Robert L. Kern

An Arrest in Jerusalem

A woman was arrested in Jerusalem for praying the Shema out loud.

Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement of Progressive Judaism and Chairwoman of Women of the Wall, went to the Western Wall on Tuesday night, October 16, to celebrate Rosh Hodesh Heshvan and the Hadassah Centennial Convention.  However, when she donned her tallit and led the group  – standing in the rear of the women’s section – in singing the Shema, she was arrested by the police who exerted excessive force and humiliated her.  Imagine the shock of the Hadassah delegates who were still making their way onto the Western Wall Plaza, to see a handcuffed Anat in her tallit, being led away by the police!

This was nothing less than a Hillul HaShem, the type of incident we expect to see in places like Afghanistan or Iran.  However, it happened in Israel, in Jerusalem, the Eternal Capital of the Jewish people – not just a portion of the Jewish people.   And just to be clear, it would have been just as abhorrent had it happened in Kikar Zion or in Hatzor, Gedera or New Jersey!

On December 1, 1988, the group that would ultimately become the Women of the Wall first visited the Kotel with a Sefer Torah during the International Jewish Feminist Conference to conduct a women’s prayer service in accordance with Halakha.  Despite the screams and curses directed at them by others in the Plaza, Rabbi of the Western Wall Yehuda Meir Getz allowed them to continue, saying that they were “not violating Halakha.”  Yet nearly 24 years later, the sight of women who are serious about observing Judaism is apparently frightening or threatening to some of our co-religionists.

For her “crime,” Anat Hoffman was not only arrested, but dragged by her handcuffs 15 meters (roughly 45 feet) across the floor of the police station and had her legs shackled like a violent criminal.  She was also completely strip-searched.  She shared a prison cell with three other prisoners, including a car thief and prostitute.  When food was provided to them, it was thrown through a little window in the door.  Anat lay on the floor of the cell, cold and miserable, covered by only her tallit.

Hoffman noted that she was not charged, nor was she on any of the other six previous occasions she had been detained by the police.  Nonetheless, they would not release her unless she paid a NIS 5,000 personal recognizance bond and a NIS 5,000 surety bond.  She demanded to see a judge, but because there were none available she had to spend the night in jail.  The next morning, after meeting the judge, and on the advice of her lawyer, she signed an agreement that prohibits her from visiting the Wall for 30 days and the personal recognizance bond was reduced to NIS 2,500.  Had she not signed it, she would have been detained another night.

This state-sanctioned harassment and discrimination at Judaism’s holiest site cannot continue.  As Hoffman said, the function of these arrests of Women of the Wall members is to “harass and intimidate the group and to make sure that women will be denied what is their duty and even their right.”  I find it equally shocking that there are those who want their narrow interpretation of Halakha enforced in ways we normally equate with Sharia law in conservative Muslim countries and that Israeli police are acting in an aggressive and extreme manner in its execution.

Both the Reform and Conservative movements have long supported Women of the Wall.  Anat Hoffman, who serves as chairwoman of Women of the Wall, is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.

Leaders of the Reform Jewish Movement have spoken to Israel Ambassador to the US Michael Oren to express their concern. Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, issued a statement, saying the “Rabbinate’s increasingly aggressive tactics to suppress non-Orthodox Jewish life must spur those who believe in religious pluralism to redouble their efforts to save the soul of Israel,” and described himself as the “father of three daughters who love Israel and consider it their religious homeland.

Hadassah, which in 1987 called on the Israel “to protect the rights of all women to pray as they wish at the Kotel,” also adopted a statement at their 76th National Convention in July 1990, affirming the right of all Jews to pray individually and collectively at the Wall and calling on the government of Israel to protect the right of Women of the Wall to do so, “without harassment.”  Following the October 16 incident, during its Centennial Convention in Jerusalem, Hadassah passed a resolution reaffirming its support for freedom of worship at the Western Wall.

The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) have called on the government of Israel to “remove the ultra-Orthodox authority that oversees the Kotel and ensure the rights of all Jewish people who pray at this holy site, men and women alike.”

May it occur speedily and in our days.

About the Author
Robert L. Kern has served as Director of Marketing & Communications for several "American Friends," Zionist and Jewish organizations. He is a former President of the American Jewish Public Relations Society and a member of the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Press Association. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.