This piece originally appeared in The Forward on October 22, 2012
Israel’s Declaration of Independence provides that “The State of Israel…will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex” and “will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.” Last week, officials of the Jerusalem police violated Anat Hoffman’s most basic civil and human rights by subjecting her to crude misogynistic and demeaning mistreatment that crossed all boundaries of decency.
Hoffman is the executive director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. On Tuesday evening, October 16, she was arrested for leading a group of more than 200 women in the Sh’ma Israel prayer and wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, at the Western Wall. The women, who had come to Israel to mark the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, were celebrating the beginning of the Hebrew month of Heshvan.
At the coercion of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, women are forbidden to read from the Torah or to wear prayer shawls or tefilin in the plaza in front of the Wall. Women who defy these prohibitions, including Hoffman, are routinely harassed. Earlier this year, during the summer, Hoffman disclosed that, “four women were detained at the Western Wall, each for wearing a tallit. The authorities say they were disturbing the public peace according to regulation 201 A4 of the Israeli legal code. The punishment for this crime is six months in prison. They also broke regulation 287A by performing a religious act that ‘offends the feelings of others.’ The punishment for this crime is up to two years in prison.”
The ugly facts do not seem to be in dispute. Indeed, the Jerusalem police has not contested or denied the accuracy of Hoffman’s account of her ordeal. She told the Forward’s Debra Nussbaum Cohen that when a policeman ordered her to stop reciting the Sh’ma, she complied, but the other women in her group continued praying. She was then arrested and taken to a police station where she claims she was shackled and physically abused.
“In the past when I was detained,” she continued, “I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.”
The leaders of the Reform Movement have condemned this loathsome incident in no uncertain terms. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, said that “it is intolerable that any woman should be arrested for praying at one of Judaism’s most cherished sites.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism called the treatment to which Ms. Hoffman was subjected “deplorable and degrading.”
Other American Jewish leaders have also spoken out. ADL national director Abraham Foxman, said that, “If the reports are accurate…there is certainly no justification for the mistreatment of Ms. Hoffman by the police.” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, denounced Ms. Hoffman’s “arrest in shackles” as “deplorable… Her shocking, brutal, undemocratic and frankly un-Jewish treatment is a stark affirmation of the existential threat Israel is facing by extremist religious forces within the Jewish State, specifically, from its Chief Rabbinate.”
Fair enough. But why has there not also been a massive outpouring of indignation on the part of Israeli public figures, in particular those political and moral leaders who purport to promote civil and political rights for all of Israel’s citizens? And what about the Israeli politicians of all but the religious parties who regularly assure American and other Diaspora Jews of their commitment to religious pluralism?
Imagine their outrage if a Jew, any Jew, were arrested, let alone physically roughed up, for wearing a tallit and praying in public in, say, Russia, or Venezuela, or France, or Iran. Imagine the denunciations in the Knesset or on the part of the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations if a Jewish woman anywhere else in the world had been shackled, stripped, forcibly dragged across the floor, and left to lie on the floor of a prison cell covered by her tallit.
As a lifelong Zionist, as the son of a mother who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, as a husband, as the father of a daughter, and as the grandfather of a granddaughter, I am repulsed at the thought that Israeli officials could treat a Jewish woman, or any woman for that matter, so atrociously and with such utter contempt.
Last December, ultra-Orthodox thugs spat on an eight-year-old schoolgirl in Beit Shemesh because they disapproved of the way she was dressed. The only significant difference between them and the Jerusalem police officials who shackled and mistreated Hoffman appears to be that the latter wear uniforms and cloak their reprehensible behavior under a veneer of legality.
In the context of anti-Semitic manifestations with which we are all too familiar, the image of a Jewish woman being humiliated and abused for being true to her religious beliefs and then being forced to cover herself with a tallit in a prison cell takes on nightmarish connotations of Kafkaesque dimensions.
Women who regularly wear a tallit during services in their Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues in the United States or in other countries in the Diaspora should not have to fear being arrested or otherwise manhandled for doing so when they wish to pray in Israel, including at the Western Wall.
If Israel is truly to be, in the Prophet Isaiah’s words, a light unto the nations, its political and intellectual leaders must now take the lead in unambiguously condemning the despicable way that Anat Hoffman was treated by the Jerusalem police and providing assurances to Jewish women the world over — and to their sons, their husbands, their fathers and their grandfathers — that no similar obscenities will be tolerated in the future.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.
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