Anat Hoffman, head of both Women of the Wall and the Reform Movement’s action center in Israel, was arrested while saying the Sh’ma with 250 other American Jews from Hadassah. The Reform movement called immediately for an investigation, the Conservative movement called for global Sh’ma flashmobs, and other groups joined the condemnation. (Jewschool contributor LJCM rightly asks why there aren’t even more, but here I’ll press a parallel observation.) Something is obviously wrong with this abandonment of American Jewry’s pretenses against criticizing the democratically-elected government of the State of Israel.
Tellingly, the head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Garry Skolnick, gave hint to this counter-current in an email blast: “When Protestant groups are pushing for a total reconsideration of all American foreign aid to Israel and Iran is working hard to develop the capacity to go nuclear, we must be thoughtful as to how, and in what forums, we choose to address the very real issues that are of burning concern to us.” He continued, “Yes, Israel must change. But those of us who love her must help her change, not hurt her through our good intentions.”
As one (female) Jewschool contributor quipped, “No one’s got the tits at all in this movement.” But it’s not just “wussing out” on women’s rights as another contributor said, it’s the obvious selective outcry of institutions joining this particular outcry. They’ve been silent on recent offenses equally important — and in a few cases, even more dire.
Said a Conservative rabbi who declined to speak on the record due to the sensitivity of the subject, “Haddasah women and the American supporters of Women of the Wall, who on the whole don’t care about what is happening in Sheikh Jarakh or Bil’in, are astounded by the way the police treat Anat Hoffman. Hadassah as a whole is then struck speechless because they want to continue fetishizing the Kotel, continue to ignore that the plaza the women were singing on when arrested was 50 years ago a Palestinian neighborhood, and continue to treat Israel like Disneyland while supporting education and medical research.” (The Jerusalem police have been chastised by the Israeli courts for “trigger happy” intimidation.)
But more importantly, why is the Kotel’s “existential threat to Israel’s soul” (in the words of the CEO of the USCJ) any less provocative than the chillul Hashem of demolishing an entire Bedouin village to make way for a Jewish one? Or of an Eritrean woman who miscarried her baby at Israel’s border fence, like so many other African refugees barred from entry and refused humanitarian aid while here? Or of any number of Palestinian human rights abuses in 60 years of undemocratic occupation? Each of these are just as corrupting to Israel’s soul, yet deference seems given to Israeli leaders not otherwise exhibited on religious pluralism.
The muted voices of these same religious leaders and women’s groups strike me as particularly sorrowful regarding African refugees in Israel. These are the very same asylees from genocide for whom Reform and Conservative synagogues, Hillels and American Jewish Committee delegations from across America lined up and held rallies on the Capital Mall with Ruth Messinger at the mic. For the past six months, except for a small core of volunteers involved in the Right Now coalition, rarely a peep is heard.
The first clear-headed answer was Rabbi Jill Jacobs, opining on Open Zion,
When it comes to criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, African refugees and asylum seekers, and Bedouins, I often hear the argument that Diaspora Jews should not criticize Israel because we don’t live there. I don’t buy this argument in general. For religious, political, and financial reasons, American Jews certainly have a stake in what happens in Israel.
Let’s say, though, that we did accept the argument that American Jews have no business criticizing Israel. If this were the case, then we should stop complaining about religious discrimination there. Who are we to criticize when we don’t live the day-to-day religious reality?
She posits that typical American Jewish stereotypes are the reasons: our fetishization of Israeli military strength and our self-confident pride in our pluralistic Judaism. We don’t interfere in Israel’s defensive policies, but her spiritual defense we take personally. Jacobs concludes, “American Jews will need to shatter the tired paradigm of the impotent Diaspora Jew capable only of ritual expertise, and the powerful Israeli ‘new Jew’ and to engage with the political issues, and not just the religious ones.”
I’d like to make that even more explicit: it is immoral to privilege identity issues above the lives and safety of real individuals, Jew or non-Jew. Indeed, in the cases I’ve mentioned, they are the same threat. A stony heart towards an African refugee, a Bedouin citizen, and a Palestinian farmer is no less a threat to the Israeli soul than Hoffman’s brutal arrest. But when a stony heart is turned to Anat, she is not liable to die of starvation at the border, or a lifetime of deprivation in the Negev, or daily violence in the West Bank and Gaza.
Anat Hoffman is a hero and her work is crucial for so many reasons. Her bravery to weather police cruelty is above and beyond the call of duty. It is the selective attention and hypocritical words by the American Jewish institutions that scream for moral consistency. They should continue to be vocal on issues of pluralism and tolerance. But their ongoing silence on issues equally as dangerous — and in some cases of humanitarian aid, even more dire — undermines their integrity.