Interview: Rosh Hashanah 5774

A gadfly on the Wall

A ‘professional troublemaker,’ Anat Hoffman is ‘hopelessly optimistic’ that her decades of advocacy will pay off this year — with the Israel Prize for her Women of the Wall, and the appointment of a female chief rabbi

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall, August 18, 2004. (photo credit: Flash90)
Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall, August 18, 2004. (photo credit: Flash90)

Anat Hoffman spent the night from Sunday to Monday on the flagged stone floor of the Western Wall Plaza. She and a handful of fellow activists from the Women of the Wall, the rabble-rousing feminist group she has headed for the last 25 years, on Sunday afternoon spontaneously decided to hold a 24-hour sit-in to protest the latest step in an ongoing saga about women’s rights at Judaism’s holiest site.

What had happened? On Sunday, a week and a half before the High Holidays begin, Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett proudly unveiled a temporary platform near the Wall “to enable all Jews to pray freely” there. The wooden platform, built on scaffolding, is located south of the main Western Wall, in an area known as Robinson’s Arch. According to Bennett, it “will help unify the Jewish people and enable all Jews to pray freely at the Kotel.” But the Women of the Wall, which advocates for women’s rights to read from the Torah at the regular plaza — and has seen members being arrested for doing so — forcefully rejects the plan.

This “sunbathing deck,” Hoffman said in a recorded video statement Sunday, is akin to “a second-rate Wall for second-rate Jews.” While Bennett hailed the temporary plaza as the first time the Israeli government officially designated a space adjacent to the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer, the Women of the Wall refuse to compromise, saying that “if this plan is accepted, the government will be excluding over 50% of Jewish population to the ‘back of the bus.’”

So instead of talking to me at her office on Jerusalem’s King David Street, where we were originally scheduled to meet, a tired-looking Hoffman welcomed me on Monday morning at the Western Wall plaza, surrounded by about 15 supporters. Sitting on the floor, on a blue Los Angeles Dodgers fleece blanket, she started by recounting her latest run-in with the powers that be at the Wall, which had occurred just a few hours before.

“At 4:30 in the morning, a volunteer starting giving out, to everyone who came, three kinds of coffee: with milk, without milk, and Turkish,” Hoffman said, wearing her trademark dark red and purple prayer shawl. “I stood in line, like everybody else, why not? [But the volunteer said:] ‘Not to women. You have to stand aside. We have an Arab, he’ll give you if there’s any left.’ The men were getting, the women were standing on the side. He said: ‘Why do you make trouble?’ I said: ‘This is a public place.’ So he said: ‘But I’m a volunteer, this is coffee I bought, this is sugar I bought.’ I said: ‘Yes, you are, but the structure belongs to me, it belongs to the public.’ It’s 4:30 in the morning and I’m explaining to this guy what I’ve been complaining to the State of Israel: It’s not yours to give to one minority, you can’t do that. You can’t take the keys that belong to all of us and give it one minority.”

A recently built platform for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall (photo credit: courtesy)
A recently built platform for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall (photo credit: courtesy)

Born in Jerusalem to an American father and an Israeli mother, Hoffman describes herself as a “professional troublemaker” — and doesn’t shy away from comparing herself to Martin Luther King, Theodor Herzl and Isaiah the prophet. In our interview, the 60-year-old looks back at the formative experiences of her youth that shaped her religious outlook and talks about her expectations for the new year, which include the Women of the Wall winning the Israel Prize and the country welcoming its first female chief rabbi. As she says, in her line of work, you have to be an optimist.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

The Times of Israel: How are doing this morning? Did you get any sleep at all?

Anat Hoffman: It was a long night. I’m 60; it’s hard to sleep on the plaza. But I think that this place is a testing ground and I think that history will judge anyone who did not fight all the way here. I’m a big person of compromise. I am willing to compromise. But here, here compromise has to be taken very, very carefully. Because if we lose the war — by ‘we’ I mean the rest of the Jewish people — if the keys to the holy sites are given to one minority faction we’re going to be losing more than just this space. We’re going to be losing the soul of Judaism, the soul of debate, and discourse.

