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Conversation with Anat Hoffman

Israeli activist calls upon North American Jewry to save Israel from itself

By Cindy Mindell

Anat Hoffman is an Israeli activist who serves as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and is the chair of the board and a founding member of Neshot HaKotel, also known as Women of the Wall. She was named by the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, as 2013 “Person of the Year.” The Jerusalem Post listed her fifth on its list of “50 Most Influential Jews.”

Hoffman will deliver the annual Hyacinthe and Harold E. Hoffman Memorial Lecture at Temple Beth El in Stamford on Wednesday evening, Nov. 11.

Born in 1954 on Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, near Jerusalem, Hoffman received a B.A. in psychology from UCLA in 1980. She then returned to Israel, where she became an activist for religious pluralism and co-founded the Reform/progressive Kehilat Kol Haneshema synagogue in Jerusalem. She served on the Jerusalem City Council from 1988 to 2002, representing the Civil Rights and Peace Movement.

In December 1988, she was a member of the group that started Women of the Wall, the international organization of women working to secure the right to pray at the Western Wall, wearing prayer shawls and singing and reading from the Torah collectively. When Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Women of the Wall, Orthodox leaders and rabbis protested the decision. She has been arrested multiple times for wearing a prayer shawl at the Kotel.

Since 2002, Hoffman has served as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, founded in 1987 as the public and legal advocacy arm of the movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel.

Recently, Hoffman spoke with the Ledger.

 

Q: The title of your upcoming talk is “What We Don’t Talk About When We Focus on Israel’s Security.” Can you explain that focus?

A: I challenge the Israel that we see today, to the extent that I think I need all the help in the world to change it from where we are going. I think Israel is way too important to be left to the Israelis, so I’m turning to diaspora Jews and I’m saying, first, vary your media diet. You have to know more about what’s happening in Israel and what’s happening in Israel is a lot more than the most recent terrorist attacks. It’s not all about the conflicts. There are eight million people living here – many Jews and many non-Jews – and we have a few challenges. What are the Jewish values that will navigate the only and first sovereign Jewish state on this planet?

Can we agree on what are Jewish values? Are tolerance pluralism and equality Jewish values? If so, let’s look at whether Israel lives up to these values. If ethnocentricity, chauvinism, and racism are Jewish values, then this is where we’re going now. I want people who disagree with me to come and work this muscle out a little bit. Let’s have an open dialogue where I will tell you that the Israel that you are so romantically nostalgic about does not exist anymore and that you have to wake up and look at the real Israel today and see if you can still love it. This is many years of marriage speaking: love is what remains after you know the truth.

 

Q: Was that “romantically nostalgic” Israel ever a reality?

A: I think there was a time that much of what diaspora Jews believed about Israel was true. Israeli women combat soldiers did not indicate that women had complete equality in the army; far from it. And the pioneer with a hoe on her shoulder certainly was not an indication that women held un-stereotypic jobs in the beginning of the kibbutzim. And Golda Meir, by no means, gave an indication that women have equality in politics. And these are just three examples of the romantic notions regarding women.

But there were heroes in our pioneering days and a unanimity about the values of the Jewish state and these are disintegrating. We’re victims of our own success, in some ways. I don’t want people to walk away from the dialogue on values. Startup nation is very wonderful and we invented the USB and the cherry tomato and all that; but that is not a discussion about values, and it’s also not a discussion where we pat our own backs and say, “Of all the countries in the world that are 67 years old, Israel has done better than all of them put together.” That is true. But I am not comparing myself to them. I’m comparing myself to our dream: what did we want to achieve in this one and only Jewish state? Did we want to live out what we believe are our core values?

 

Q: What has changed over that 67-year period?

A: The Jewish tradition is to argue things out in a civilized way; all these argumentative guys are written into the Talmud, which is one huge argument. [The Gemara teaches], “Elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim” – “This opinion and that opinion are all the word of God.” We always take the side of Hillel versus Shammai because the Hillel [followers] used to first quote Shammai’s opinion before they said their own; that is why they are so rewarded. We come from a long tradition of arguers. If Israel ever won the opportunity to bring the Olympics to Jerusalem, the sport that we would add would be arguing; we are argumentative. The whole Bible is filled with arguments between God and Moses and the Israelites and the prophets and the kings.

