Tanya Hoffman is the daughter of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. / Haaretz
“How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.”
That’s the title of an upcoming film by Tanya Hoffman, the 26-year-old daughter of firebrand feminist and Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. The summer release is already arousing a certain amount of interest in Israel — but will it be worth seeing? That depends on how well the filmmaker can use her personal story to shed light on a larger question — the question of why many young people, and not just her, are less than enchanted with Women of the Wall these days.
The documentary is as much about Tanya’s conflict-laden relationship with her mother as it is about Anat’s liberal prayer group, which pushes for equal ritual rights for women at the Western Wall. In a Haaretz interview, Tanya explained that she couldn’t be more different from her super opinionated “bulldozer” of a mom, and that no one else in the family ever understood what Anat was after. “None of us ever joined her at the Women of the Wall services. None of us really got it. We were, like, why are you doing this?”
Quick, if you’re a settler-dominated government uninterested in sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinian people, what’s a good way to telegraph your position without raising a ruckus?
Well, one good way would be to turn over a sizable portion of Judaism’s holiest site to the management of a maximalist settler group — which is precisely what Israel’s government is about to do.
Haaretz reported on Monday that settlement organization Elad—City of David Foundation stands to be granted the management of the Western Wall’s southern section — not the section most people visit, but the part to the south of the rampart up to the Temple Mount itself, where the Jerusalem Archaeological Park/Davidson Center are located.
Elad is best known, perhaps, for its management of the City of David (Ir David) archeological excavations, which it has turned into a right-wing propaganda center, eliding Palestinian history in the city, ignoring findings that don’t support a Jewish-only narrative, and in the process of expanding its work, damaging (or simply claiming) the property of Palestinians living in the surrounding neighborhood, Silwan.
A lengthy piece in the New Republic asserts — or, more accurately, hopes — that “an unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism.” The latter word, of course, is intended to refer to traditional Orthodox Judaism.
Heavy on anecdotes about Haredi crazies harassing sympathetic women, the piece, titled “The Feminists of Zion,” details how demographic changes in Israel have brought the decades-old peaceful co-existence of secular and Haredi Jews to something of a head. The “once-tiny minority” of Haredim “now comprises more than 10% of the population,” it informs. And it warns that “as their numbers have increased, so has their sway over political and civil life.”
That sway has resulted in things like “an increase in modesty signs on public boulevards and gender-segregated sidewalks in Haredi neighborhoods,” not to mention “gender-separated office hours in government-funded medical clinics and de facto gender segregation on publicly subsidized buses,” among other affronts.
In 19th-century America, there was much anxiety about the “Yellow Peril,” the pernicious effect that Chinese immigrants were imagined to have on the culture of the union.
During the Second World War, the phrase was applied to Japanese-Americans. The New Republic writers, Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer and Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, seem to perceive what they might call (although they don’t) a “Black Peril” in Israel. And the white knight on the horizon who might vanquish the monster is the Jewish state’s “fighting feminist spirit.”
That spirit, the writers say, is championed by the Israeli Reform movement (and its legal arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, or IRAC) and by “modern-Orthodox” women in Israel who are fed up with Haredim. One group of such Orthodox feminists, Kolech, the article notes, has begun to work with IRAC on “a host of issues.”
The “highest profile example of the renewed fighting feminist spirit in Israel,” the writers assert, may be “the stunning success this year of Women of the Wall,” (WOW), the group of feminists that has made a point of gathering monthly at the Western Wall, or Kotel Maaravi, to hold vocal services while wearing religious garb and items traditionally worn by men, which offends the Haredi men and women who regularly pray at the site around the clock.
Today, Haredi activists headed en masse to the women’s section of the Western Wall before the interdenominational feminist group Women of the Wall (WOW) were due to assemble for their monthly prayer service. Citing concern for the women’s’ “personal safety” police said that the high concentration of Haredi opponents to the group assembled by the Kotel meant that WOW had to be kept away, and conduct their prayer service further than normal from the Wall.
