Anat Hoffman was recently in Boston to rally the Jewish community. “I’ve had it about how silent you are,” Hoffman told an audience of 200 at Temple Ohabei Shalom. “Right now you are a sleeping giant.”
Spirited, smart and blunt, Hoffman came to international attention almost three decades ago as a founding member of Women of the Wall (WOW), a group that fights for women’s equal access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. And while WOW is an important bullet point on Hoffman’s packed activist agenda, she also presented a number of issues that she’s working on as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. In a recent issue of the group’s newsletter, The Pluralist, Hoffman wrote:
“Zionism is not a spectator sport; you must participate. When Diaspora Jews ask me if they have a right to intervene in Israeli internal politics my answer is no, you don’t have a right. You have a duty because Israel, the only sovereign Jewish state on the planet, is an embodiment of our collective Jewish values. We are all partners in defining the values of the Jewish state.”
For Hoffman and her colleagues, those values include building on WOW’s work by fighting against the segregation and exclusion of women in the public sphere, the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious life in Israel and anti-Arab racism. And for Hoffman it begins with the Hebrew language. A metaphor for Israeli society, Hoffman asserts that despite the many innovations and inventions that earned nine Israelis Nobel Prizes, the greatest achievement of the Jewish state is the resurrection of the Hebrew language.
A wonderful raconteur, Hoffman delighted the audience with her encounters with Israel’s Academy of the Hebrew Language. Four years ago Hoffman requested that the academy come up with a specific Hebrew equivalent for the word “integrity.” A few years later she wrote again asking that the word “accountability” have a Hebrew counterpart. Her latest goal is to have a dedicated Hebrew word for “pluralism.” “The Jewish state is 68 years old. [The Hebrew word] ‘integrity’ is four years old. ‘Accountability’ is nine months old. ‘Pluralism’ is still at large. Something needs fixing in the Jewish state.”
To “fix” inequities in the Jewish state, IRAC often takes a legal route and sues offending parties in the Israeli courts. A few years ago Hoffman took up the banner of equal rights for women on Israel’s public buses. For years women were harassed and pressured into sitting in the back of the bus. IRAC sued 2,500 bus lines in Israel and won its case. Signs declaring that “harassing a passenger regarding his or her seating choice constitutes a crime” were posted on the buses. Ever the realist, Hoffman asserted: “We discovered that Israelis don’t adhere to signs. Even though the sign was on every bus, the segregation continued.” IRAC then took the unprecedented step of suing 13 bus drivers. IRAC prevailed, and since then bus drivers have enforced the sign.
IRAC’s next transportation battle has been with airlines. There have been a number of incidents in which ultra-Orthodox men have refused to sit next to a woman on a flight. IRAC’s test case is against El Al Israel Airlines, in which an 82-year-old woman, a Holocaust survivor, was moved to another seat at the request of an ultra-Orthodox male passenger.
In Beit Shemesh, a town 20 miles west of Jerusalem, women were prohibited from standing near the synagogue entrance. An official sign from the mayor’s office ordered women not to “be a distraction or a stumbling block to men praying or studying in the study hall. God forbid.” Beit Shemesh has previously been in the news for gender-based conflicts. In 2011, an 8-year-old girl on her way to school was spat on and cursed by extremist men.
In this most recent conflict, IRAC sued the mayor of Beit Shemesh on behalf of four Orthodox women to take the sign down. IRAC prevailed and the mayor paid the women, but the sign remains. Hoffman noted there are 92 more plaintiffs in the wings. “The city of Beit Shemesh has to take down the sign or go bankrupt,” she said. “The mayor of Beit Shemesh is saying, ‘I’m defending women. If women walk around outside the synagogue, then there will be violence and I want to protect them from violence. That’s why I have the sign.’”
Defending women’s honor is a long-time racist strategy and one that is used in anti-Arab sentiment in Israel. Twenty percent of Israelis are Muslims. Hoffman asserted that, “on any given day more Arabs save Jewish lives than have participated in terrorism since 1948.” She explained how extremist groups often fan the flames of hate by claiming that Arab men are seducing or abducting Israeli women.
Hoffman ended her hour-long talk with a request: Leave the Arab-Israeli conflict to the principal players to work out for the coming year. Instead, make pluralism a priority in Israel. “I’m in Boston because you are the player who is not making her voice heard,” she said. “And I want you to make your voice heard, because when we hear your voice, Israel listens.”