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Israel Caves to Misogyny

Two months after medical student Nofrat Frenkel (below) was arrested at the Western Wall for the apparent crime of Reading Torah While Female, Women of the Wall, the well-known and decades-old organization with whom Frenkel was praying while arrested, faced a new challenge. In early January, Anat Hoffman — Women of the Wall’s chairwoman, former member of Jerusalem’s city council, and director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center — was summoned to a local police station for questioning. Hoffman, who did not know the nature of the charges against her, was fingerprinted and questioned upon her arrival, and told she was under investigation for committing a felony. According to a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, women — specifically Women of the Wall — cannot read Torah in the main plaza of the Wall; they must go to nearby Robinson’s Arch. (The ruling reversed a 2002 decision that granted the group full and equal access, which prompted several religious political parties to introduce severely punitive legislation which, had it passed, would have punished women for “non-traditional” prayer at the Western Wall by up to seven years in prison.)

Still facing the possibility of jail time or a large fine, Hoffman is working to turn her plight into an energizing focal point in the fight for religious pluralism within Israel. She told the JTA that she hopes to “wake the American Jewish giant” and has, indeed, already received support from a variety of Jewish groups in the United States, particularly Jewish women’s groups and the Reform Movement.

Hoffman, who continues to allege police intimidation, is aiming not only at easing her own legal troubles but at changing the system as it currently exists. Framing her point about religious pluralism in the language of the American civil rights movement, she noted on a recent Reform Movement-sponsored conference call that, “There is simply no such thing as separate but equal.”

There is mounting and widespread outrage against the way the Israeli government has handled the harassment of women praying at the Western Wall. Women are meeting — with their tallitot — to hold services and rallies in cities across the U.S. Men are speaking out as well. On a Masorti (Conservative movement) mission to Israel in February, Bill Lipsey, a leader of the Agudath Israel Congregation in northern New Jersey, spoke for many on the mission when he announced “If in any country in the world, a Jewish woman was arrested because she tried to carry out the commandments, we would all — all over the United States — protest outside of the embassy. We would not give them a moment’s rest. And now here, in the State of Israel, at one of the holiest sites in Israel, at the Western Wall, which is such an important symbol for us all, a Jewish woman was arrested by a Jewish police officer in the Jewish state, just because she tried to carry out the commandment of wrapping herself in a tallit.”