Essentially, Haredim have taken advantage of the police ethos which, last month, worked against them. A month ago WOW got to the Wall first, and police kept other women, mostly Haredi women away, as we discussed here. The Haredim learned last month that the police’s attitude to the Wall is, simply put, first come first served. So this time, they decided to get there first, and wait for the police to exclude WOW.
Now, both sides, WOW and their opponents, have taken a turn at getting there first and excluding the other. What now?
It’s not sustainable that each month there will be a race to the Wall. Will women start pitching tents the night before like kids lining up for concert tickets? The police will inevitably need to find a way of managing tensions by the Wall and allowing both groups of women to approach at the same time.
Beyond this, today’s events will reinvigorate the lobby that wants to see the Sharansky plan for an egalitarian prayer section at the Wall reinvigorated. Last month, when all was rosy with the WOW prayer, there was some speculation that the need for an egalitarian section was fading — after all liberal women had successfully held prayers by the Wall with police help. The scene today was a reminded that WOW is making headway, but its achievements are a work in progress.
As the Forward has reported, there are differences in the priorities of WOW and the Reform/Conservative mainstream Jews. WOW is an activist group that is game for a monthly battle of the wills, but most Reform and Conservative Jews just want to pray-and-go. And to progress that desire, they have the Sharansky plan.
Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for her outrageous shtick. But her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman, and niece, Hallel, have become leading members of the Israeli activist group Women of the Wall, which fights for women’s rights to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall.
The Silvermans are well known for their involvement in the Kotel protests. But Susan Silverman’s husband, Yosef, is himself an activist for green solar technology in Israel.
Recently, videographer Harvey Stein travelled with the family to the monthly prayer protests under threats of violence.
Fifty years ago civil rights activists staged a sit-in at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s in Jackson Mississippi to protest the segregated seating which existed, mandating separate areas for black and white patrons.
Young students from nearby Tougaloo College, both black and white, sat together at the “whites only” counter, waiting futilely to be served. These brave young students were attacked by local citizens who felt that their way of life was being threatened. The mob screamed, cursed, spat on and punched the people sitting-in at the lunch counter. They poured coffee, salt, pepper, sugar, ketchup and mustard on them. They hit them with brass knuckles.
Eventually, after several hours of violence, the police moved in to break up the mob.
Hillel Halkin brands Women of the Wall ‘childish provocateurs’ who put their rights to protest ahead of other Jews’ feelings
Prior to the sit-in, Medgar Evers, then the Field Secretary for the NAACP in Jackson, wrote a letter indicating their intent. “We are determined to end all state and local government sponsored segregation in the parks, playgrounds, schools, libraries, and other public facilities. To accomplish this, we shall use all lawful means of protest,” Evers wrote.
Two weeks after the sit-in, Medgar Evers was murdered by a local KuKlux Klan member. Woolworth’s closed the lunch counter altogether to avoid serving blacks.
But the protests resounded — and humanity prevaile. A year later, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination based on race.
Reading today about this historic struggle in American history reminded me of my own experience last month on May 10 (Rosh Chodesh Sivan), when I was privileged to be a participant with the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem.
Strangely similar to the accounts of the struggle in Mississippi were the screams, the taunts, the cursing, and even the spilling of food, such as water and coffee by the Haredim, who were protesting the existence of the Women of the Wall, our prayers, our tallitot, our voices rising to the Heavens.
Like the mob in Mississippi, they were worried that their way of life would be threatened.
At Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, the use of racial profiling is so controversial that it is the subject of a legal challenge by human rights advocates. But what about a different type of profiling — religious profiling — and of all places at the Western Wall?
As we reported, the tables were turned at the Western Wall on Sunday when Women of the Wall held its communal prayers. Until a court ruling demanded otherwise on April 25, the police treated the group’s monthly gatherings as illegal.
