Feminist, Women of the Wall founder, will speak here

Anat Hoffman is eagerly looking forward to her upcoming trip to the Bay Area because she thinks her hometown could learn a lot from San Francisco.

Referring to Jerusalem as practically "another Belfast," Hoffman said she is buoyed by the advances of the gay community here. Although she is straight, she finds "inspiration and solidarity and pride at what they've achieved, in redefining roles of people and allowing people to be whoever they are."

Such tolerance and acceptance is a pipe dream in her hometown, where she is serving her third term on the mostly right-wing City Council.

Hoffman, who is a founding member of Women of the Wall, will be the San Francisco Israel Center's fourth scholar-in-residence in its "Diversity in Israeli Society" series this year, and will be making a number of appearances from Saturday, March 31 through Thursday, April 5.

During her visit here, Hoffman will be talking about her efforts in the women's prayer group in a talk she has dubbed "Women Off the Wall." Founded 12 years ago, the group has repeatedly challenged the Orthodox establishment for the right to pray together, aloud, at the Western Wall.

"One of the ways they marginalize women is to say they are crazy," she said in a phone interview. "To do something women haven't done in thousands of years is crazy, and when you do it, you get a clinical label."

What's even crazier, she said, is the reason Israel's Religious Authority gave the Women of the Wall for not allowing them to pray there.

"It wasn't because it was disturbing to others, but because it's disturbing to the Wall," she said. "We're in the Twilight Zone."

In addition to participating in Women of the Wall, the UCLA graduate is a member with her family of Israel's best-known Reform synagogue, Kol Haneshama.

As a city councilwoman, Hoffman is deeply involved in what goes on in Jerusalem. While it has the reputation of being a city of grandeur, holiness and Torah, in reality it is far from that and has more in common with the Third World, she said.

"From a Jewish and humanistic perspective, a society should be judged by how it deals with its weakest faction." And in that regard, she contends, the city is morally remiss. Because of the huge disparity in social services that the Jews and Arabs receive, "we are moving toward becoming another Belfast."

If a Martian landed in a part of the city where there were no paved roads, the garbage had not been collected in months, there was sewage everywhere and no working streetlights, it would be obvious that he was in East Jerusalem, she said.

In another example, she added, the dropout rate among Jewish boys in grades six to 12 is only 3 percent — "and we have a whole system to deal with him" — while that for Arab boys in the same grades is 60 percent.

"From a Hamas point of view, it is the best thing that can happen," she said. Speaking of an Arab child who has dropped out and has no sports, no clubs, no activities to keep him busy, "all he sees is what we have. He comes to our restaurants only to wash our dishes. This kid needs a purpose, to belong somewhere, to give his life meaning. We are actually giving Hamas the material for their next bomb."

An egregious error was made in 1967, she said, when the city became physically united while socially it was still divided.

"If we had the wisdom then to live up to the rhetoric and really unite Jerusalem, we could have been an example for everyone," she said. "Everyone would look to us instead of Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa."

Frustrating her further, in South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped smooth the way to the end of apartheid, despite years of tension and bloodshed between blacks and whites. Yet Jerusalem has done nothing of the kind.

"Horrible things were done there, yet South Africa is not covered with blood. [Nelson] Mandela and Tutu claim they had divine inspiration, which we had before everyone, so why don't we have this here?" she asked. "Why don't we have a soccer league for Jewish and Palestinian children?"

Dividing the city with two separate capitals is the only answer, she said, sharing the holy places, and sharing everything else.

"Jerusalem is the poorest city here, and the only industry is tourism," she said. "And what kills tourism is this constant feuding, this sibling rivalry that is 3,000 years old.

"So why do I stay here? One person can make a big difference here. I want all Jerusalem to live up to what it should be. I want to be the catalyst for change."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."