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Anat Hoffman: Bringing social change to Israel

Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Network

Anat Hoffman became the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) in 2002. Before that, she served as a Jerusalem city councillor for 14 years. A fierce advocate for social justice, she was a founding member of Women of the Wall, which works to secure the rights of women to pray at the Western Wall. She has also served on the boards of the Israel Women’s Network, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and many other Israeli organizations that are dedicated to social change.

Hoffman recently spoke at Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto.

How would you describe the status and state of mind of progressive Jews in Israel? Is it difficult to be a progressive Jew in Israel?

It’s both difficult and we’re doing very well – one of the Israeli complexities. The Reform and the Conservative movements are doing very well in Israel. In a recent study, 12 per cent of Israelis self-identified as Reform or Conservative. This is a very high number. Twelve per cent of Israelis define themselves as ultra-Orthodox, which is also a very high number.

Considering that the playing field is not level and Orthodoxy receives very heavy government funding, while we receive very little, it’s quite a remarkable statistic. And many of those Israelis who define themselves as Reform or Conservative have visited Canada, they came to New York, and it was there that they realized that there’s another way to be Jewish.

What was the most recent legal ruling on Women of the Wall and what does it mean?

The most recent one was a few years ago and it said that the government should find a solution to a basic right recognized by the Supreme Court and Israeli Basic Laws: that women have the right to pray out loud, to put a tallit on, to wear phylacteries and to read from the Torah at the Western Wall. The ruling was that the government has to find a solution for this.

Do you think there’s a silent majority of Israelis who support this kind of change at the Kotel?

I don’t think it – there are polls that show that over 60 per cent of Israelis support the Women of the Wall, and the number jumps to 80 per cent among secular Israelis.

You once said that if Israel adopted its Declaration of Independence as its constitution, you would be out of work.

The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel says that, “The State of Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” If this was implemented seriously and every ruling of the court and every decision of the government had to comply with this, yes, I would be unemployed.


The IRAC is an arm of the Reform movement, yet the biggest group it represents in court are Orthodox women.

This was true for a particular period. There were four or five years when the largest constituency, the people being represented in our petitions, were Orthodox women. It was the period when we represented women who were pushed to the back of the bus in 2,500 bus rides every day. In fact, there’s a recent ruling in which the municipality of Jerusalem lost in court to us. We demanded that it stop the segregation of women in public libraries.

It turned out that libraries in the ultra-Orthodox sectors had separate hours for women and men and the result was that parents couldn’t go with their children to exchange a book, a decision that is cumbersome on the families and is completely unnecessary for religious reasons. City libraries are public spaces and it is illegal to segregate women in these public areas.

If you look at our study, Excluded for God’s Sake, you’ll see that from 2011 to 2014, we were immersed in such cases. I’m proud to say that in 2018, we did not publish this report because we just didn’t have enough material. In a focused effort over four or five years, we were able to get a document from the attorney general and a special minister’s committee barring the exclusion of women in the public sphere. And now it’s just not done.

But it still exists here and there. Recently, we heard of a woman who boarded a bus and the men put their hats on the seats next to them, so she couldn’t sit. And the bus driver himself told her, “Stop arguing with everybody, go sit in the back where women belong.” And she lodged a complaint. But this is rare. We are down from 2,500 rides a day to a few hundred a day – still too many, but it’s certainly not on the rise, as it was years ago.

The IRAC sues the government at a rate of about once a week. What are the outstanding issues and what challenges remain?

We worked on the exclusion of women in the public sphere. This has been one of our strategic goals. Another is the recognition of our rabbis and our institutions. There are rabbis who are not recognized in Israel. When a Conservative or Reform rabbi comes to Israel, he or she cannot officiate at a wedding or a funeral. They cannot sign any paper that is recognized by the State of Israel. That’s outrageous! Our institutions, such as the Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, are not recognized as institutions of Jewish learning and they don’t receive the benefits that any other yeshiva receives. Same with our synagogues. So we are fighting that battle.

We don’t have freedom of speech to the extent that you have in your democracy. We have limitations on freedom of speech and it has to do with racism and inciting racism. This is illegal in Israel. It’s illegal to run for the Knesset if you are a racist. We at the IRAC were successful in showing the Supreme Court that Michael Ben-Ari is racist. He’s a Kahanist, a student of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who preaches racism and hate. And as a result, the Supreme Court ruled that he cannot run for the parliament. This caused a tremendous stir in Israel. It was the first time in Israel’s history that an individual was disqualified from running for parliament because he’s a racist.

Do you believe that Israel has fulfilled its dream to be a light unto the nations?

My sights are set lower than to be a light unto the nations. I want to light up my own heart. I want to live up to our own dream. What I read you is our own founding dream: full and complete equality. Right now in Israel, we are treating minorities in a way that is so unequal, starting with the Israeli Arab minority. It’s also how women are treated, how Reform and Conservatives are treated. Ethiopians, Gypsies, Druze, Circassians – we have all these minorities and we have not done right by them. And that, in my opinion, is extremely problematic.

Do you ever wake up in the morning and say, “I give up. I can’t do this anymore. It’s too hard.”

Thank you for this question. I have to tell you that Diaspora Jews are a sleeping giant. I think you should wake up and speak out a lot louder and a lot more often. I get my courage many times by visiting you, or you visiting Israel, and telling me how much you support this work. I think that our relationship fuels some of the most important social change organizations in Israel. If you look at the big supporters and the leaders of the Israeli Conservative movement, feminist movement, ecology movement, civil rights movement, you’ll find that North Americans go above and beyond. So I think you influence Israel for the better. Sadly, some right-wing elements in the Diaspora are sponsoring the opposite, with a lot less scruples, I might say, than you.

Thank you for this interview.

Go Canada! There’s a quote by – I forgot his name – Canada’s most famous hockey player …

Wayne Gretzky?

Wayne Gretzky! He said, “I never look where the puck has been, I am always looking at where the puck is going.” And I can tell you, I agree. The puck is going somewhere very good for Israel. I think Reform and Conservative Jews are making tremendous headway and I think we will prevail in the end.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.

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