“All We Want Is To Be Free In Our Own Country:” An Interview with Anat Hoffman

11 February 2016

Following a 27-year struggle, Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman, has registered an impressive victory after the government decided to open an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. To mark this occasion, NIF sat down with Anat Hoffman to hear how she felt about the campaign’s success.

How was Women of the Wall created?

It was December 1988. There was a conference in Israel about the status of Jewish women, attended by women from around the world and from different religious backgrounds. During the conference we organized a group of women – mostly from America, Canada and the UK, but also a number of Israelis – who went to the Western Wall and held a women’s prayer service. The people at the Western Wall attacked us – they cursed and shouted. This is how Women of the Wall was born. It began with a plastic folding table that I brought with me for the prayers, and over the years the table grew. I think that the story of how we were created is a sweet reminder to all the other organizations supported by NIF that all you need is one folding table and an idea. It’s also a reminder that, as with a number of other good ideas, including Zionism, this idea also came from abroad, and that’s absolutely fine.”

Can you tell us about some of your experiences campaigning for change over the years?

I was often detained because I broke the Protection of Holy Places law, which forbids holding a religious service at a holy site in a manner that conflicts with the local custom… over the years more than 50 women have been detained by the police, some of them on a number of occasions.

I personally spent a night in a cell in the Russian Compound, where I met a wonderful Russian woman who didn’t speak any Hebrew. She asked me to explain why I had been detained. When I had finished she said: “Ah, so you’re like Pussy Riot.” I said, “Yeah, something like that!”

What do you think led the government to accept WoW’s positions?

Three years ago, we succeeded in establishing a dialogue with the government. This was possible because we gathered strength from creating a broad coalition with a number of organizations that worked together for the same goal. The coalition included IRAC, the Masorti Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Agency.

I have an important message that I want to pass on to other civil society organizations: anyone who wants to create change has to forge alliances and build a coalition, even though it requires compromise. Only this kind of partnership can create the power that makes change possible.

I’m sure that the pressure from global Jewry also helped.

Definitely. Over the last three years, there was massive pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu from Diaspora Jewry. Each time he appeared before Jews in America, he was asked about the Western Wall issue, and they pressured him to find a solution.

Who did you hold dialogue with in the government?

Over the last three years we spoke with the Cabinet Secretary, Avichai Mandelblit, and he is the person who spoke with the other side – the rabbinate, the Rabbi of the Wall, etc. … We’re talking about someone who is Ultra-Orthodox. You might expect him to not deal with the issue, but Mandelblit surprised us and turned out to be much more. He came to the negotiating table with a feeling of true mission and said that coming to an agreement would be a massive achievement for the Jewish people. He never lied to us, unlike earlier Cabinet Secretaries, and created a new way for solving problems in Israel.”

There are many secular people in Israel who don’t have a problem with you, but also don’t see a substantial difference between egalitarian prayer and prayer where men and women are separated. What do you have to say to them?

It reminds me that, when I was on the Jerusalem City Council, I dealt with the wage gaps between men and women. I found that the gap in the Jerusalem Municipality was 46 percent. Once, when I spoke about the issue, I also spoke about my work for Women of the Wall, and the women from the municipality said that they didn’t see a connection between the two issues. I told them that every place where women are discriminated against or harmed is connected.

People can say that they don’t connect to the act of praying at the Western Wall, but they need to understand that it begins with equality at the Western Wall and continues to marriage, Kashrut, and all the other issues of religion and state. Women of the Wall is like a note that’s left in the Western Wall asking for equality, justice, and freedom. At the end of the day, all we want is to be free in our own country.