The Talmud is one big argument. We’ve been an argumentative people since our beginning. The first Jew argues with God like a used car salesman about how righteous people are in Sodom — it’s always been like that, we’re argumentative. Look at any dinner table at a Jewish family: It’s our nature. It’s a wonderful nature. The argument has continued through Jewish history and it stopped here. In this country. When one faction started getting so much political power and political funding. We were always under other people’s rules and we argued between ourselves. Now, suddenly one faction has state power. They abuse state power. It’s bad for Judaism; it’s bad for the state. And I think we’re fighting here for the soul of Judaism.

So people are telling me: ‘Why don’t you settle for this sundeck? It’s a good step in the right direction.’ It is not a good step.

Why not?

If there is a Sharansky Plan, I want to see the whole plan, with all its components in place. And until I see it completely in place, we should be able to pray here [on the main plaza] freely and openly. [Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, together with the Prime Minister’s Office, is working on a permanent solution to the conflict about egalitarian prayer at the Wall.]

Sharansky congratulated Bennett on the temporary structure, calling it “a gesture of goodwill on behalf of Minister Bennett towards Judaism’s religious streams.”

Here we are, children sitting at the table. Everyone gets a piece of the pie, and you’re getting a crumb. Is it a gesture of goodwill, or is it a blatant way of saying to you: you will have to satisfy yourself with less? Why? Why do I have to satisfy myself with less? I’m the majority of the Jewish world. Most of the Jews in the world believe in equality and egalitarianism. As women, we’re half the Jewish world. Why do I have to sit here — look at what’s going on right behind us. Women standing on plastic chairs to try to see a bar mitzva. Grandmas who can’t climb plastic chairs see nothing.

You claim to speak for all non-Orthodox Jews. But even Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that “the opening of this new platform signifies several steps forward for the legitimacy of the liberal movements in the State of Israel.” If a Conservative woman leader can embrace it as a step in the right direction, why can’t you?

Well, she lives in New York, I think. And I spent the night here. I think that’s the difference. I stood in the line where women aren’t allowed to have coffee and I realized that the policy that we see now, the change, is because of the bullies. The local custom here is that violence paid. And what happened is that Bennett’s gesture, supposedly, is just to remove us from here so there won’t be violence. Because violence is bad for the image of Israel and bad for Bennett. That’s all.

But I tell you a gesture that wouldn’t cost anything, that would have been a real first step: dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and fire the rabbi [Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, who oversees religious affairs at the Wall]. It has 15 members, most of them ultra-Orthodox — have Julie Schonfeld sit there on the board. And me. Let’s have women on the board. Let’s have Reform and Conservative Jews on the board. That doesn’t cost anything. And let’s spend the 20-68 million shekel ($5.5-$18.7 million) budget a year together. Let’s discuss all these things together, let’s run this place together. That would be a good step in the right direction.

Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, on Monday (photo credit: Ezra Landau/Flash90)
Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, on Monday (photo credit: Ezra Landau/Flash90)

We’ll start there. This monstrosity sundeck is not anything but a political novice — Bennett — doing a hands-on “build something quickly” act. It’s not a first step. It’s a first crumb and I think we shouldn’t take it.

You grew up in Israel and then spent five years in California to study. How did you get involved in Reform Judaism and the Women of the Wall?

I was brought up completely secular. But when I was in America I got to meet the Reform movement, and I was pretty shocked. Actually I had no idea that there’s more than one way to be Jewish. It was very easy to make a decision about my religious identity in Israel because I knew there was just one way to be Jewish: it wasn’t my way, so that’s it. I’m scot-free, I don’t need to deal with my Jewish identity at all.

Well, in America I was challenged by fantastic rabbis, who were friendly and up to date and they said: ‘You’re not off the hook. There are many ways to be Jewish; you’ll have to find your own path. We can help you, we’re teachers. We won’t push you in any way but we will teach you.’ And the more I learned the more angry I became that I have to be in Los Angeles and learn, in English, stuff that I was never exposed to in Hebrew. I had to read “Days of Awe” by S.Y. Agnon in English, in Los Angeles, because I never read them in Hebrew.

When I started going to a Reform synagogue I got a lot of letters from Israel, from my friends, who said: ‘Did you become observant? Are you now Orthodox, will you shave your head?’ And I look at these letters, they’re pathetic, but I’m saying: ‘No guys, you’re not realizing that there’s another way to be Jewish. We never heard about it, but there are other ways. It doesn’t have to be a pain. It can be wonderful.’

