolution is calling it what it is—the Kotel.”
When I spoke to Sachs, WOW’s director, in early January, she seemed amenable to this idea, but more recently her stance has hardened and she says the group is reluctant to accept the Robinson’s Arch solution. “It’s not a place that Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) sees as sacred. Nobody closes their eyes, thinks of Zion and pictures Robinson’s Arch. That might change, but for now, it’s a solution that sends us to place we don’t want to go.” Sachs says the group would consider a solution that reconfigures the Kotel plaza to make space for them, or alternatively, a compromise whereby they have access to the Wall for only certain hours of the day.
The new Knesset is poised to take on the issue as well: MK Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid (There is a Future), now the second largest political party in Israel’s parliament, has already said that she is planning to introduce a law redefining the Western Wall’s status. In reacting to the most recent spate of arrests, Lavie condemned WOW for defying the Supreme Court’s ruling, but she also said, “It’s sad to see how the Kotel, which is supposed to symbolize peace and fraternity in the Nation of Israel, has become a scene of constant bickering, which sometimes devolves into violence.”
Any compromise needs to reflect the fact that the Wall remains significant both religiously and nationally, says Yehudah Mirsky, a professor at Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and an ordained Orthodox rabbi. “We need to figure out a way to respect everyone’s needs,” he says. “On one hand, just like you can’t just go into the Vatican and do whatever you want, the solution needs to respect people’s religious sensibilities. But on the other hand, the Kotel is not just a religious site and as such, it’s not only the preserve of the haredim.”
The issue may boil down to simple politics. As Mirsky puts it, “The question is: Who is the constituency?” Unlike on the bus issue, the widespread Israeli populace has not embraced the cause of the Women of the Wall like American Jews have. American Jews, Mirsky says, “care passionately about Israel, but they need to recognize that they’re not Israeli citizens. If Anat Hoffman can raise public awareness and convince Israelis that this is their issue too, maybe it will make a difference, but otherwise, it’s hard to imagine there will be real political pressure to change.” He adds, “If an Israeli police commander has to choose between upsetting American Jews and angry editorials in American Jewish newspapers on one hand and tens of thousands of angry haredi men protesting in the streets of Jerusalem on the other, he will chose the former.”
Although the women’s arrests have been reported in Israel, they haven’t stirred up the indignation they have in the United States. It’s not even clear if Israeli feminists support Hoffman on the WOW front. “There are so many issues that are more central, like sexual harassment in the workplace, equal pay, adequate day care and having a longer school day,” says Marilyn Sapir, professor emeritus at the University of Haifa who founded Israel’s first gender studies program and was also the founder and director of the Israel Association for Feminist and Gender Studies. “Within feminist groups, people are aware of Anat and respect her work, but the whole question of women’s status in religious environments is much less significant to Israeli feminists.”
And what about her main opponents, the ultra-Orthodox? They argue that Hoffman’s PR offensive obscures the deeper issues. “What they are advocating is not freedom of religion—which is alive and well in Israel—but rather a redefinition of Judaism,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, has written. Indeed, he sees the Western Wall as but one of the many issues that can potentially split Jewish society. “Would not ‘Messianic Jews,’ for example, assert a right to hold aloft crosses for their services at the Wall? Or political activists of various stripes, to call rallies and demonstrations there? How and where does one draw a logically consistent, legally defensible line?”
He later tells me, “For more than three decades, the Kotel has been a place—perhaps the only one in the world—where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side. What has allowed for that minor miracle has been the maintenance of a standard at the holy site by which all Jews—even those who might choose other standards, or none at all, elsewhere—can abide.”
This is in line with the thinking of Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who has also blasted WOW, saying that their prayer groups are “meant as a show for the media.” (Earlier this year, WOW, along with a number of progressive Jewish groups in Israel, submitted a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court calling into question the Foundation’s legal status.) Women of the Wall and the entire Reform movement “are the only Jewish stream who received from the State of Israel its own private area for prayers at the Western Wall, at an investment of two million dollars of taxpayers’ money,” Rabinowitz has said, referring to the government’s costly improvements to Robinson’s Arch. “All the other tens of streams and substreams in the Jewish nation crowd together in the Western Wall Plaza in peace and brotherhood, with mutual respect, and not one of them complains ‘This place is too small.’”
Hoffman has another group of detractors who insist she’s giving the the Jewish state’s foes more ammunition. “This gives Israel’s enemies another issue they can sink their teeth into,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, who calls Hoffman’s agenda “shockingly anti-Israel.” “If they cared deeply about Judaism and Israel they would quietly work something out. What they’re doing is not beneficial to anyone.”
Klein is curious if Hoffman, who is a Reform Jew and a member of Jersualem’s Reform Kol Haneshama synagogue, regularly lays tefillin and prays at synagogue—or whether this is just a publicity stunt. “I once asked a member of the group and she walked away in a huff. But I want to know: How much does ritual Judaism really matter to them? I’m not sure.”
WOW has heard these criticisms before, but insists it is not trying to be confrontational just for the sake of getting attention. “All we’re trying to do is pray,” says Sachs. “Many of us are in our 40s, 50s and 60s. We’re fighting for what’s human, and the majority of the Jewish people think we’re doing the right thing.”
It’s safe to say that in the united states, Hoffman is a celebrity with a fan club. At a recent lunchtime gathering in Washington, DC, Hoffman regales about two dozen people—mostly women—with her popular stump speech, which includes stories, jokes and pithy one-liners. “Love is what remains when we know the truth,” she says, followed by “Israel is too important to be left to Israelis.” Hoffman exudes energy as she talks and her audience hangs on to her every word, nodding their heads in approval, and responding to her with laughter and applause.
Hoffman, I learn afterward, has studied stand-up comedy, and it clearly shows. When she began speaking publicly, she wanted to master the skill and so with her signature fierceness, she took stand-up comedy classes, which allowed her to fine-tune her rhythm, as well as hone her ability to deliver punch lines. She also read books about great speeches, studying the subtleties that made them memorable.
She recounts her vision of Israel to the rapt audience. “The Zionist dream is much bigger than just trying to save bodies. It’s about building a society that is based on Jewish values.” Her mission, she tells me later, is to uphold Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which according to the text, “ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex, and guaranteed freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
After she steps down from the podium, she is surrounded by a swarm of women, some with questions and others eager to buy WOW’s tallit. “Diaspora Jews have power,” she says. “We need to widen what it means to be patriotic, what it means to be supportive. American Jews are on a well-worn path to support Israel, but there’s not only one way.” She looks up and smiles, adding, “I refuse to put a lid on it.”