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Anat Hoffman

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Why I Was Arrested for Praying at the Western Wall

Posted: 10/21/2012 10:02 am

The Western Wall in Jerusalem, in the words and Yiddish accent of Issac Bashevis Singer, is "like any other Veilin Vall (wailing wall)." It is the only distinct and concrete holy place for the Jewish people.

The site of the Western Wall is run by an ultra-Orthodox group of bureaucrats and rabbis who are dictating the life choices of all who enter. Pope Benedict XVI was lucky in 2009, to be allowed to visit the wall with his crucifix. The rabbi in charge of the holy places and the wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, claimed that just as the pope would take off his shoes when entering a mosque, he should take off his crucifix when visiting the holy Western Wall. It took some argument to explain to Rabinovitch the difference between the pope's shoes (orange Pradas by the way) and his crucifix. One is a clothing item, while the other is the essence of his identity. The rabbis did not mess with the Pope because the man has 1.5 billion troops. But they do pick on us, the Women of the Wall.

Women of all Jewish denominations who gather for the last 23 years every month and pray together wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), singing out loud (as opposed to lips moving with muted voices) and attempting to read from the Torah scroll. Our group is unusual since most of the women who huddle in the women's section of the wall (12 m reserved for women as opposed to the 48 m reserved for the men's section) are satisfied praying without making a sound, without a prayer shawl and without coming close to a Torah scroll.

But our group is wonderful because it's the only multi-denominational Jewish prayer group in existence at the wall and maybe in the world.

We became sisters as we reached across our varied Jewish practices to celebrate the new month together. Our unique community is a complex exercise in sensitivity and mutual respect. It is therefore quite shocking that our group is seen by the powers that be at the wall as provocative and having no respect for the feelings of others. We have suffered verbal and physical harassment by ultra-Orthodox male and female onlookers, who are threatened by our practices, which, though complying with Jewish law, seem to them to be quite unusual and challenging.

We have been a target of Israeli Police, who are ordered by the rabbi in charge of the wall to enforce his opinion that our voices, our pray shawls and attempts to read Torah are an unacceptable injury to the holiness of the wall and that we must be silenced and stopped. However in 23 years of praying this way every month, not one ultra-Orthodox attacker has been charged for spitting, cursing or assaulting the Women of the Wall.

Similarly, none of us had ever been charged with breaking any regulation or law until recently. For the past few months, one, two or more of us have been detained or arrested at the holy site, mid-prayer. All of these investigations have thus far been closed due to "lack of guilt."

A few days ago, on Oct. 16, 2012, I was arrested at the Western Wall while conducting a prayer service in honor of Hadassah's centennial birthday. Two hundred and fifty Hadassah women came to the wall in solidarity with our group. As we were chanting the "Shema," a major prayer in the service, I was approached by a police office, ordered to leave the wall plaza and taken to the nearby police station. A night of humiliation and pain followed.

I was handcuffed, strip searched, laid on the bare floor. I was not allowed to call my lawyer. I was dragged on the floor with my hands cuffed and worse of all, locked in a tiny cell with a crying young Russian woman accused of prostitution, who was the target of every filthy comment male inmates could utter. Her tears and their words are the hardest memory for me to move on from.

I thought it was a cruel and unusual punishment, but as I found out it was cruel but not unusual. This is how arrests are done in my town, in Jerusalem.

What is the purpose of arresting a woman, interrogating her, collecting video footage of her every move, questioning witnesses and spending hours writing reports, if at the end charges are never made? I believe the purpose of this harassment and treatment is to wear down the leaders of our women's prayer group, to exhaust us into giving up our struggle for this rights.

If Women of the Wall are truly in breach of the law -- charge them. If they are not, stop arresting them, with release pending a 30- or 60-day ban on visiting the wall area or 5,000 NIS bail.

It is time to demand that the state of Israel act like a Jewish and democratic state. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis may be offended by the Women of the Wall practices. That is their legitimate right but it becomes dangerous and frightening when the secular Knesset, the secular courts and the secular police bow down to the ultra-Orthodox fears and demands, while imposing them in the public sphere.

