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May 7, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

Schism over women’s rights in Israel

by Samuel Burke

Israeli feminist Anat Hoffman has just finished a tour in the U.S., campaigning for support over her arrest in the ongoing struggle between secular and Orthodox Jews in Israel.

Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and was arrested at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2010 for carrying a Torah at the holy site in Jerusalem. She told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “I was conducting a religious act that offends the feelings of others – and that’s against the law.” While women carrying a Torah in Reform Judaism is common place, it’s not sanctioned by Orthodox Jews, whose customs have become the norm at the Western Wall. Hoffman was never charged with a crime.

Hoffman said that even though women’s rights are a problem only within a very small group inside Orthodoxy, her arrest and the schisms between religious and secular Jews over women’s rights are indicative of the growing power of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

“Secular politicians in Israel make greater and greater concessions to the ultra-Orthodox,” Hoffman said, “because they are a very obedient crowd in a democratic game – they vote in a block, in one way.”

Hoffman is also a member of the so called ‘Freedom Riders,’ reminding Israeli passengers that public buses cannot be involuntary segregated, which the Israeli Supreme court ruled in a case brought by an Israeli woman in 2011.

As a matter of custom, on some Israeli bus lines women sit in the back of the bus, because the ultra-Orthodox avoid mixing of men and women. But in 2011, a woman named Tanya Rosenblit sat in the front of an inter-city bus bound for Jerusalem and was dubbed Israel’s ‘Rosa Parks’ when she refused to give up her seat.

Hoffman and other ‘Freedom Riders’ post sings to remind riders of the Supreme Court’s decision. Hoffman told Amanpour, “We went to court representing a variety of Orthodox women. We won the case  and [the sign] is hanging in every Israeli bus, right behind the driver.” The sign reads, “Passengers may sit in any seat of his or her choosing… harassing a passenger regarding his or her seating choice may constitute a crime.”

When asked how the rise of Orthodoxy and its political impact affect any possibility of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, Hoffman said, “I look at Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – deeply religious people that used religion to mend their country.  When you think of South Africa, you see how religion can actually act not as an obstacle – the peace and reconciliation committees are drenched in religious rhetoric.  You see religion at its very, very best.”


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