Amid Talks on Egalitarian Prayer Space

Hoffman Strikes Back: It’s Easy for Dissenters in America to Carp Compromise

Women of the Wall leader responds to group members' rejection of compromise on egalitarian prayer space.

Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman, who has come under attack from some of the founding members of her organization for agreeing to cede the battle over prayer at the women’s section of the Western Wall, on Sunday struck back.

“It’s easy to sit in America and watch things play out here. It’s much more difficult when you have to sit here and deal with [Avichai] Mendelblit,” she said, referring to the cabinet secretary who heads the government committee putting together recommendations for an overhaul of prayer regulations and space allocations at the Jewish holy site.

Hoffman made the statement in a conference call with supporters of the pluralistic women’s prayer group, invited to question her about the recent decision by Women of the Wall to compromise with the government and move its monthly service from the women’s section to a new egalitarian space, subject to a list of conditions.

About a dozen longstanding members of the organization, most of them in the United States, issued a statement over the weekend rejecting the compromise that was approved by the board a week ago, at Hoffman’s recommendation.

“We, who have demanded change from the most conservative sectors of Israeli society, will also have to change ourselves,” said Hoffman, explaining the decision. “This sort of change, as is often the case, can be very painful for some people. Those of our members who oppose us now, they are very dear and good sisters. Their motives are pure, but their methods less so.”

Hoffman said she spent two hours Sunday morning talking with Bonna Haberman, one of the leaders of the opposition group and the woman who initiated the first Women of the Wall service at the Kotel 25 years ago. “I heard from her how much we betrayed the idea, but the more I heard, the more important I thought it was there are voices out there that let us know what the ideal situation should be.”

Hoffman said that winning over the board of Women of the Wall to vote in favor of negotiation and compromise was a daunting task. “It would have been easier to pass a decision that we are all going to sit in prison for half a year,” she said.

Among the factors that brought about the change of heart within the organization, she said, was the realization that changing the mindset of Orthodox Jews was not possible. “Women of the Wall is the right group for bringing about change in Israel but not the right group for bringing about change in the Orthodox world,” she said. “I’m not sure that a group which has members from all the different streams of Judaism is the right one for doing something like this.”

Striking an unusually conciliatory tone toward the ultra-Orthodox, who have led the campaign against Women of the Wall, Hoffman said: “When people tell me we’re abandoning our Haredi sisters, there’s something disingenuous about that because our Haredi sisters also have rights, and we saw last Rosh Chodesh that they really don’t want – maybe not all of them, but many of them – do not want to see a woman in a tallit and tefillin, and they also have rights. I think it’s absolutely fine that the state gives the Kotel rabbi absolute authority over the Haredi space. The Haredim, after all, are a political force in Israel, but ultimately that is what will enable us to liberate the rest of wall, which is something huge.”

Michal Fattal