When I returned to Israel, I decided to become a psychologist. Tragically, I have absolutely no talent for this profession. I tried to work in the field, failed all across the board and found some comfort in writing complaint letters. On different things that bugged me about Israel. Because coming back from America, I had an idea of consumer rights. So I started a hotline for complaints: ‘Call me when you’re right. Complaints on any issue you want, consumer issues, racism, anything.’ Very soon I got many complaints on the issue of Bezeq telephone company. I myself had a huge bill from the telephone company and I demanded an itemized bill. And the company said that itemization is something that costs way more than the bill. I have it in writing: Bezeq told me that Israel has suffered many wars, and the Holocaust, and we’re nation-building and we cannot deal with nonsense such as an itemized bill.

Anat Hoffman, center, among Women of the Wall supporters, during a sit-in to protest the government's erection of a temporary platform for egalitarian prayer, August 26, 2013 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Anat Hoffman, center, among Women of the Wall supporters, during a sit-in to protest the government’s erection of a temporary platform for egalitarian prayer, August 26, 2013 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)

I founded the ‘Bezeq-Afflicted Clients Association.’ There were over 5,000 members; half of them came from an English-speaking country. That amazed me, and I wondered why. And the answer is very clear: they’ve seen an itemized bill. If you have seen with your eyes that a company can make an itemized bill and make money, you will understand that this is possible and you will be willing to fight Bezeq. So I started fighting Bezeq. I was an athlete in my youth, I was Israel’s swimming champion, so I got all my athlete friends and we did a phone-hurling competition: how far can you throw your phone? I had 10,000 Shana Tova cards written to all Bezeq employees, with a phone dipped in honey that sticks to your ear. I changed the name of Bezeq in the front entrance to Jerusalem, from Bezeq to Nezeq [damage]. I had national conferences of afflicted clients where people came with testimonies against Bezeq. And I had 46 cases in small-claims court where we won 43 of the cases.

We were in the papers everyday. Nine months after I started, the director-general of Bezeq resigned. The new guy appointed me, as a volunteer, to head of the high court of appeals of Bezeq, I appealed all the 5,000 bills. We never paid; Bezeq still made money. And a year and a half after that, all Israelis received their first itemized bill and I discovered: I’m not a psychologist. I am a professional gadfly, a troublemaker. A person who can take the energies of people who are frustrated with something, especially if they’ve seen better — it’s very important that they’ve experienced an alternative — and harness this wonderful energy and make a change.

And I feel it’s a patriotic act. I actually think it’s a religious act. A noble, religious act. And it think that every aliya has given Israel its gifts, every one. The North Americans have given — when you look at the proportion of North Americans in the consumer movement, in the feminist movement, in pluralism, in ecology — this is a great gift that North Americans have given Israel. Because they’ve seen better. An oleh [immigrant] from a democracy can do a lot of good in this country.

How did you get from fighting Bezeq to fighting the Orthodox monopoly over the Western Wall?

After I beat Bezeq — it was amazing. People really thought I could do anything. I ran for the city council of Jerusalem and was easily elected and sat there for 14 years. Always in the opposition to city policies, representing feminism, minorities of all kinds. In the year in which I was running for the city council, I went to a conference on the empowerment of Jewish women. That was on December 5, 1988. A group from the conference wanted to come to the Wall and say the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel. I wasn’t going to join them — the Wall really was not the place I was going to visit. But, alas, the hotel, the Hyatt, would not give them a folding table. Now as head of the Bezeq-Afflicted Clients Association, I had many folding tables. Because to fight Bezeq you need a megaphone and you need folding tables and be an activist.

Police escort Anat Hoffman holding a Torah scroll from the Western Wall, on July 12, 2010. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Police escort Anat Hoffman holding a Torah scroll from the Western Wall, on July 12, 2010. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

So I said, I’ll bring a folding table if you want. So I went to with the tourists to the Wall, I held the folding table. They brought a Torah from America — they never got to read the Torah. They were spat on. They were attacked. Unbelievable. Then a woman called Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman initiated continuing coming to the Wall after the tourists went back to America. Within a short time we formed a group and that’s it — I’ve been chair of the group for too long.

