‘Women of the Wall’ movement fights Israeli gender bias

Posted on 4 May 2012


ANN RODGERS – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
First Posted: May 02, 2012

Anat Hoffman was arrested in Israel for going to the Western Wall to do what would be regarded as a holy act in her synagogue: donning a prayer shawl and reading from the Torah. — She leads the Women of the Wall movement to allow women to lead public prayer and Scripture reading at the holiest site in Judaism, where women like her are harassed and arrested for doing so in a space defined as an Orthodox synagogue. She said gender segregation is growing worse in Israel.

The area around the Wall is more segregated than it used to be, and there are efforts to make women shop at different hours than men and even walk on a different side of the sidewalk. Only recently were public buses desegregated so that women could no longer be forced to ride in the back.

“I want American Jews to feel that they have license to make their voices heard in Israel about this,” said Hoffman, a former member of the Jerusalem City Council who now directs the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. “The fact that the keys to the holiest site for the Jewish people have been given to the smallest and most extreme faction of the Jewish world is a shame.”

The question of women leading public prayer at the Wall is the most prominent issue in what she said are increasing measures by the politically powerful Haredim — an ultra-strict faction within Orthodox Judaism — to treat women as second-class citizens. Many of the creeping restrictions away from the Wall have no history within even the strictest Orthodox movements, and are upsetting to many of the Haredim themselves, she said.

In one case, a Haredi father called her office to complain that religious authorities in his city had forced women and girls to patronize a local fair at different hours from men and boys, meaning that his family couldn’t attend together.

Israel has no equivalent of the separation of church and state. The government builds synagogues and pays thousands of municipal rabbis. In a nation where neither major party can achieve a clear majority in government, small Haredi parties swing elections in return for control of religious institutions.

Yet, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, only about 8 percent of adult Israelis are Haredim, and another 12 percent identify as Orthodox. The single largest group are self-identified secular Jews, who account for 42 percent of adults.

She said gender segregation is growing worse in Israel.

Hoffman grew up a secular Jew in Jerusalem and found faith through the Reform movement as a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She became a champion of religious pluralism in Israel.

The Western Wall is the only accessible remnant of the Jewish temple that the Romans destroyed in 70 A.D. Israel recognizes it as a synagogue, governed by Orthodox tradition with separate areas for men and women.

In 2003, the Israeli Supreme Court said women couldn’t lead services at the Wall, and it ordered space given to them at a nearby archaeological site. Hoffman compares that to the Jim Crow laws.

Segregation is increasing, she said. In 2008, a men-only path was built to the Wall, with no similar one for women. In 2009, an area in the plaza that had long been open for men and women to pray together was segregated. A report from her group cites a 2009 incident in which high-school girls were humiliated by wardens for singing a patriotic song of faith because, they were told, “a woman’s voice is nakedness.”

From 1997 to 2011, the largest complaint was segregated public bus lines, in which women were forced to board and sit in the back. Last year, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that illegal. But other areas have continued to pop up, including the fair that the Haredi man complained about, segregated lines at a post office and funeral parlors that don’t allow couples to stand together in mourning.

“This is increasing, and I want more partners to help us fight them,” Hoffman said.