Women of the Wall founder laments lack of freedom in Israel

When Anat Hoffman uses the phrase “separate but equal,” it’s not in reference to legal doctrine that justified systems of racial segregation in the South during the 1950s.   

It’s in reference to something that makes Hoffman bristle: the idea of erecting a second Western Wall, a space where Reform, Conservative and Orthodox women could wear tallits, pray out loud and read from the Torah — acts viewed as taboo at the Wall, where the ultra-Orthodox have unofficial jurisdiction.

Anat Hoffman

“The Wall, as we know it, is for the ultra-Orthodox,” said Hoffman, a founding member of Women of the Wall, whose prayer gatherings in the women’s section of the Wall have been met at various times with violent and abusive behavior from haredi worshippers. “You’ll be given another wall. It’s a nice place, but it’s separate. Is that something people would go for?”

She added, “The struggles in Montgomery, Ala., in 1953 are similar to some of things we’re fighting for right now. Those people in 1953 were not Neanderthals. They were misguided extremists. That’s what we have in Israel, and we’re fighting them.”

Hoffman, who also is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (the Reform movement’s legal and political arm in Israel), was in the Bay Area recently to discuss the ongoing struggle for pluralism at the Wall, Israel’s holiest site and legally a public space.

Coming to San Francisco on the heels of last month’s Women of the Wall solidarity service in Union Square, Hoffman was curious as to what brought the 200 or so participants out to the Jan. 10 gathering.

“Who are these people?” she said. “Is it that the Wall is dear to them? Is it the intimidation of women that’s getting them riled up? Is it that access to the sacred in Israel is barred? What is it about Women of the Wall that hit a nerve?”

Perhaps it was reading news stories that detail the mistreatment of the Women of the Wall, who were verbally attacked Feb. 15 at the group’s monthly prayer vigil during Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the beginning of each month in the Jewish calendar.

According to the Jerusalem Post, haredi men hurled epithets at roughly 200 members, screaming “Nazis!” and “You caused the Holocaust!”

Still, it’s nothing that surprised Hoffman, who was interrogated and fingerprinted by police Jan. 5. The incident followed the November arrest of Nofrat Frenkel, another Women of the Wall member.     

“Of course it’s unpleasant to be wearing your tallis and be called this name,” Hoffman said. “But it’s been done in Israel before. The problem is that women have been interrogated and arrested for performing a religious act that is done all over the Jewish world. That is the unacceptable part.

“Israel can’t go around the Jewish world saying Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people and then deny basic religious freedom. I had more religious freedom in America when I was a student here than I have in Israel today.”

To that end, Hoffman suggested that Birthright, which provides Jewish young adults with a free, 10-day trip to Israel, go both ways.

“Send your youth to us so they can see our beautiful soldiers, fall in love and see Israel,” she said. “Send our kids to [America] so they can experience the real supermarket of Jewish experiences, which are not in Israel. They’re right here.”