Let’s come back to the temporary prayer platform at Robinson’s Arch. By refusing to accept the government’s proposed compromise, aren’t you deepening rifts in Israeli society more than anything else? By insisting on a right that the government is not willing to grant, aren’t you causing bad blood in a time when our society needs unity?

What you just said applied to [founder of political Zionism Theodor] Herzl as well as to me. Herzl, and Isaiah, Haggai and Amos, Micha — you put all the prophets and Herzl together and you would say exactly that: they caused a rupture in the Jewish people, they criticized Israel openly. They were a provocation, a nagging catalyst to a revolution. Absolutely, I stand with them.

So you see the Women of the Wall as a continuation of the ancient prophets?

Not of the ancient prophecy. I think we are in the footsteps of people who are saying that injustice is intolerable. That it’s not Jewish. That this state is first and foremost a Jewish democracy. I have no problem with the rabbi of the Wall who says that we’re doing — he never said that what we’re doing is against Halacha, because we’re halachic. He says we’re against custom, and he decides what custom is. And custom never changes, okay? I have no problem with him. I have a problem with the secular State of Israel that pays him, that allows him to run the Western Wall Heritage Foundation with secular money, with secular police, with a secular Knesset, with secular justices. The secular government — they’re the ones who have taken the one-sided view of one minority group and are excluding women.

I tell you something about the partition here: it’s got a life of its own. If you don’t keep it under control here, it will get into buses and into our HMOs, into our banks and into the middle of the street. It will run into our schools and it will be in the public sphere everywhere in this country. The partition here is the mother of all partitions. And even though I believe in partitions, I have to be different among equals.

What do you mean by that?

The Wall that I have in my vision — today, 50 years after Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech — the Wall that I see is one solid space. One Wall. One entrance, one topographical area, one rule to all, and one body running everything. A body that will be challenging. We will have to sit and listen and be sensitive to other people.

A Wall with no partition whatsoever?

I didn’t say no partition. I said that there [could be] an egalitarian plaza and a religious plaza but one organ running everything. One budget. That organ will be fascinating to look at. There will be Haredim and secular; men and women, everyone will be around the table. And we will have to share. What a divine challenge for the Jewish people. But we will have to share. Not like Cain and Abel shared; not like Joseph and his brothers shared; we will share the way Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham — they buried him together.

Women seen praying in the women's section of the Western Wall, August 25, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Women seen praying in the women’s section of the Western Wall, August 25, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

I can think of many ways to do it. For example: instead of sharing space, sharing time. Jews have always built structures in time, like Shabbat or Passover, like right now, when we’re in [the month of] Elul and getting ready [for Rosh Hashanah]. While the goyim built these huge cathedrals that took hundreds of years to build, we built elaborate, intelligent structures in time.

May every man know that between six and seven in the morning [on one day a month], 11 hours a year — there are 8,760 hours in a year — 11 hours a year he may hear a woman sing if he comes to the Wall. May he be careful and vigilant on that day not to come. And we? We will make sure it’s one hour a month. But it the Jewish people can’t tolerate one hour a month of women singing, then this whole area, something’s very wrong in it.

There should be a bat mitzva here. A girl that wishes to have a bat mitzva — like the 100,000 boys who have bar mitzvas here — should have the opportunity to do so. We’ll do it at special times, so we’re sensitive and respectful. It won’t be all day, it won’t be every day. We could share. We share in the Tombs of the Patriarchs with the Muslims — why can’t we share with each other here? That, by the way, is a solution that costs nothing. No money involved; just some understanding.

Yet understanding is what’s lacking. The majority of the Israeli public, it seems, couldn’t care less about what happens at the Wall. The Women of the Wall are seen as a fringe group of feminist Anglo Reform Jews and is hardly noticed by the mainstream.

I think you’re a bit behind the times. For a very long time this was true. When the arrests began in 2010 it changed. [In July 2010, police arrested Hoffman after she held a Torah scroll in violation of a High Court ruling forbidding women from reading the Torah at the Wall.] And in 2013, when the paratroopers joined us — the paratroopers who liberated this place — we did a poll with 600 families that represent Israel. We had 80 percent support. Eighty percent of Israelis think that Women of the Wall are right and correct and that their fight for equality is worth supporting.