Aseh lecha rav – “Find yourself your own rabbi,” we are told [in Pirke Avot]. You could be my rabbi, I could be your rabbi. No one in the Talmud talks about what the official school is that a rabbi has to go to. You are drawn to someone of moral stance. My rabbi is Nelson Mandela. My rabbi is Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks. They are my rabbis. Are they Jewish? Who cares?

Judaism has only benefited from these arguments and Jews have become very artful in looking at reality and focusing on what is right. This is how Jews led the socialist movement and the feminist movement, the ecology movement, the consumer rights movement – we’re really good at that.

The arguments ended when we came to Israel and the government recognized – and is recognizing – only one stream of Judaism. An abomination such as a chief rabbi was appointed. Since when do the Jews have a chief rabbi? We never had that. The Ottoman Empire invented the idea. With all due respect, this is one invention of the Turks that I don’t accept.

I think we lost our way because we let go of our compass and our compass is not Reform Judaism or Conservative Judaism or all that. It is the arguing between bright, brilliant Jews.

I think something is very lost when arguing is over in Israel and I think American Jews are very disturbed by that; it splits families. If you want to bring indigestion to your dinner, just bring Israel as a topic on Friday night. Don’t talk about Israel because this is going to cause Cousin Naomi to walk away in a huff from the table because she is AIPAC and she can’t hear Cousin George talk about J Street. Instead of Israel becoming an excellent place for us to work out what these values are and to fight for them, you’re silent about Israel. I think this silence is the most disturbing thing I see among diaspora Jews because this silence breeds apathy, disinterest, disengagement. To hate Israel would be better for me than apathy.

 

Q: Do you see signs of hope?

A: I have a few examples of hope. One of them is an Arab member of Knesset, Aiman Odeh, the leader of the third largest party in the Knesset, the Joint Arab Party. Whenever I am desperate, I go meet with him and I am reminded that we have our own Martin Luther King. He is unique and wonderful. He is committed to equality – not just equality of the Arab minority to the Jewish majority, but to everyone’s equality. He actually showed up to our demonstration for the Ethiopians and he supports that Reform Jews be recognized by the Rabbanut [Chief Rabbinate]. And he supports Women of the Wall and other groups.

Another thing that gives me hope is Leora, who came from Brazil on Oct. 14, with all that’s going on [in Israel], to have her bat mitzvah, together with Aliya, who came from San Jose [Calif.]. These two 12-year-olds wanted to have their bat mitzvah at the Kotel like their brothers. They brought their grandmothers and their mothers and they showed up. I get hope from these girls. They were very aware that we could not provide them with a Torah scroll. I am ashamed that we are putting up with this nonsense, that women cannot have a Torah scroll in the women’s section. If the Jewish world really cared about Torah and about the Kotel and about Israel, this nonsense would end in one minute because it’s absolutely unacceptable. And the same goes for the fact that all Reform rabbis are not recognized in Israel as rabbis. This also has to stop. And not just Reform: any graduate of Hebrew Union College or the Jewish Theological Seminary is not considered a rabbi in Israel because these institutions are not recognized by the State of Israel.

I believe, if you look at those who made it into the Bible – Isaiah and Haggai and Amos and Micah – they’re saying a simple message that is as subversive today as it was then: you are measured by how you deal with the weakest in your society, by how you deal with the ones who are the Other in your society. You have 1.2 million Arab citizens in Israel; how do you treat them? You have people with special needs, you have gays and lesbians, you have Reform and Conservative, you have women. How do they fare in your society?

I will bring that to my talk and I will say, let’s partner together in steering Israel the right way.

Anat Hoffman: Wednesday, Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m., Temple Beth El, 350 Roxbury Rd., Stamford. For information: tbe.org, (203) 322-6901.

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