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  • Anat Hoffman is confronted by Israeli police at the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Michal Fattal/Women of the Wall)

  • Anat Hoffman arrested at the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Michal Fattal/Women of the Wall)

  • Anat Hoffman arrested at the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Michal Fattal/Women of the Wall)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall</a> sing and pray at the Western Wall in July 2010. After taking the Torah out of a duffel bag, a woman, Anat Hoffman, was arrested with much resistance and conflict by IDF soldiers and Kotel Police. Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • In July 2010, a Torah scroll is ripped from the hands of Anat Hoffman, a leader of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall prayer group</a>. Hoffman was then arrested with much resistance and conflict by IDF soldiers and Kotel Police. Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Israeli women of the Women of the Wall group pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. Since its founding in 1989, Women of the Wall has fought a legal battle asserting a right to conduct organized prayer at the Western Wall. The group has included women reading from the Torah and wearing prayer accessories that in Orthodox Judaism are used only by men. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

  • A Jewish man wearing tefillin, a leather strapped box containing Torah scripture, prays in solidarity with the women of the Women of the Wall group, not pictured, as they pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. Since its founding in 1989, Women of the Wall has fought a legal battle asserting a right to conduct organized prayer at the Western Wall. The group has included women reading from the Torah and wearing prayer accessories that in Orthodox Judaism are used only by men. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

  • An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man tries to pray louder than the Israeli women of the Women of the Wall group in an attempt to drown them out, as they pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. Since its founding in 1989, Women of the Wall has fought a legal battle asserting a right to conduct organized prayer at the Western Wall. The group has included women reading from the Torah and wearing prayer accessories that in Orthodox Judaism are used only by men. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

  • Tammy Gottlieb holds the torah at the entrance of the Western Wall on Feb. 2, 2011 while the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall pray, sing and dance</a> on the women's side. Women are not allowed to hold a torah at the Western Wall, so a volunteer holds it outside the premises every service. Gottlieb has been attending services and prayer with Women of the Wall for one year, and has volunteered to stand outside with the torah two or three times. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The Women of the Wall <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">pray in the back-end of the Western Wall</a> on Feb. 2, 2011 to celebrate the first day of the Jewish month of Adar I. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall pray</a> in the back-end of the Western Wall to celebrate the first day of the Jewish month Adar I on Feb. 2, 2011. Kotel Police stand near-by incase of an attack against the women or if the women bring out a torah scroll. Among many things, it is against the law for women to read or hold a torah at the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall pray and dance</a> in the back-end of the Western Wall on Feb. 2, 2011. Today was the first time the group of women danced in front of the Western Wall. Dancing, loud prayer and singing on the woman's side is looked down upon and often will be broken up by Kotel Police. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • IDF soldiers and Kotel Police follow the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall</a> as they walk out of the Western Wall praying area on Feb. 2, 2011. One Orthodox Haredi man yelled out in anger at the woman. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Cheryl Birkner-Mack, Anat Hoffman and other members and participants of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall walk out</a> of the Western Wall praying area. on Feb. 2, 2011 The group is heavily escorted by IDF soldiers and Kotel Police. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall hold a services</a> to celebrate the Jewish month of Adar I on Feb. 2, 2011 at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall. The service is held here because it is illegal for women to hold or read the torah at the actual Western Wall praying area. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Cheryl Birkner-Mack, left, Sarah Chandler, 31, center, and various members of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall hold services</a> at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall on Feb. 2, 2011. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • A member of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall</a> walks around the outside service with the torah on Feb. 2, 2011, the first day of Adar I, while members lean in to kiss the torah. This type of activity is forbidden for women at the actual Western Wall, so the women hold service in the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Cheryl Birkner-Mack and another member of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall </a> undress and unroll the torah at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall to celebrate the first day of the Jewish month Adar I on Feb. 2, 2011. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • A woman wearing <em><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tefillin" target="_hplink">tefillin</a></em> and reading a prayer book stands in the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall on Feb. 2, 2011. Women are not allowed to wear tefillin at the Western Wall, so <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">they hold services</a> just outside the gates. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356"> Women of the Wall</a> close services at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall on Feb 2, 2011. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Conservative Rabbi Mijael Even David kisses his prayer book during a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall service</a> on Feb. 2, 2011 at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall. More men are starting to show up to services with the women to show their support and solidarity and to simply attend. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

 
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