In 2011, you had hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets to protest the high cost of living. When the Women of the Wall are holding a protest sit-in today you have a dozen and a half supporters showing up.

You’re right that the 2011 protests were Israel’s finest hour. It was the right time, the right age group — but it was very unfocused protest. Every protest was welcome. And the results are accordingly. We are focused on four T’s: we want to wear a tallit [prayer shawl]. We want to pray out loud — tefilah. We want to read Torah. And we want to put on tefillin [phylacteries]. That’s it. Four T’s, one hour a month. One gender, one cause, one hour — that’s it. Very elegant, very small. It rocked the Jewish world. I have much evidence to show you that we’re making history.

Everyone who is being ambiguous at this moment is missing the historical opportunity to make stand and say: Israel is for equality, Israel is for pluralism, Israel is for tolerance.

How do you think the situation is going to look on Rosh Hashanah next year?

Look, we have an opportunity here, we have a government without Haredim. I think we have to push Yesh Atid, which has plenty of women — half [of the lawmakers] are women — to take a stand, so we will do that. We’re going to have to mobilize Israeli women more than they are now. Unfortunately, Israeli women are still way different from what your readers think they are. The fact that we had one Golda Meir doesn’t mean that politically women are successful. I’m very interested in what happens in the municipal elections. Are we going to have more than two women mayors this time?

I think there are over 30 generals running for mayor this year. I don’t see 30 women running. We have mayors and rabbis — there are two patriarchal structures running this country. And we need to get to women. Now the big incubator of women leadership are the NGOs in Israel. NGOs in Israel are dominated by women; most of the NGOs in Israel have women in the highest echelons.

You have been fighting this fight for 25 years now. Realistically speaking, where do you think you will one year from now?

To ask a person like me to speak realistically is a mistake. Because no one is running a project for 25 years if they’re not hopelessly optimistic. So here’s what’s going to happen next year: there are going to be 100 bat mitzvas every month, run by the first academy for bat mitzva girls at the Wall. It will be run by the Women of the Wall and will have this very special scheme: It will be a thousand dollars to teach the girl the whole bat mitzva. But if she brings her mom to learn and read Torah, it will 500 dollars. And if she brings grandma to read Torah, it’s for free.

Hoffman, left, holds up a young girl during her bat mitzva at Western Wall on August 7, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Hoffman, left, holds up a young girl during her bat mitzva at Western Wall on August 7, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Did you know that only one percent of Israeli girls have had any bat mitzva of content? Most bat mitzvas are just a party. Well, most boys have a bar mitzva where they learn Torah, do something. We’re going to change that… Since I will be sitting at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, as one of its directors, I will be making sure that these bat mitzvas will be done in respectful, wonderful way.

Women of the Wall will win the Israel Prize. The government of Israel will be united in the understanding that Women of the Wall have done a tremendous service and devoted a generation — 25 years of their lives — to make the holiest site of the Jewish people reflective of what Israel should be: a leader in innovation in Judaism, and not an obstacle to innovation. As a result of the success at the Wall, changes will happen all over, in recognition of marriage and divorce, dayanot [female religious judges] will be sitting at the religious courts, women will be recognized as Orthodox rabbis in batei midrash [study halls] and they will be rabbis in synagogues. And we will be looking at the first woman chief rabbi candidate. That’s what will happen.

And this will all happen in one year?

Sure. It will be a very good year [laughs].

Good luck with that.

Raphael, what I’m saying will happen. The question is not will it happen or not — it will happen. The question is whether Israel will be pulled there by its hair, screaming the whole way, or will Israel be leading the Jewish world there. But it will happen. It can’t be stopped. We can’t have women where they are today and say to them that in religion, they can’t have coffee at 4:30 in the morning. It won’t last.

You think that when Martin Luther King thought, “I have a dream, I’ve seen the promised land, I’ll see my four children judged by the merits of their character rather than the color of their skin” — do you think at that time it looked like there would be an African-American president, that the richest entertainer in American will be an African-American woman? We listen to him today and it brings tears to your eyes, that he was able to lead us there. It’s very clear to me that this is what has to happen here.

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