BY REBECCA SPENCE
Anat Hoffman, the progressive Israeli activist who made headlines two summers ago when she was arrested for carrying a Torah at the Western Wall, comes to California next week with a clear message for American Jews: What’s happening in Beit Shemesh is as big a threat to Israel as what’s happening in Tehran.
“Americans have been trained to care about Israel’s security and think of it in terms of Israel being surrounded by millions of enemies,” Hoffman said in a phone interview in advance of her Los Angeles visit Feb. 3-4, during which she will speak at shabbat services at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Beth Am. “But security is not just measured by soldiers on the border. It’s also measured by an 8-year-old girl’s ability to go to school without being bullied.” Hoffman was referring to Naama Margolese, the Beit Shemesh girl who became a household name after Channel 2 TV aired a report revealing that she had been spit on and called a “whore” by ultra-Orthodox men while on her way to school. Their complaint was that the shy Modern Orthodox girl in a long skirt was not dressed modestly enough.
A native of Jerusalem, and a city councilwoman there for 14 years before becoming executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) — the Reform movement’s legal advocacy arm in the Jewish state — Hoffman, 57, has been fighting for decades to ensure that things like this don’t happen. Now, as the story of Naama Margolese reverberates throughout the Jewish world, Hoffman’s moment may have arrived.
For the first time, Hoffman said, issues of gender equality and religious pluralism are poised to figure heavily in the Israeli political debate. “I see this as a very important window of opportunity, because we are on the eve of an election,” she said.
Moreover, the Israeli populace is still fired up and feeling politically re-engaged by the protests of last summer, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets and — setting a precedent for the American Occupy movement — erected tent encampments to protest economic and social inequalities.
“The question now,” Hoffman said, “is are we going to be put to sleep again and focus only on the security bit, or are we going to focus on the internal issues?”
Hoffman is convinced that those internal issues — gender equality, religious pluralism and minority rights chief among them — pose as great a threat to Israel’s future as the prospect of a nuclear Iran. But she’s not sure American Jews agree. “Ask a hundred Israelis right now what is the most dangerous thing for Israel, and most will not say the atom bomb. Ask a hundred American Jews, and they’ll say the Iranian bomb. I say, let’s not think about Iran for a bit. Let’s ask Israel, ‘Why can’t a woman have a bat mitzvah at the Wall?’ ”
Hoffman has been fighting for more than 20 years for a woman’s right to pray and read from the Torah at the Kotel. As chairwoman of the group Women of the Wall, she has long been at odds with the Orthodox establishment that controls Jerusalem’s holiest Jewish site. But it’s not just their influence over religious sites that irks her. As extremist factions of the ultra-Orthodox minority have grown ever more brazen, their influence has spread beyond the confines of their cloistered communities.
The practice of gender segregation on public buses exploded into the public debate last December after Tanya Rosenblit and, later, Israel Defense Forces soldier Doron Matalon were harassed by ultra-Orthodox men for refusing to sit at the back of a bus.
But Hoffman has been chipping away at the problem for years. In 2007, IRAC filed a petition on behalf of five women who had been harassed on gender-segregated buses, and last January, Israel’s Supreme Court deemed the practice illegal. Since then, Hoffman has regularly led “Freedom Rides,” wherein she and other Jewish women sit at the front of gender-segregated buses to ensure the court decision is being upheld. When they are harassed by ultra-Orthodox men, bus drivers often don’t interfere, Hoffman said, deferring to the customary practice of separating the sexes. “We have 13 lawsuits against drivers for not enforcing the law, and it’s very effective,” Hoffman said. “Those suits for damages are helping to unlearn what 10 years of segregated buses have taught.”
But why have these issues only reached a boiling point in recent months? According to Hoffman, women’s role in Israeli society is changing on a broader level, and the powers that be are threatened.
In Israel’s secular world, a deeply entrenched culture of sexism is finally beginning to crack. A law protecting women from sexual harassment that passed more than a decade ago is challenging the male establishment, and 2011 saw Israel’s former president, Moshe Katsav, begin serving a seven-year prison sentence for rape. “Once the law began to be implemented, behaviors that had been tolerated in the army and government suddenly became illegal,” Hoffman said. “The bastards changed the rules and didn’t tell Moshe Katsav.”
At the same time, in the Orthodox world, women are gaining power and influence. Hoffman points out that it’s women who receive a more worldly education — and therefore pay the mortgage and balance the checkbook — while men receive only a religious education. “Women are in the world, and the kids see that the women know more. So how else can the Orthodox world keep them in their place other than to say, ‘You might know more in the modern world, but in the religious world, you should know your place.’ ”
As Hoffman — who earned her undergraduate degree from UCLA — prepares to address Jewish audiences in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, she said she hopes that American Jews will hold Israel’s feet to the fire on social issues. “Don’t go easy on us,” she said. “Israel needs to hear the truth from its supporters. To be a Zionist is not a spectator sport.”