Anat Hoffman knows how to hold an audience’s attention. “Israel is too important to be left to Israelis,” she said with a slight Israeli accent, in one of a handful of quips that had the whole room filled with surprised laughter on Dec. 8 at Temple Sinai in Oakland.
During the 90-minute talk, Hoffman spoke about how women’s rights in Israel are getting better but there’s still a ways to go; how religious pluralism is being compromised; and how the ultra-Orthodox in Israel hold unfair sway in the government.
Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the country’s Reform movement, but her more visible role — the one that gets her in the news a lot — is as chairwoman of the Women of the Wall.
Her talk in the Sinai chapel, which drew nearly 100 people, was co-sponsored by Temple Sinai, Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and the New Israel Fund and was part of a speaking tour timed for the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall. She also spoke on Dec. 6 at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.
Women of the Wall, a multidenominational nonprofit founded to push for women’s right to pray at the Western Wall, is currently in negotiations with the Israeli government about the construction of a separate plaza at the Kotel. Hoffman said the new area will provide freedoms to women, non-Jews and others who have traditionally been prevented by Orthodox authorities from praying at the Wall.
“Everything that’s unfriendly there [at the Wall] will be friendly [on our side],” Hoffman said. “If a 6-year-old girl wants to come, we won’t throw a shroud over her. If a person needs to bring a seeing-eye dog, they’ll be welcome. If two men who are married want to come and celebrate their wedding anniversary there, wonderful. And may the best plaza win.”
While Women of the Wall counts many Orthodox women among its members, it has also faced considerable opposition from the highly observant community in Jerusalem. Hoffman’s appearance came days after the house of board member Peggy Cidor was vandalized for the second time this year. JTA reported that the graffiti called WOW members “scum.”
Noting that only 8 percent of Israelis are ultra-Orthodox, Hoffman likened the political influence of that community on Israeli politics to the NRA and other lobbyist groups’ influence on American gun control laws.
“You ask, ‘How can such a small minority have so much power?’ It’s the same,” she said, noting the government’s continued financial support of haredi schools and other ultra-Orthodox institutions that otherwise operate separately from Israeli civic society. “Israel has given all authority on religion to one group, which robs Judaism of something important: We are a culture of dispute. We have a core of dissonance. I believe [the government] should support everyone equally, level the playing field, or stop supporting everybody.”
She touted strides IRAC has made toward integrating buses in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods where women have traditionally sat at the back, separate from men; bus drivers now face steep penalties if they don’t enforce the rule — posted in several places inside each bus — that passengers can sit wherever they choose.
Several audience members had been part of a recent trip to Israel that Temple Sinai had organized, and they shared their experiences of participating in IRAC’s “Freedom Rider” program, in which women ride buses and report drivers who don’t enforce the rules.
“We got a mixed reaction,” said one Sinai member of the experience. “Some people stared at us. I felt like one couple near us [who might normally sit in different areas on a gender-segregated bus] seemed more comfortable sitting next to each other because of it.”
Other topics discussed included IRAC’s work on immigration reform, such as pushing for Israel to stop imprisoning Eritrean refugees and/or coercing them into “voluntary” deportation.
In closing, Rabbi Andrew Straus of Temple Sinai praised Hoffman and her colleague Noa Sattath, the director of IRAC, who appeared alongside Hoffman for the Q&A, as “heroes.”
“You are leading us toward a new age of democratic ideals,” he said.
When asked about American Jews’ role in supporting Israeli activists, Hoffman was forthright.
“I think you’ve been trained by each other to keep silent and never criticize Israel, that it’s somehow patriotic to shut up,” she said. “It’s not patriotic to shut up. It’s patriotic to speak out.”