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. 

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

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Women of the Wall and Pussy Riot: Unlikely partners in the same struggle