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A veteran’s advice on the struggle for liberal and democratic Israel 

Anat Hoffman
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A veteran’s advice on the struggle for liberal and democratic Israel

Published: 18 July 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

ANAT HOFFMAN is one of the founders and the longstanding chairperson of Women of the Wall. She shares her secrets for resilience with Israel's protest movement.

Women of the Wall (WOW) was founded in 1988 to secure the rights of women to pray at the Kotel, in a fashion that includes singing, reading aloud from the Torah and wearing religious garments.

Lately, I've been asked to share the secret of the WOW’s resilience with the growing protest movement in Israel. Turning to us makes sense. Women of the Wall’s struggle for religious pluralism, gender equality and tolerance has lasted 34 years, as one of the veteran social change organisations in Israel.   

What are the pillars of our resilience?  The first is community. 

We are a praying congregation, a close network of sisters who care deeply about each other and who successfully broke through internal partitions and divisions. Some of us are Orthodox, some Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist, but we focus on our collective goal and ignore the rest. We act as one, including Women of the Wall from around the world - Brazil, Australia and even Alaska.  

We also extend a warm embrace to the men who support us and have become “honorary women of the Wall”.  We take care of each other, genuinely interested in supporting group prayer by carrying an extra bottle of water, or an umbrella, or an extra sweater in case our sisters need one. 

Protesters in Israel can learn from us to ignore smaller differences between the multitude of organisations that make up the protests and focus on the mutual goal. They can also learn from us how to be a community. For example, offer a ride to people from your neighbourhood, ensure they come every week, again and again, to join the protests.

Women of the Wall celebrate the tiniest movement forward in a big way. We have broken our main strategic goal into many small steps that allow us to congratulate ourselves constantly for every infinitesimal movement forward. The protesters in Israel should reward themselves for slowing down the aggressive onslaught of dangerous legislation; they should be celebrating their own mere existence. This protest has historic proportions. Its tenaciousness is hard evidence of victory over indifference, which alone is cause for celebration.

The WOW community is an incubator for heroines. Fina Greenberg, an accountant, is our "street hero" who can approach any woman and introduce her to wearing a tallit or donning tefillin on the footpath.

A movement must have heroes and heroines. The WOW community is an incubator for heroines, who are not the usual suspects. Dina Greenberg, an accountant, is our “street hero” who can approach any woman in the street and introduce her to wearing a prayer shawl (tallit) for the first time or donning phylacteries (tefillin) right there on the footpath. Just like in the Talmud: ״And some say: who is a hero? One who can turn an enemy into his friend” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 23). 

Over the years, dozens of us have been WOW heroines. Today’s protesters in Israel should recognise the heroism of the students who are now protesting while cramming for their final university exams. Women who are marching wearing red Handmaid's Tale capes. There are plenty of unsung heroes leading the protests in Israel today; it's time to sing their praises and recognise their heroic contributions.

Both WOW and the protesters are struggling against enormous forces who stand to lose power and wealth because of our staunch opposition to their agenda. They invest unlimited resources and exert excessive force in fighting us. The Jewish approach to facing terrible odds is to generate humour and creativity. WOW have always been flexible and agile, able to change quickly with a vast repertoire of surprising creative tactics and a lot of “chutzpah”.  

Our rivals in the religious establishment of the State are rigid, slow, stiff and seem to fall flat on their faces when they are faced with our innovations. Making fun of the bully is a very effective way to move forward - and we have a heritage of Jewish humour to rely on. For example, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich (Chief Rabbi at the Western Wall) decided to drown out the voices of our prayer (because female voices distract men) using an elaborate loudspeaker system pointed towards the women's section.

He turns it on very loudly whenever we pray. Our response, together with 300 female cantors in North America (the Women's Cantors’ Network), was to establish the WOW choir Kol BaIsha. Now, when the rabbi turns on his loudspeakers, we turn up the marvellous voices of professional female singers who can overcome the loudspeaker system. Our prayer cannot be silenced. 

Last week three distinguished ladies made absolute fools of themselves by posing as puppets, illustrating what awaits our Supreme Court if politicians oversee choosing the judges.

Every week, I am inspired by the prolific innovations of the protesters. Last week three distinguished ladies made absolute fools of themselves by posing as puppets, illustrating what awaits our Supreme Court if politicians oversee choosing the judges. I've seen hilarious placards held by babies or shirts worn by a family dog. In a recent demonstration of nurses and doctors, real gurneys and stretchers were carried to symbolise carrying Israel's democracy to the emergency room.

Israelis socialise in tribes, which can work to the protests' advantage. A tailor-made demonstration outside a general's house which gathers demonstrators who are his army mates has proved to be very effective. This is a tactic that Women of the Wall should learn from the protesters.

No less than the future of Israel rests on the success of current protests - Israel's second War of Independence. I always recall that the first and second Temples were destroyed 80 years after they were built, because of infighting and religious zealotry. Israel is 75 years old and is now on the verge of losing our third house. Like the protesters who sing “you picked the wrong generation,” I am determined this will not be on my watch.

Together, we will not give up the hope to be a democratic, Jewish, liberal and enlightened home.

Photo: Courtesy Women of the Wall

About the author

Anat Hoffman

Anat Hoffman is a founding member and Chair of Women of the Wall, and has dedicated her life to the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, which means repairing the world. She served on the Jerusalem City Council and was the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center for 20 years.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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