Anat Hoffmans arrest at Wall galvanizes U.S. liberal groups

Liberal Jewish groups and women’s organizations nationwide and in Israel are protesting last week’s arrest of Anat Hoffman at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall and a longtime activist for women’s rights in Israel, was arrested while she was leading a women’s prayer service in violation of Israeli law.

While it was not the first time Israeli police have stepped in to stop her praying at the Wall, it was the first time she was arrested and taken to a police station, where she claims she was forced to strip naked and dragged across the floor.

In the United States, the Union for Reform Judaism called for a police investigation and expressed its dismay to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, as did Conservative leaders. Oren released a statement

Israeli police arrest Anat Hoffman at Western Wall on Oct. 16. photo/jta-women of the wall

Oct. 22 saying that he regards their concerns “with utmost seriousness,” and is working with Israeli authorities to determine what happened.

On Oct. 22, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism spearheaded a global “Shema flash mob”— a nod to the prayer Hoffman was reciting when she was arrested. People gathered at congregations nationwide to say the prayer at the same time (10 a.m. Pacific time). Many posted videos of themselves saying the Shema on the USCJ’s Facebook page, including a group at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga.

 At Congregation Etz Chaim, an independent liberal congregation in Palo Alto, executive director Ellen Bob says 10 women showed up Monday morning, while others who had to be at work told her they would pause at

10 a.m. to recite the prayer. “It was surprisingly moving,” Bob said. “I wanted to do it out of a deep sense of solidarity, but I didn’t expect to get goose bumps.”

In Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center, which Hoffman leads, launched a petition to the Supreme Court requesting that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the holy site also known as the Kotel, change its decision-making process to include non-Orthodox Jews.

“There is no voice around that table for women, for the paratroopers who liberated the Wall, for the variety of pluralist voices,” said Hoffman. “We want to dismantle this body. If the Wall belongs to the Jewish people, where are the Reform, Conservative, secular?”

For now, however, there is no coordinated strategy to challenge the laws governing Israel’s holy site, which bar women from praying while wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) or tefillin, or from reading aloud from the Torah. In a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court decision, those rules were upheld on the ground that “local custom” at the Wall did not allow for such practices.

So with Women of the Wall intent on continuing its practice of organizing a women’s prayer service at the site every Rosh Hodesh — the beginning of the Hebrew month — another incident likely is not far off.

In August, Jerusalem police arrested four women at the Wall for “behavior that endangers the public peace” and wearing prayer shawls. They were forbidden to enter the Western Wall Plaza for the next 50 days, according to the organization. In June, Israeli police detained a woman wearing a tallit at the Wall and later questioned her for four hours after asking her to wear her prayer shawl as a scarf.

Hoffman’s arrest on Oct. 16 garnered more attention than previous incidents not only because she was arrested; Hadassah, which was holding its centennial celebrations in Jerusalem, had sent some 200 women to pray with Hoffman, giving a significant boost in numbers to the service, which totaled about 250 women.

After Hoffman was arrested, she claims Israeli police chained her legs and dragged her across the floor of a police station, leaving bruises. She also claims that police ordered her to strip naked, and that she spent the night in a cell without a bed. She was released the following morning after agreeing to stay away from the Kotel for 30 days.

Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said Hoffman’s claims about her treatment are “not accurate and not right.”

The incident received wide coverage in the American Jewish media, and condemnations poured from women’s groups such as the Women’s Rabbinic Network and the National Council for Jewish Women. Hadassah’s national president, Marcie Natan, said that Hadassah “strongly supports the right of women to pray at the Wall.”

At least one Orthodox group, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance,  declared it was “appalled by the police brutality” used against Hoffman, and “deeply concerned about the limits placed on women’s freedom of religious expression” at the Wall.

Yizhar Hess, executive director of Israel’s Conservative movement, said that if Hoffman is charged with a crime, it will force a re-examination of the rules governing the Western Wall.

Hoffman says she wants the courts to allow her group to pray for one hour per month at the Wall, and ideally wants the Wall’s council to allocate some time for prayers without a mechitzah, the divider that separates men and women.

Alternative services, including those run by the Reform and Conservative movements, are allowed at Robinson’s Arch, at the Kotel’s southern corner and not adjacent to the plaza.

Shari Eshet, director of the NCJW’s Israel office, said legal initiatives are the best way to effect change on the issue.

“With all of the screaming and yelling and American Jews banging on the table, at the end of the day this is a land with a court system,” Eshet said.

Leaders of some religiously pluralistic American Jewish groups admit their efforts to date on this issue have not worked. Some hope Hoffman’s arrest will galvanize their constituents anew.

“This is a moment for us to think differently,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ. He said his organization was considering an array of options and that more details would be forthcoming in a matter of weeks.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said a new strategy is needed.

“We’ve been very reactive thus far to these circumstances when they come,” he said. “Whatever strategies that we’ve been doing previously are not enough because this issue in recent years is getting progressively more difficult and troublesome.”

In Israel, groups working for religious pluralism face a dual challenge: They are fighting legal and legislative battles on a range of issues, and most Israelis are not motivated to join the fights, especially when it comes to the Western Wall.

“Israelis view the Wall as something not relevant to day-to-day life,” Hess said. “What could have been a national symbol to connect Jews from all over the world is now only an Orthodox synagogue.”

Hoffman says she hopes diaspora Jews will push the issue with Israeli leaders. “The Western Wall is way too important to be left to the Israelis,” she said.

For Ellen Bob in Palo Alto, the issue affects Jews worldwide. “Something we take for granted in our religious life, we can’t do at the Wall,” she said.