Anat Hoffman spent 14 years on the Jerusalem city council. But last week, she sat on a different side of the law, as Israeli police interrogated and fingerprinted this former politician turned prominent social activist.
Hoffman is the chairwoman of Women of the Wall (WOW), a group that advocates for women's rights to pray at the Kotel, or Western Wall. The Kotel, thought to be a remnant of the second temple that the Romans destroyed in 70 CE, is Judaism's holiest site. While women are allowed to pray in the area, they are allotted a small, separate space and their behavior is subject to restrictions that don't apply to men.
For over two decades, WOW has conducted prayer sessions at the Kotel. They meet every Rosh Chodesh (beginning of the Hebrew month) and read aloud from the Torah--an act that is forbidden to women according to Orthodox Judaism, but allowed by Conservative and Reform Judaism. Some don tallitot, prayer shawls that the Orthodox say are men-only.
Hoffman remarks to The Huffington Post, "Everything we do there is according to halacha [Jewish law], but not like the customs that [he Orthodox] are used to."
Following a long legal battle initiated by WOW, the Israeli Supreme Court sided with the Orthodox--a group that has disproportionate political power here--and deemed the women's activities illegal. Hoffman and the women of WOW feel that the Supreme Court has, in effect, turned the Kotel into an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national site for all Israelis. It is a dangerous precedent, Hoffman says, of religion intruding on the public sphere.
Authorities have struck a compromise of sorts by giving WOW a tiny area of Robinson's Arch, an archaeological garden adjacent to the Kotel, to conduct their monthly services. Tucked in a corner, WOW still faces harassment, however. Orthodox men heckle them and spit at them. And now, they're taking heat from the police.
In November, Nofrat Frenkel, a fifth-year medical student was arrested at the Kotel. Frenkel was wearing a tallit under her coat and carrying a torah as she and other members of WOW moved towards their designated area.
Hoffman's run-in with the law began Sunday, she says, two weeks after WOW held their last prayer session. The police called Hoffman every two hours insisting that she come in for questioning. She contacted a lawyer and submitted herself to interrogation on Tuesday, January 5.
When Hoffman arrived at the police station, she was told that she is a suspect in a felony case for her activities at the Kotel. She was informed that everything she said during questioning could be used against her in a court of law.
At that point, "I was still in a good mood, actually," Hoffman tells The Huffington Post. "But it was the fingerprinting that got to me--that stain got to me. It was a violation, I felt humiliated."
And when Hoffman was questioned about a statement she'd made to an Israeli radio station--in which she called Frenkel's arrest an act of discrimination--she became angry.
"What is he doing investigating my opinion?" she says. "And how can he ask me how I think it's discriminatory when he has never investigated a man? The police have never summoned, as a suspect, a man who was praying at the wall."
Reflecting on her detainment, Hoffman says, "I think it was an attempt to intimidate me... I think it was intended to have me stop all this balagan [mess] at the Kotel."
The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot states: The police reported that Hoffman was investigated at the Merhav David Station after the events at the Western Wall on the grounds that she disrupted the status quo at the site.
If Hoffman is charged with "performing a religious act that offends others", as she anticipates she will be, and found guilty, she faces either a fine of 10,000 NIS (approximately $2500 US) or six months in prison.
"Maybe, in 2010, Zionism means enduring prison," she muses.
Hoffman is also the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Committee (IRAC), an organization that promotes religious pluralism and tolerance in Israel. Her activities at the Kotel are an assertion of both women's rights as well as freedom of religious expression.
Hoffman and both of the organizations she is affiliated with are battling "the phenomenon of Orthodox imperialism" a problem that is, she says, growing worse today.
"For 21 years," Hoffman says, "we [WOW] were tolerated and suddenly there is a crackdown."
"There are two strong Orthodox parties in [Prime Minister] Netanyahu's coalition... there is no counterbalance to Orthodox, nationalistic winds." And because Israel lacks a constitution, Hoffman adds, it's possible that the country will spiral down such a path.
Hoffman's detainment is, perhaps, a watershed moment that points in this direction.
Joel Schalit, author and political pundit, remarks, "The fact that the police decided to detain Hoffman at this specific point in time does little to dampen suspicions that this government is proactively interested in suppressing general civil liberties.... This said the targeting of Hoffman may be of benefit in highlighting this deplorable situation, especially considering how respected Hoffman is abroad. If the authorities feel free to take on such figures, it ought to communicate the degree to which the Israeli government's regulation of religious life has become increasingly Talibanized..."
Human rights groups in Israel say that democracy, as a whole, is being eroded. In response, over 100 Israeli NGOs held a march in Tel Aviv in December. Hoffman and IRAC participated in the demonstration.
Speaking of the December rally, Hoffman points out that thousands of Israelis took to the streets, with the permission of Mayor Ron Huldai. "Huldai is a secular, liberal mayor," she says. "He is challenging religious hegemony." He represents, according to Hoffman, "exactly what is missing in Israel."