Anat Hoffman, the progressive Israeli activist who made headlines two summers ago when she was arrested for carrying a Torah at the Western Wall, has arrived in California with a clear message for American Jews: What’s happening in Beit Shemesh is as big a threat to Israel as what is happening in Tehran.
“Americans have been trained to care about Israel’s security and think of it in terms of Israel being surrounded by millions of enemies,” Hoffman said in a phone interview in advance of her 11-day California visit, which hits the Bay Area on Tuesday, Feb. 7. “But security is not just measured by soldiers on the border. It’s also measured by an 8-year-old girl’s ability to go to school without being bullied.”
Hoffman was referring to Naama Margolese, the Beit Shemesh girl who became a household name after Israel’s Channel 2 aired a report revealing that she had been spit on and called a “whore” by ultra-Orthodox men while on her way to school. Their complaint was that the shy Modern Orthodox girl in a long skirt was not dressed modestly enough.
Since 2002, Hoffman, 57, has been the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s legal advocacy arm in the Jewish state. But even before that, when serving as a Jerusalem city councilwoman for 14 years, the Jerusalem native was a fighter for justice and equality. In 1988, she was a co-founder of Women of the Wall, which fights for women’s rights, such as holding and reading the Torah and wearing religious garments, at the Western Wall.
Now, as the story of Naama Margolese reverberates, Hoffman’s moment may have arrived.
For the first time, Hoffman said, issues of gender equality and religious pluralism are poised to figure heavily in the Israeli political debate.
“I see this as a very important window of opportunity, because we are on the eve of an election,” she said. “The question now is are we going to be put to sleep again and focus only on the security bit, or are we going to focus on the internal issues?”
The practice of gender segregation on public buses exploded into the public debate in December after Tanya Rosenblit, and later Israel Defense Forces soldier Doron Matalon, were harassed by ultra-Orthodox men for refusing to sit at the back of the bus.
But Hoffman has been chipping away at the problem for years. In 2007, IRAC filed a petition on behalf of five women who had been harassed on gender-segregated buses, and in January 2011, Israel’s Supreme Court deemed the practice illegal. Since then, Hoffman has regularly led “Freedom Rides,” wherein she and other Jewish women sit at the front of gender-segregated buses to ensure the court decision is being upheld.
When they are harassed by ultra-Orthodox men, bus drivers often don’t interfere, Hoffman said, deferring to the customary practice of separating the sexes.
“We have 13 lawsuits against drivers for not enforcing the law, and it’s very effective,” Hoffman said. “Those suits for damages are helping to unlearn what 10 years of segregated buses have taught.”
But why have these issues only reached a boiling point in recent months? According to Hoffman, women’s role in Israeli society is changing on a broader level, and the powers that be are threatened.
In Israel’s secular world, a deeply entrenched culture of sexism is finally beginning to crack. A law protecting women from sexual harassment that passed more than a decade ago is challenging the male establishment, and 2011 saw Israel’s former president, Moshe Katsav, begin a seven-year prison sentence for rape.
“Once the law began to be implemented, behaviors that had been tolerated in the army and government suddenly became illegal,” said Hoffman. “The bastards changed the rules and didn’t tell Moshe Katsav.”
At the same time, in the Orthodox world, women are gaining in power and influence.
“Women are in the world, and the kids see that the women know more. So how else can the Orthodox world keep them in their place other than to say, ‘You might know more in the modern world, but in the religious world, you should know your place.’ ”
Hoffman, who earned her undergraduate degree at UCLA, was to open her California tour Feb. 2 in La Jolla, then continue it over the weekend in Los Angeles. In the Bay Area, she is scheduled to give nine talks, starting in Danville and ending in Santa Rosa. Her topics range from gender conflict at the Western Wall to disagreement over religious pluralism in Israel.
As she prepared to address Bay Area audiences, she said she hopes that American Jews will hold Israel’s feet to the fire on social issues. “Don’t go easy on us,” she said. “Israel needs to hear the truth from its supporters. To be a Zionist is not a spectator sport.”
For a list of Anat Hoffman’s speaking engagements in the Bay Area, visit www.rebpam.com/Anat/anattour.htm. Also, see our calendar, page 26.