Anat Hoffman currently faces up to a year of prison in Israel for her actions with Women of the Wall.
As the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, Hoffman expanded its mission to include social justice initiatives, as well as to promote Jewish pluralism and combat racism.
Before she was the executive director of IRAC, Hoffman served as a Jerusalem city councilwoman for 14 years. She is a founding member of Women of the Wall, which fights for the right of women to pray out loud at the Western Wall.
Her 2 p.m. Wednesday lecture, “Women Off the Wall,” detailed the history of her fight for women’s rights at the Western Wall in Orthodox Jewish Israel.
Thomas Jefferson’s belief that religions are strong when they are disparate, not united, is modeled by Chautauqua Institution in its sundry denominational houses and represented faith traditions, Hoffman said. Israel does not model this.
“There is corruption, and there is a rigidness, and there is no pluralism in Judaism in Israel, or not enough pluralism,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman believes Orthodox Judaism, the state religion of Israel, has been tainted by government involvement.
“When you have state funding of such an extent behind one type of religion, it does become corrupt,” she said. “And if Reform Judaism, which I belong to, had that much funding and that much of a monopoly, then we would’ve been no less corrupt.”
There is no modern Hebrew word for “pluralism.” The word for “integrity” in modern Hebrew is four years old; the word “accountability,” just nine months.
Hoffman led the Hall of Philosophy attendees in the pronunciation of these relatively new words.
She initiated Women of the Wall in order that women might pray aloud, wear a tallit (prayer shawl) and read the Torah at the Western Wall. Whereas all three of these activities were likely to be allowed by any other synagogue, they are prohibited by the state of Israel.
When Hoffman and her colleagues attempted to pray at the Western Wall, they were attacked and chased away. The Women of the Wall took their case to Israel’s Supreme Court, demanding police protection.
Their case was in question for 14 years.
The government formed a committee to decide upon an outcome but did not allow women to be a part of the committee — that is, until the prime minister received more than 3 million letters from Women of the Wall supporters demanding that they include a woman. They did — but she could neither speak nor vote on the decision, only observe.
As alternatives to the Western Wall, the courts offered the women three different walls at which they could pray. The first was in the depths of the Muslim quarter. One policeman said that Jewish prayer there might start a war. The second was an ancient dump, where Hoffman and her cohorts decided it was inappropriate to take the Torah.
The third site was an archeological dig. Hoffman asked the archeologists what it would take for them to demand the women leave so that they could start their fight for the Western Wall again with legitimacy. The archeologists informed the Women of the Wall that bulldozers would disrupt their delicate work recovering artifacts. So the Women of the Wall demanded that the Israeli government make their new prayer site handicap-accessible.
As planned, the archaeologists demanded the women leave, and the government stopped the development of the site. The case went back to court, this time with the Women of the Wall requesting 11 hours of prayer time annually at the Western Wall. The Israeli minister of religious affairs claimed he knew what the Wall wanted to hear, and it did not want to hear the prayers of women.
This claim incited a unanimous decision in favor of the Women of the Wall, granting them their 11 hours of prayer per year.
Then, the demonstrations began.
They were the largest in Jerusalem’s history — 250,000 people came and surrounded the Supreme Court to protest the court’s decision to give women the right to pray aloud. Police protection was necessary.
The attorney general demanded that all nine of the state’s judges reconvene and reassess the original decision. It took the judges three years to find a suitable date to meet. In May 2003, the case was lost, 5 to 4. The women were relegated once again to the archeological dig site to pray; the government carried through on its promise to make the site handicap-accessible.
The government established the Women of the Wall regulation, which forbids religious acts that are offensive to others.
“It only applies to us,” Hoffman said.
She was arrested last July for carrying a Torah scroll and wearing a tallit to pray during Rosh Chodesh.
She said Israel is worried about the international ramifications if the penalty for her arrest, one year of imprisonment, is carried out.
“‘International ramifications’ means you,” Hoffman said. “Hopefully, if you care, as … Americans, about freedom, rights and freedom for women, religious freedoms all over the world, you should care about that, even if Israel is our friend and a very developed country. The fact that a woman is arrested for holding a Torah scroll and wearing a tallit is unacceptable.”
Hoffman said she hopes that if members of the United States government come to Israel, Michelle Obama and her daughters and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will join the Women of the Wall at the Western Wall as a sign of solidarity.
“In some respects, I think Israel is way too precious to be left just for Israelis,” she said. “Israel is probably one of the most important historical developments of the 20th century. Not just for Jews — for everybody. It’s very important that the sovereign Jewish state holds values that we can share. I’m engaged in the most important dialogue of our time, I think — what are those values of the Jewish state?”
Hoffman and Women of the Wall go to court 60 times a year. Recently, they made it so buses could not be segregated between men and women; it now is a felony to force people to sit where they do not want to sit. Women continue to submit examples of public places that are segregated, like post offices and sidewalks.
“That means the government of Israel is actually helping segregation go on,” she said.
She explained the Talmud’s instructions about how to be a hero.
Two questions define a hero, Hoffman said: “Who is a hero? He who can control his own impulses,” and “Who is a hero? He who can make peace between other people and with himself.”
“I think what I’m asking you today is an act of heroism,” Hoffman said.
Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) since 2002, Anat Hoffman guides IRAC in its work to promote Jewish pluralism, tolerance, and equality and to combat racism, corruption, and religious coercion. During Anatâ€™s tenure, she has also expanded IRACâ€™s mission to go beyond the courts and the Knesset and to engage in helping people directly through social action. Previously Ms. Hoffman had served as a Jerusalem City Councilwoman for 14 years, carving out a niche for herself as an untiring warrior for justice and equality. She has dedicated her adult life to the Jewish principle of tikkun olam. It is this commitment to social action and justice that has formed her career.
A founding member of Women of the Wall, in a city where women are traditionally consigned to a subordinate role, Ms. Hoffman led in the battles for the right of women to pray at the Western Wall and for women's equal pay for equal work. Ms. Hoffman has also pushed relentlessly for the provision of adequate municipal services for the more than 200,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. She has fought long and hard to see that the powerful Orthodox bloc in the City Council does not dictate lifestyle choices for the secular population of Jerusalem. Significantly, too, in a city split by religious differences, she has fought tirelessly for religious pluralism.
Ms. Hoffman has represented the Civil Rights and Peace Movement on the Jerusalem City Council, specializing in attending to the details of municipal administration, in which big decisions are often hidden away in the fine print. In doing so, she has become a familiar figure in the Supreme Court, as she pursued her quest for information that the bureaucracy preferred to keep secret.
Born in Jerusalem, Anat in her teens was an Israeli swimming champion. After army service, she received her BSc in Psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles and then pursued graduate studies at Bar Ilan University. She has served on the Boards of the Israel Womenâ€™s Network, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and many other Israeli organizations for social change. In recent years Anat has become a sought-after lecturer, addressing audiences in Israel and in the United States on subjects close to her heart, which include social justice, religious pluralism, Jewish-Arab coexistence, and equal rights for women and minorities.