Interview: Anat Hoffman

The campaigner for religious freedom explains why the Charedim could destroy Israel, and reveals Lord Sacks’s ‘terrible mistake’


Hoffman: “More than one way to express Jewishness”

Hoffman: “More than one way to express Jewishness”

Anat Hoffman is not a woman who likes monopolies. Twenty years ago she took on the Israel’s telecommunications behemoth, Bezeq, and won a resounding victory. Her present target is an even more imposing opponent — Israel’s religious establishment. But this, she feels, is a battle that she and Israel dare not lose.

Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Centre of the Progressive Movement in Israel (IRAC), was in London this week to be honoured by the New Israel Fund, which campaigns for social justice and civil rights in the country. Her greatest desire is for religious pluralism — including the right for women to pray at the Western Wall with a tallit and a Sefer Torah should they so desire, an activity which is currently banned in Israel.

Last month, Nofrat Frenkel, who was wearing a tallit, a kippah and carrying a Torah scroll, was arrested during the Women of the Wall’s Rosh Chodesh prayers. Hoffman says: “This law is ludicrous. The role of women in religion has changed throughout the world — everywhere but Israel. At the Wall, there are 13 regulations, 12 of which passed under the reign of King George V in 1924, thank you very much. Then in 1993, they passed a 13th regulation: one cannot perform a religious act that offends the feelings of others. The Druze policeman who was interrogating Nofrat had the difficult job of trying to establish whether she was intending to cause an injury to the feelings of others.”

Hoffman first came to prominence in Israel with her campaign against Bezeq. “I thought we should have an itemised bill like everyone else in the world. I saw them in America, it made perfect sense. We didn’t have it but now we do,” says Hoffman with a smile in perfectly accented American English, learned while at college in California. In the process of her campaign, she unseated Bezeq’s director general, Zvi Amid, and effectively broke the company’s monopoly.

The victory persuaded Hoffman to stand for election as a Jerusalem city counsellor, a role she fulfilled for 14 years, mostly in implacable opposition to then-mayor Ehud Olmert. “I was an Olmertologist. I knew everything there was to know about him. When he resigned, I thought to myself, what am I going to do now? I discovered that there was an intimacy between us. When I applied for my IRAC job, he even gave me a reference,” she says.

Since 2002, her foe has been the Orthodox, or rather those who allow the Orthodox to dominate Israel. “If Israel was pluralistic I wouldn’t mind that Jerusalem was dominated by the Orthodox, because these people would not be able to dictate to others how they behave. All the buses would be open to the public, there would not be 100 routes where women are assigned to the back of the bus with violence and pushing. I don’t have a problem with those who don’t want us to pray at the Wall. I have a problem with secular politicians, secular mayors and secular police who put up with that. There is more than one way to express your Jewishness.”

Of particular worry to her are the strictly Orthodox communities who opt out of Israeli national life. “In 2050, the Charedim will be 37 per cent of the population. Israelis are not going to put up for very long with the current economic formula. I pay my taxes twice for them not to pay taxes, I send my kids to the army so they can study Torah. Israel may not be economically viable in 50 years’ time. They have to change. They have to work like their brethren in New York or Golders Green.”

A member of the feminist Orthodox group Women of the Wall. Anat Hoffman wants women to be allowed to pray with tallit and Torah at the Western Wall

A member of the feminist Orthodox group Women of the Wall. Anat Hoffman wants women to be allowed to pray with tallit and Torah at the Western Wall

She adds that when there is what she calls an “open market” in religion in Israel, there will be a change for the better. One of her models is the UK. Here, the open stream of debate is inspirational, she feels. And her greatest admiration is reserved for Limmud, the cross-communal educational organisation. “Limmud defies gravity. They dare to let people speak who were not allowed to speak before. Why doesn’t [Chief Rabbi Lord] Jonathan Sacks go to the Limmud conference? I’ve read his books and found him a brilliant writer. But whatever stops him going to Limmud is the barrier between him and the beauty of Judaism. What a terrible mistake he is making.”

Hoffman breaks off to chat to the chambermaid who has come to clean her hotel room. Once she has established that the woman is Moroccan, she produces a piece of Jerusalem stone — “from my backyard” — inscribed with the word “Jerusalem” in Hebrew, and gives it to her with a flourish in Arabic.

She is a persuasive campaigner but her manifesto goes against the interests of all the main political parties in Israel. “The important question is not who is a Jew but who is a rabbi. I want every type of rabbi to be considered a rabbi in my country — not just the Orthodox ones. I want every rabbi to be able to compete for government jobs. I want people to be married in any way they choose, whether that is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or civil. I want that people should be buried in any manner they choose, with music if they want, with non-Hebrew lettering on the stone if they wish.” And, of course, she is insistent that everybody has equal access to the Western Wall. “It is a national monument and should be open to all including the Pope with his cross, Arabs without head covering, anyone as long as they don’t have a bomb — even a woman with a tallit and a sefer Torah.”

Last updated: 5:21pm, January 6 2010