Last week’s episode was hardly the first time Israeli police stopped activist Anat Hoffman while she was leading a women’s prayer service at the Western Wall in violation of Israeli law.
But this time, police actually arrested Hoffman — a first, she says — and the incident appears to be galvanizing liberal Jewish groups in the United States and Israel.
In the United States, the Union for Reform Judaism called for a police investigation and expressed its dismay to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador in Washington. The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism announced a global “Shema flash mob” for Monday — a nod to the prayer Hoffman was reciting when she was arrested.
In Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center, which Hoffman leads, launched a petition to the Supreme Court requesting that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the holy site also known as the Kotel, change its decision-making process to include non-Orthodox Jews.
“There is no voice around that table for women, for the paratroopers who liberated the Wall, for the variety of pluralist voices,” said Hoffman, who is also chairwoman of Women of the Wall, which organizes a women’s prayer service at the site every Rosh Chodesh — the beginning of the Hebrew month.
“We want to dismantle this body. If the Wall belongs to the Jewish people, where are the Reform, Conservative, secular?”
For now, however, there is no coordinated strategy to challenge the laws governing Israel’s holy site, which bar women from praying while wearing a tallit prayer shawl or tefillin, or from reading aloud from the Torah. In a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court decision, those rules were upheld on the ground that “local custom” at the Wall did not allow for such practices.
Hoffman’s arrest during last week’s Rosh Chodesh service on the evening of Oct. 16 garnered more attention than previous incidents in which Hoffman was detained but not arrested. Hadassah, which was holding its centennial celebrations in Jerusalem, had sent some 200 women to pray with Hoffman, giving a significant boost in numbers to the service, which totaled about 250 women.
After Hoffman was arrested, she said the Israeli police had treated her roughly, ordered her to strip naked, and that she spent the night in a cell without a bed. She was released the following morning after agreeing to stay away from the Kotel for 30 days.
Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said Hoffman’s claims about her treatment are “not accurate and not right.”
The condemnations of Hoffman’s arrest poured in, including from the Women’s Rabbinic Network and the National Council for Jewish Women. Hadassah’s national president, Marcie Natan, said that Hadassah “strongly supports the right of women to pray at the Wall.”
Yizhar Hess, executive director of Israel’s Conservative movement, said that if Hoffman actually is charged with a crime, it would force a re-examination of the rules governing the Western Wall.
“It’s not an easy experience to be accused in criminal law, but it will take this debate to a different phase: What can be done and what cannot be done in the Western Wall plaza?” Hess asked.
Hoffman says she wants the courts to allow her group to pray for one hour per month at the Wall, and ideally wants the Wall’s council to allocate some time for prayers without a mechitzah — the divider that separates men and women.
Alternative services, like those of the Reform and Conservative movements, are allowed at Robinson’s Arch, at the Kotel’s southern corner and not adjacent to the plaza.
Shari Eshet, director of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Israel office, said legal initiatives are the best way to effect change on the issue. “With all of the screaming and yelling and American Jews banging on the table, at the end of the day this is a land with a court system,” she said. “We need to find another way to bring this back into the court system.”