American Jews Fume Over 'Woman of the Wall' Arrest

Hadassah, whose members were led by Anat Hoffman at the time of her arrest, came under fire for its 'timid' response to the incident.

NEW YORK – When word got out that Anat Hoffman had been arrested at the Western Wall last week for “disturbing the public order” by leading other women in prayer and wearing a tallit and was held by police who treated her roughly, leaders of American Jewish groups were deluged by upset members who wanted to take some sort of action.

But Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Group of America, whose members were being led in prayer at the Western Wall by Hoffman when she was arrested, has been criticized for reacting in a manner Hoffman called "timid" – a sentiment echoed by others.

Hoffman, who reports she was handcuffed, shackled and strip-searched during her detention by Jerusalem police, is the chair of Women of the Wall, a group that brings women to the Wall at the start of each Hebrew month. The group was founded at a 1988 conference on Jewish women co-sponsored by Hadassah.

On October 18, the day Hoffman was released from jail but ordered to stay away from the Wall for 30 days or face a NIS 5,000 fine, Hadassah passed a resolution affirming its commitment to freedom of worship at the Western Wall. Their resolution did not mention Hoffman’s arrest or the fact that she was leading 250 Hadassah members in prayer when it happened.

In a separate statement issued Sunday, Hadassah’s president, Marcie Natan, promised that the group, which has some 330,000 members, will communicate American Jews’ displeasure to authorities in Israel. She also called for an investigation into Hoffman's treatment by police.

“We urge Israeli officials to undertake an investigation into Anat Hoffman's violent arrest and treatment in prison, and to bring to justice those responsible for any improper conduct,” she said.

Hadassah did not call for a change in policy at the Wall, which is run as an Orthodox synagogue and does not permit women to wear a kippah or tallit or to pray as a group.

Fired up

Hadassah’s statements stood in marked contrast to the reaction of other groups, which said they were swamped with calls and emails from members once they learned of Hoffman’s arrest and treatment.

“When you have lovers of Israel talking about demonstrating in front of the Israeli consulate, you know you have a problem,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, which represents 630 congregations. “We were flooded with people wanting to know what they can do.”

On Monday at 1 P.M. EST time, about 10,000 people around the globe recited the Sh’ma prayer in support of religious pluralism in Israel. The effort was organized by United Synagogue, said a spokesperson.

Wernick and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, separately called Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, who according to Jacobs attends a Reform congregation in Jerusalem. In an interview, Jacobs said the Reform movement was deluged by phone calls and emails from members outraged at the way Hoffman was treated by police and the fact she was arrested.

“This is a really painful subject so we’re getting a lot of people engaged,” said Jacobs, whose group represents some 900 congregations. “It touches every raw nerve” regarding how non-Orthodox Jews are treated and the increase in gender segregation in Israel.

“We see this not as an isolated moment,” but as part of an overall pattern of discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, he said. “Sometimes it’s a tipping point. You say, 'Enough, this is not the way forward.'”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center called on the Israeli government “to remove the ultra-Orthodox authority that oversees the Kotel and ensure the rights of all Jewish people to pray at this holy site.”

Hoffman directs the movement’s Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center, as well as chairing Women of the Wall.

When news first broke of Hoffman’s arrest, “I got inundated almost immediately,” said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the New York-based National Council of Jewish Women, which has 90,000 members in 88 chapters across the U.S.

The council called Hoffman’s arrest “another shameful chapter in the treatment of women praying at the Wall by government authorities…the hatred and contempt for Hoffman’s civil rights expressed by the actions of those who arrested her are chilling.”

In response to the increasing number of complaints about gender segregation in Israel’s public spaces and previous arrests of Hoffman and other members of Women of the Wall, Kaufman recently started a task force on gender equality in Israel. Members include representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements, the Orthodox Union and a range of Jewish communal agencies from the Anti-Defamation League to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“We’re trying to raise up this issue” with Israeli authorities, Kaufman told Haaretz. She described meetings with Israeli representatives in New York who, she said, appear not to appreciate the depth of feeling about it among American Jews. “We feel they don’t really understand,” she said. The issue “always gets shoved aside.”

Members of the New York-based group Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, also responded strongly, said Elana Sztokman, interim executive director of the 6,000-member group. “We see this as oppressing Jewish women and their religious expression. It doesn’t have to be this way. And we call on Israeli politicians to stop caving in to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox leadership regarding the status of women.”

Calls for more

Some called for more assertiveness from Hadassah.

David Seidenberg, a Massachussetts-based Conservative rabbi, started a group, “Wake Up, Hadassah!” on Facebook, with the goal of “waking the sleeping giant.” At press time, it had 452 members.

“To have Hadassah not say anything about it [immediately following her arrest] is truly unbelievable. They pay lip service to it. We need them fighting for the right side of this, because that can change what happens at the Wall,” he said in an interview.

After Hadassah passed its brief resolution on October 18, the public response from those who found it inadequate was swift.

“This is it, Hadassah – your ‘Susan G. Komen moment.’ Take action to repudiate official, religious Israel – stage a protest at the Wall and give the award to WOW [Women of the Wall] – or lose the support of young American Jewish women forever,” Beth Dwoskin, a librarian in the Detroit area, posted on Facebook.

Lauri Donahue, an attorney and writer in Jerusalem, urged Hadassah members to press the point through their pocketbooks.

“Actions speak louder than words. What's Hadassah going to DO about this slap in the face to Hadassah and to women in general? Given the amount of money that Hadassah contributes to Israeli institutions, surely Hadassah execs can reach the highest levels of the Israeli government and DEMAND (not politely suggest) that changes – AND AN APOLOGY TO BOTH ANAT AND HADASSAH – be made? And if that change doesn't happen, Hadassah can (and IMHO, SHOULD) exercise the power of the pocketbook (or purse),” she posted on Facebook.

Hadassah leaders in New York declined requests for interviews. In a brief email to Haaretz, Natan, Hadassah's president, said the seven busloads of women her group sent to the Western Wall to celebrate Rosh Chodesh on the night of October 17 “after an exhausting day…speaks to Hadassah's commitment to the right of women to pray at the Kotel.  We expected this to be a celebratory service. We then came out with a unanimous acclaim for a resolution supporting that right.”

Hoffman distinguished between the immediate support she received from Hadassah members and the group’s less forceful response. “The women I met were very supportive. As an group it seemed to be much more timid than its own members,” she said in an interview from Germany, where she is speaking about Israel and religious pluralism.

She said she is heartened by the overall outpouring of support. “It’s wonderful that Diaspora Jews are willing to be outraged so much and have faith and vision that it can be different,” she said.

“If one thing saddens me it is that Israeli Jews have so much learned helplessness in this arena that they can’t even imagine that things could be different at this national monument," Hoffman added. “More than anything, the Wall needs to be liberated for Israelis. Israel is way too important to be left to the Israelis."

Michal Fattal