At the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) biennial in Boston last month, Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a founding member and chairwoman of Women of the Wall (WoW), led a session called “Whose Wall is It Anyway?” During the session, Hoffman talked about WoW’s next steps after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on an agreement that would have expanded the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, placed it under the authority of a pluralist committee and given it a common entrance with the rest of the Kotel plaza. The Jewish Week caught up with her the following day to discuss WoW’s 30-year struggle. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Your audience was very supportive of WoW’s cause, but do Netanyahu and Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate care about liberal American Jews?
You’re saying Netanyahu and in the same breath the Rabbanut. I am not at all in the business of trying to influence the Rabbanut. They’re doing what they want; I have no qualms with that. My problem is with the overwhelming government power that’s given to the rabbis. But Netanyahu is very sensitive, and bad press in English influences him more than bad press in Hebrew. … I think we have to keep the pressure and make it stronger. Values matter. … Values are such things as quality, tolerance [and] religious pluralism.
It’s interesting that not only are the Conservative and Reform movements supportive of WoW, but there are also many Orthodox people involved in your organization.
Reform are the minority of WoW. What is wrong with our Reform women? We are a minority in the group. The majority are Conservative and Orthodox — Modern, of course.
They’re drawn to a community that is motivated by Yirat Shamayim [Fear of Heaven] and that is the driving principle of WoW. We ask of every one of our actions: Is it motivated by Yirat Shamayim? Is it centered on our religious beliefs? Every meeting of WoW begins with a dvar Torah. We are a learned group, we take our Judaism very seriously and I don’t think in 30 years I’ve heard one theological argument against us. … This is all political.
At the session you said if WoW got what it wanted, an expanded space for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, you would close up shop. Is that true?
We were asked throughout the years, “Would you fight against breast cancer? Would you fight for lots of [other] good causes? We always said no. We would come [to the Kotel]. We would have our prayer, we would enjoy young people coming and asking, “What, it wasn’t always like this?”
Our strength is that we have been focusing on this like a mosquito that is biting again and again at the same place. And anyone that says that a small group like ours can’t make a difference, or that anything small can’t make a difference, has not spent a night with a mosquito in a room.
There was a group that split from WoW because they thought you conceded too much in your negotiations with the Rabbinate. You said they were “too pure.”
Every group needs people like that. It’s important to have the voice that talks about the purest vision that we have. And the purest vision was to liberate the women’s section. [But the compromise was about] “What are the terms under which WoW will move out of the women’s section?” This is why the [Chief Rabbi] played ball. He wants us out. … He doesn’t want peace with the Reform and Conservative [movements]. … We are the thorn in his side, and my friends [the purists] have a point. And now that the agreement has been discarded, they have a double point. And still, if I believe in negotiation with our worst enemies, I can’t not believe in negotiation with my own prime minister.
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What was the decision you came to about the dress code at the Kotel had the compromise been implemented?
We thought we would adopt the one from the Knesset. We thought if it’s good enough to go to with the Knesset, it’s good enough to go to at the Wall. You can’t go to the Knesset with flip flops, you can’t go to the Knesset with shorts, you can’t go to the Knesset with spaghetti straps or with no sleeves at all. [The] same will be at the Wall. But no more than that. You can go to the Knesset with short sleeves. You can go with an open neckline. A woman can come with pants. And children have no dress code in the Knesset.
Do you get any satisfaction that you, the mosquito organization, have come so close to making this [Western Wall deal] happen?
Tremendous. I think that it empowers lots of groups of women, lots of groups that are fighting for rights. I read just three or four weeks ago someone said, “We have to fight the electric company like WoW.” It’s a statement meaning persistence.