For Anat Hoffman, it doesn’t matter that Diaspora Jews don’t have to serve in the Israel Defense Forces or pay taxes.
On the contrary, the Israeli activist said, they “have a goddamned duty to sit at the table and say pluralism, tolerance, equality.”
Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Reform Action Center and a founder and leader of Women of the Wall (WOW), spoke to approximately 150 people at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield on May 4. She wore the flowered tallit that has become a symbol of WOW, a group founded in 1988 demanding a place for women to wear prayer shawls, pray aloud, and read from the Torah at the Kotel. (Women have historically not been permitted to do so in the small women’s section. The plaza is controlled by the Ministry of Religion’s Western Wall Heritage Foundation.)
In the audience at Emanu-El were about 15 women who have prayed with Hoffman at the Western Wall, a woman whose granddaughter worked with Hoffman at WOW, and Yosef Perlmutter, a shaliach skeptical of her position on American involvement in Israeli issues.
“Is there no limit on involvement from world Jewry in Israel matters?” Perlmutter asked.
“When we are talking about what are the Jewish values of the Jewish state, don’t you think these people have a say? They’re Jewish,” Hoffman responded, citing Sheldon Adelson — American casino tycoon, GOP donor, and ardent Israel supporter — as a “player” on Israel’s political stage. Adelson, she said, “is dominating the discussion in Israel. So yes, these people have to have a say about Jewish values.”
Acknowledging her role as an activist, she said she finds herself unable to be silent, and touched, not only on the work of WOW and Jewish pluralism in Israel, but also on Israeli racism toward Arabs; health care; ultra-Orthodox yeshiva subsidies; and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS).
She was most forceful on the subject of pluralism, suggesting that liberal Jews in the Diaspora do not demand enough from Israel.
“How come the Hebrew Union College is not recognized as an institution of Jewish learning in Israel?” she said, referring to the institution that ordains Reform rabbis. “Chutzpah.” She indicted those in the room, as well, adding that these and other Israeli policies continue, not only “because Israelis don’t know any better,” but also “because you’re putting up with it.”
Hoffman urged the audience to raise the issue at every opportunity. “You are too polite. You are too quiet.” She added, “We have to say enough is enough. You are a player. Let’s work together to let Israel live up to its own dream.”
Regarding WOW, she noted that the agreement reached with the Israeli government in January 2016 has yet to be implemented. The parameters of the agreement are such that it would create a single entrance to the Kotel, and visitors would be able to choose whether to go to the area controlled by WOW or to the area controlled by the Ministry of Religion’s Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
Hoffman said she believes the agreement has stalled because the rabbis at the helm of the Heritage Foundation feel threatened.
“If Israeli and Diaspora Jews are faced with a choice — that there is more than one way to be Jewish at the Wall, then it may be catchy. They may think there’s another way to get married, or another way to get divorced, or another way to be kasher and not kasher in Israel, or another way to get buried. All these cars are running behind this engine,” she said.
On racism, she pointed directly at right-wing rabbis for inciting hate, and at the government for allowing it. But she also shined a light on health care, one bright spot in an otherwise bleak landscape, saying that unlike the rest of the educational system which is largely segregated, Arab and Jewish Israelis attend medical schools together and learn to work side by side as a team.
She lambasted the government for subsidizing the educations of ultra-Orthodox boys. Hoffman said that government subsidies should reflect the percentage of the curriculum that includes core subjects like science and civics, subjects often not covered in most ultra-Orthodox schools. “If they have 10 percent core curriculum, they should get 10 percent subsidies,” she said. She pointed to the great rabbis of the Talmud who were doctors and cobblers and had professions, and suggested Israel’s economy was suffering because these young men were “buried inside yeshivot.”
“We need to save Israel from itself,” she said.
On BDS, she suggested it is largely ineffective, and that, if one were inclined, there are better avenues to force Israeli policy. “BDS has no impact on Israel’s economy, yet the prime minister and the Knesset are overreacting on this issue.” Focusing on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Israel, she said, “I don’t believe in boycotting. I want you to invest in Israel, in organizations fighting for human rights, equality, and pluralism. Only NGOs can do this.”
But she pushed the audience hardest for sitting most of the fight out.
“Israel is not a spectator sport. It’s a contact sport. Do something,” she said. “There are two options when it comes to Israel: Wring your hands, or roll up your sleeves. You cannot do both.
“Please roll up your sleeves.”