Arresting the Victim (Again)

Anat Hoffman does good work for the Jewish community.

As the head of the Israel Religious Action Center, she directs an organization that is helping to build the civil society devoted to liberal democracy that Israel desperately needs.

Yet many in the Jewish world have never heard of her. She doesn’t even pass the does-she-have-a-Wikipedia-article test.

Hopefully the shameful events of last week will change that. That certainly is changing, though. On October 17th, she was arrested at the Western Wall for — brace yourself — praying. It’s not even the first time she’s been arrested at The Wall. The reason the arrest occurred was that she was wearing a tallit and praying — out loud! — at the wall. And as a woman, her choice to do so did not fall within the realm of the far-right Chief Rabbinate’s definition of acceptable halachic (Jewish legal) practice.

This is a problem. Let’s start with the most straight forward reasons. First, the Western Wall’s only purpose today is to offer a place for Jews to connect to God. Hoffman was doing that, as she and the group Women of the Wall have been doing for more than twenty years. To deny her the right to do so contradicts the very values that Israel was built upon. Israel became a state in order to be a safe haven for the Jewish people. It wasn’t created just  to be a safe haven for hyper-Orthodox men, and it wasn’t created to dictate what forms of Jewish prayer are acceptable and which are unacceptable. Punishing someone for taking full advantage of the safe haven that Israel is supposed to be either means that Israel is not really a safe haven — or that it is only a safe haven for certain folks.

Second, there is the P.R. factor: Israel is a pretty controversial place, and we’ve heard tell that there is a decent amount of news coverage devoted to its successes and failures. Let us pretend for a second that our first argument did not apply, that punishing certain Jewish forms of prayer did not contradict the express purpose of the state of Israel. Even then, from a pragmatic perspective, it would seem like the Israeli government should take every step to avoid this type of incident. They’re not doing themselves any favors here. Want to be seen as a member on equal footing of the democratic, pluralistic western world? Act like it.

Let’s look at who has spoken out against Israel’s behavior over the last few days: the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rick  Jacobs; the head of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, Steve Wernick; Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman. Does Israel really not have enough detractors that it needs to start looking for more? Foxman, to put it gently, is not someone who generally looks for opportunities to speak out against Israel. When the Israeli government makes a decision that gets even him upset, that should give us pause.

Last — but by far, not least — there’s the moral argument. Women of the Wall prays at the Kotel every month. And every month men spit on women, men verbally taunt women and men physically assault women.

Even if you operate within an Orthodox Jewish legal framework, it’s not as if this type of behavior is condoned. Certainly, the vast majority of traditional rabbinic authorities agree that time-bound positive commandments (including praying the Shema, reading Torah and wearing a tallit) are not incumbent upon women. However, it never says we should verbally or physically attack those women who do perform these commandments. There are certain categories of sin for which the Torah and Talmud lay out physical punishments, but a woman wearing a tallit is not one of them.

Orthodox Judaism is not in the wrong here. Rather, Jews who drastically distort the values of traditional Judaism are in the wrong. Control of the Wall does not lie with mainstream Orthodox Judaism. If that were the case, then the implication would be that within Orthodoxy there is some rabbi or group of rabbis endorsing physical attacks on women. There is no such endorsement, and saying there is one would be offensive to mainstream Orthodox Judaism, which condemns such behavior.

Let’s look at the basic truths of this situation: The actions being discouraged are undeniably difficult for many Jews to stomach. Whether we like it or not, the behavior of these women falls outside the framework of acceptable behavior in many Jewish communities. However, the attacks the reactions of the Jews who attack the Women of the Wall are flat-out wrong, no matter what Jewish legal standards you have.

Here on college campuses, many of us are doing everything we can to promote what Judaism has to offer. When events like this occur, our battle becomes a great deal harder. When isolated pockets of Ultra-Orthodox Jews are treated by the government as the more truly Jewish party, and are therefore rewarded while others are punished, that sends a message that Judaism stands for prejudice. How can that message possibly help us connect to the next generation of Jewish leaders? How can it help use build bridges?

Once again, in the shadow of the holiest Jewish site in the world, the police placed the blame squarely on the victims and arrested Hoffman. This is wrong. This is state-sponsored misogyny carried out in the name of God.

No wonder so many young, liberal, American Jews are fed up with Israel.

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