Diaspora dialogues

Where ‘rock star’ Anat Hoffman turns raging feminist

The very different buzz that surrounds Women of the Wall in Israel and in the US underlines a vast, troubling gulf in perspective

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

‘Every second Jewish American who talks to me about Israel talks about Women of the Wall,” says Chen Bram, an anthropologist and organizational psychologist who is currently a Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor at the University of Florida. “They all know this story.”

For many American Jews, Women of the Wall, the tallitot- and tefillin-wearing women who read the Torah at the Kotel, have long been heroes of Jewish religious pluralism. Most Israelis, however, are only recently aware of the group — though they may be more knowledgeable about other religious pluralism issues in Israel.

Bram is surprised by how much Americans know about Women of the Wall. He says chairwoman Anat Hoffman is accorded rock star status by liberal American Jews. Conversely, Rabbi David Golinkin, President of the Conservative Movement’s Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, says Hoffman and her colleagues are considered irrelevant by most Israelis.

Members of Women of the Wall wear prayer shawls as they read from the Torah and pray at Robinson's Arch, near the Western Wall in Jerusalem March 12 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Members of Women of the Wall wear prayer shawls as they read from the Torah and pray at Robinson’s Arch, near the Western Wall in Jerusalem March 12 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I think the most recent Women of the Wall episode was the first to have even been covered by the Israeli press,” Golinkin says, referring to the Jerusalem Magistrate Court’s dismissal of legal complaints against five women arrested by Kotel police for wearing tallit and tefillin and audibly praying at the Western Wall earlier this month.

It is not merely a matter of media coverage, but a reflection of a major disconnect between the two largest Jewish communities in the world. This divide is slowly being bridged, however, as the notion of a “global Jewish Peoplehood” is entering the public discourse, and religious pluralism and civil rights are rising higher on the Israeli political agenda.

“The whole battle for the Western Wall is an Americanized and American-imported battle for religious moderation and tolerance,” explains Shmuel Rosner, senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and L.A. Jewish Journal columnist. “Women wearing a tallit is not something Israelis are used to. They don’t necessarily have negative feelings about it, but it’s just strange and feels like it doesn’t belong here.”

Rosner thinks there is probably a silent majority of Israelis who support change at the Kotel. “But even within the political parties that are for religious tolerance, the Kotel is not a big deal,” he says.

In contrast, for American Jews the Kotel is a very big deal. And if one looks at Zionism from a historical perspective, says feminist historian Judith Rosenbaum, then what matters to American Jews should matter to Israel, too.

An illustration of Natan Sharansky's proposal, which will expand the Western Wall and create a permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson's Arch area. (photo credit: Creative Commons/Graphics by Uri Fintzy/JTA)
An illustration of Natan Sharansky’s proposal, which will expand the Western Wall and create a permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson’s Arch area. (photo credit: Creative Commons/Graphics by Uri Fintzy/JTA)

“The most holy place for Jews should not have an Orthodox monopoly that prohibits a majority of Jewish women [worldwide] from praying in the way they feel comfortable,” adds Rosenbaum.

Rosenbaum recognizes that other religion and state issues are more important for the average Israeli, but she sees the Kotel as an entry point for American Jews into understanding those other concerns.

Bram worries that American Jews view Israeli religious issues too simplistically, understanding neither the nuances of Israeli Jews’ religious identities and attitudes, nor the religious coercion problems they face. “It’s the buses [on which women are forced to sit at the back], the restaurant closures [over kashrut supervision, the Haredi monopoly on our everyday lives,” he says.

For Bram, it is a matter of American Jews misunderstanding a fundamental difference between American and Israeli outlooks. “For American Jews, religious issues are connected to wider issues of liberal discourse and civil rights,” he says. “But for many Israelis, this connection is not something that comes automatically. In Israel, religion is more tightly bound to ethno-national issues.”

“Liberal discourse is not a prevailing discourse in Israel,” he continues. “The ethno-national trumps civil rights. Rights discourse takes place within the ethno-national discourse, which is bound by issues of loyalty, community and brotherhood.”

‘Israelis live with paradoxes when it comes to civil and human rights’

“Individuals or groups of Israelis may want certain rights for themselves, but they don’t see those rights as part of a larger framework. Israelis live with paradoxes when it comes to civil and human rights.”

Rabbi Uri Ayalon, CEO of Hatnuah Hayerushalmit, a Jerusalem civil rights organization, agrees and says, “American Jews need to stop romanticizing and losing proportion over the Kotel, and to understand that what is happening at the Kotel is not really only about the Kotel.” But Ayalon would like American Jews to put a pluralistic Jerusalem on their agenda.

Elana Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, believes the situation that Bram described is beginning to change.

“Things have shifted in the past two years,” she reflects. “Israelis were woken up by the recent arrests of the Women of the Wall.” Sztokman believes Women of the Wall has spurred Israelis to understand the need to protect civil rights and fight against the conflation of government power and radical religion in all aspects of daily life.

Many Israelis dismiss Women of the Wall as foreign interlopers, “but there is something to be said about Women of the Wall appearing non-native,” Sztokman offers. “Civil rights and feminism are American imports — and late in coming. But now these things are being adapted to the local context.” She points to the major rally protesting gender segregation in Beit Shemesh in December 2011 that was organized not by American immigrants, but by native Israelis.

“We are living in a time of change,” says Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, the first woman rabbi to successfully join a local Israeli religious council (she, a Reform rabbi, sits on the one in Mevasseret Zion). “At last the Israeli society has understood that what Women of the Wall is doing is important for our democracy.”

Lisitsa is one of the religiously liberal Israelis who have begun joining in at the Women of the Wall’s Rosh Hodesh services at the Kotel, which have grown in size in recent months. Secular Israelis, including several female Members of Knesset, have also shown up in tallitot to show their support.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s asking Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to find a solution to the situation at the Kotel was a political move meant to diffuse rising tensions with Diaspora Jewry over the Women of the Wall arrests. It is unclear yet when — or even whether — Sharansky’s recent proposal (influenced by a halachic responsum written by Golinkin) for the opening of a third area at the Kotel, one for pluralistic forms of worship, will be implemented.

In the meantime, many believe Women of the Wall should continue doing what they have been doing. Concurrently, the focus for further bridging the gap between American Jews and Israelis should be on dialogue and peoplehood education.

“It’s an educational process. Conservative and Reform Jews need to get Israelis to understand why praying with a tallit is important to so many women, how it is a way of keeping their Jewish identity. They need to find a way to get Israelis to identify with the struggle of maintaining a Jewish life in America,” says Bram.

And there’s much for American Jews to learn about Israeli struggles, too. “We need pluralism for the sake of Israel, and not just for the sake of Israeli-Diaspora relations,” says Golinkin.

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