Anat Hoffman, longtime executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, is leading the fight for Women of the Wall, which has attempted for years to give women and other minorities the same rights to pray and perform other religious duties at the Kotel as men.
We’ve come to learn that bullying takes on many shapes and sizes.
The basic idea, though, doesn’t change, whether you’re on the beach kicking sand in the face of a 98-pound weakling, taunting them through social media or simply making life miserable for someone you don’t feel is as good as you.
Power. Intimidation. Degradation.
That’s what Anat Hoffman, longtime executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), is leading the fight against. The driving force behind Women of the Wall, which has attempted for years to give women and other minorities the same rights to pray and perform other religious duties at the Kotel as men — particularly Orthodox men — is taking her fight to the people.
That includes the American people, which is why she will be at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill on June 5 as part of a four-city tour to address her concerns and enlist supporters.
She said it’s important for Americans to understand that such bullying goes well beyond Israel and impacts basic human rights.
That’s why it’s crucial for her to spread the message.
“I make three trips a year every three months for two weeks to visit congregations,” said Hoffman, who met Temple Emanuel Rabbi Jerome David and 25 congregants last year in Jerusalem, which opened the lines of communication for her to visit. “I have to reject many more invitations than I can say yes to.
“But I’m always in awe that you care enough and are interested to learn about Israel. I wish there were more groups from Israel traveling to the United States to meet Jewish communities, because there’s not much reporting about what goes on in North America. Weeks can go by.”
Back home, though, the news about the struggle IRAC and the Women of the Wall are engaged in has become a political circus. That’s especially true after three years of negotiations led to an agreement Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed Jan. 31, which would divide the wall into two sections.
The agreement did not go over well within the Haredi community, which considers itself unofficial “gatekeepers” of the wall and has indicated it will resort to various measures of harassment to make it uncomfortable for anyone unwilling to comply.
“The northern plaza would be run by the rabbi,” explained the 61-year-old Hoffman, who attended UCLA nearly 40 years ago. “He’ll decide what the local custom is, and I guess it will be quite strict. The southern plaza would be run according to the principles of ‘gender equality, pluralism and tolerance.’ We will run it.
“That was the idea. Even though the government passed it 15-5 to implement these recommendations, there was an immediate backlash by the ultra-Orthodox, who pressured the politicians. Even though they are a minority in the Jewish world and in the Knesset, they’re a very powerful minority when it comes to this coalition.”
“I refuse to see you as ATM,” said Hoffman, who also will visit St. Louis, New York and Wilmington, Del. “It’s a bad relationship to have with people. I want to hear your voices on these issues. I admire how you wrestle with these issues. No, you can’t vote in Israel, but you can say what you think.
“I want the people in American synagogues to first realize you can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. I’d like them to roll up their sleeves and realize they have a duty to make their voices heard. Israel is way too important to be left to the Israelis.
“This is not a spectator sport. We’re all involved.”
Otherwise, Hoffman fears things will go on as they have since she was a girl.
“This has been a place of violence since I first visited,” said Hoffman, who spent 14 years serving on the Jerusalem City Council, before joining IRAC. “The bullies run it.
“This is how it turned from a national monument open to all to an ultra-Orthodox synagogue where even Orthodox women are being harassed. It’s becoming more and more extreme because no one is stopping them and is willing to say, ‘Enough is enough.’
“Our little group — Women of the Wall — are the only ones willing to stand up with tenacity as we’ve been for 27 years. We’ve been able to resonate to the Jewish world to the point Netanyahu is negotiating with us.
“When it comes to the wall, Netanyahu himself says to every Jew he meets, ‘The wall is yours. Feel at home.’ So if we claim this place is a symbol of Jewish unity, how can it be when half Jewish people are denied their basic, basic rights?”
Her goal is to make the prime minister feels enough heat — both internally and from the U.S. — to live up to his promise.
“He’s willing to talk the talk — and say he believes the wall should be home for everyone, but he needs to walk the walk,” Hoffman said.
“He’s feeling pressure from the ultra-Orthodox. I don’t think he feels pressure of the diaspora Jews … If he doesn’t find a solution, there is a rift between Israel and many Jews. This is not the Israel they wanted. This is not acceptable.”
And this is not what Hoffman remembers from the five years she spent in America in the mid-1970s.
“When I was in the U.S. as a student, I remember American Jews being so proud,” said the woman who won nine gold medals in swimming at the Maccabiah Games. “So, if you believe in these values, which unite us as Israelis and as American Jews, we have to fight together. It won’t happen on its own.”
“I want to liberate the Wall for the Jewish people — and then we’ll go on to other things.”
Which is why the bullies cringe when they hear her. Because there’s one we’ve learned through the years.
Bullies don’t like to be pushed back.
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