But on Sunday police didn’t just let WOW pray — to do so they kept Haredi women away from the Wall. Police erected barriers by the women’s section of the Wall and only let worshippers who looked like they were part of the WOW gathering through.
Women who wore Haredi attire weren’t allowed to approach the Wall during the time of the WOW prayers. An Orthodox woman who isn’t a member of WOW but who went to join the group’s prayers, tells me that she was stopped and questioned on where she was going. It was clear, she said, that if she hadn’t been headed to take part in WOW prayers, she would have been temporarily barred from the Wall.
This situation presents a conundrum. WOW have won their hard-earned religious freedom, and are now allowed to hold prayers at the Wall. And certain Haredi women continue to show determination to disrupt their prayers, as I reported on Sunday. It may even be the case that allowing these particular Haredi women close to WOW would cause direct confrontation. So on the one hand the measures taken on Sunday could seem justified.
Could Tzipi Livni be sweetening feminists before dropping a bombshell?
As discussed earlier on Forward Thinking, Justice Minister Livni has just announced that she is working on legislation to criminalize the exclusion of women from the public sphere. The timing is interesting — just as she could find herself in a very awkward position on women’s issues.
Women of the Wall, the interdenominational feminist group that prays once a month at the Western Wall, is waiting to see what will become of its newfound rights.
For the first time ever, women tried to hold public prayers at the Western Wall with he blessing of the state today. It was be the group’s first prayer meeting since a landmark court ruling that will put an end to the police’s habit of detaining its members.
Women planned to gather at the Wall, some of them wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries, with guarantees from police that they will respect the protection that the court afforded them.
Instead of the police, women found themselves facing off against thousands of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators. Police had to protect them from the Haredi mob.
Now, non-Orthodox religious leaders are demanding an investigation into the violence.
Israel’s Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has just dealt the political establishment a trump card to clamp down on the women. This week he waived his right to challenge the permissive court ruling they received as he believes it accords with the current law, but in his decision he left the door wide open for the Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett to redefine the law and put a stop to their newly-won right to public prayer at the Wall.
If Bennett decides to alter the law, he will head straight to Livni’s office for her signature to do so. The pressure will be high on Livni, the junior party of the coalition, from strongman Bennett. Perhaps she’s making a big gesture to women in her announcement today so that, if and when the time comes to reel in rights at the Kotel, she can say that she’s only lost a battle but won the war.
Either way, the ball is in Tzipi’s court.
The rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz isn’t opposed to the plan for an egalitarian prayer section there, he announced in a statement emailed to reporters yesterday. But it’s already clear that he doesn’t speak for the Haredi mainstream.
Rabinowitz is Haredi, but softer on religious issues than most Haredi leaders. This is partly because he’s a state employee and realizes that there are limits to his autonomy, and partly because his family background is more moderate than many — for example he served in the army.
“The Kotel isn’t ours to give away,” rages the editorial of the Jerusalem-based Hasidic-establishment newspaper Hamodia today, using the Hebrew name for the Western Wall. “The place of the Temple was chosen by God and the Shechinah [divine presence] has never departed from the Kotel.”
Hamodia went on to argue that the Women of the Wall fight is a proxy battle by American Reform which is trying to compensate for its failure to make inroads in to the Israeli religious scene. “The Reform Movement in the United States is using the Women of the Wall to bully the government in to giving it recognition that the people have withheld,” it claimed.
Hamodia argues that while much of the world sees the fight of Women of the Wall as a human rights issue “nothing could be further from the truth.” It insists that Women of the Wall are actually infringing the rights of other female worshippers at the Wall with their controversial monthly prayer meetings there, such as today’s gathering which resulted in two female worshippers being detained by police..
“Indeed, if anyone’s rights are being trampled, it is those of the regulars at the Kotel, the women who come — every day not just Rosh Chodesh [the start of the month] — to daven [pray], not to create provocation. These women are denied a place of quiet, holiness and dignity, where they have been coming for decades to pour out their hearts, by a group of lawbreakers that seeks to advance a political agenda.”
Hamodia portrays the Reform movement as hypocritical, writing: “How ironic that the same Reform movement that hails Israel’s Supreme Court when it rules that the Tal Law on drafting yeshivah students is unconstitutional, or that Haredi schools must teach the core curriculum, has no trouble ignoring what it when it bars the Women of the Wall from holding services at the Kotel.”
The Orthodox rabbi who oversees the Western Wall has vowed not to soften his confrontational approach toward Jewish women seeking to pray at the holy site in Jerusalem.
On Friday, police detained four women for wearing prayer shawls as they tried to start a prayer service. There have been numerous similar incidents in the past.
In an article that Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz sent to journalists Tuesday, but apparently written before Friday’s incident, he said that women trying to pray at the wall represent a “liberal-zealous” agenda.
Rabinowitz, who is an Israeli state employee, is the man behind the ban on female public prayer that the police enforces. He presents himself as caught “between two types of zealotry.”
He wrote: “From the side of the traditionalist zealots, I have been attacked because of my vigorous actions t bring thousands of groups of students and soldiers to the Western Wall. Many of these groups do not live a traditional Jewish lifestyle. From the liberal-zealous direction.”
The “zealotry” from the other direction is that of the Women of the Wall, the inter-denominational group that wants the right to wear prayer shawls, to pray, and to read out loud from the Torah at the Wall.
Discussing a Talmudic passage he wrote of zealotry: “With pretty words it asks for our protection – in the name of tolerance, of course. Under the protection of tolerance, it grows and flourishes, until it is impossible to prevent the disaster that it brings upon all of us.”
He went on to state “loud and clear” that “[a]s long as I have authority, placed upon me by the State of Israel, over the Western Wall, there will be no place for zealotry there. The stones of the Wall can teach us about the cost of zealotry. They still remember the heat of the flames, lit by the zealotry of the residents of Jerusalem, each man against his brother. Before these glorious stones, we are charged never to make the same mistake again.”
Calling on the federation system to join synagogues in a fight against religious discrimination in Israel, Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs aimed to engage the broader Jewish community in the struggle for equality of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel.
Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, described Israel as “the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams.”
He also spoke out against Israel’s decision not to allow women full access to the Western Wall, its refusal to recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis and the discrimination against religious institutions affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements.
“It is time to end this discrimination once and for all,” Jacobs declared.
While this call for arms is not new in the Reform discourse with Israel, his effort to enlist the federation system in the struggle does represent a new phase in the battle against the Orthodox denomination’s hold on Israel Jewish institutions.
Most of the people wouldn’t have known who Mitt Romney was if wasn’t for the large entourage. But word travelled fast around the courtyard of the Western Wall that the Republican presidential candidate had arrived.
The weather in Jerusalem is scorching and the atmosphere at the wall is intense, as people recite the special Afternoon Service for the Fast of Av, with passages mourning the destruction of the ancient temple, of which the wall is the last remnant. But when Romney arrived, for a moment many worshippers switched to more contemporary concerns, and made sure they caught a glimpse of the man who may become president.
“Beat Obama,” one worshipper shouted, as others echoed his sentiment, suggesting that Romney would be better for Israel.
Shmuel Rabinovitch, rabbi of the Western Wall showed him around, and Romney followed tradition and placed a note in the cracks between the walls — as did his wife on the women’s side of the barrier that separates between the genders.
With Romney’s campaign on gaffe-alert following his stumbles in the British leg of his trip, one can speculate that the notes were carefully crafted with the help of press advisors.
Notes left at the Western Wall aren’t always entirely private petitions to God, as when Barack Obama visited on his campaign trail four years ago. His note was removed and published.
No word yet on whether Mitt asked for help in November in the swing states.