Israel, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

What if Anat Hoffman wasn't white?

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.

13 thoughts on “What if Anat Hoffman wasn't white?

  1. The point is very well expressed here that Diaspora Jews will criticize Israel for its religious intolerance to fellow Jews but say nothing when it is jingoistic or cruel and inhumane to refuges, and violates human rights of Palestinians. But making this seem like only a race-based issue is an oversimplification. (The Palestinians are as “white” as the Israelis). It is a flashier title maybe, but does a disservice to the very well made argument.

  2. Bravo. The speed with which my Facebook feed lights up with indignation every time Anat is arrested is impressive – and I dream of what it would be like for the same number of people to be equally attentive to and outraged by these other, more life-threatening situations. Why isn’t anyone wearing those thousands of “Save Darfur” t-shirts now that the survivors of Darfur are living in Levinsky Park?

  3. I find it interesting that the same American Jews who complain about Jewish religious gender discrimination there don’t seem to mind Jewish religious discrimination here.
    I have never heard of a demonstration in public areas of Kiryas Joel or New Square-whole towns where such discrimination seems to be continuous, constant and mandatory, in public and in private.
    No plane ticket or passport needed to demonstrate. How about it?

  4. RTB, thanks much. Can you say more about why Arabs are white? Given the self-described racial tensions towards Mizrahi Jews, I was wont to Arabs also as a different race. Even despite how little that term means. Do help me out.

  5. Pardon me, I actually don’t like that language I just borrowed, “different race.” But prejudice towards them based on not their faith, culture, or language but because of a perceived physical differentiation.

  6. Hi,
    I am not at all denying the fact that racisim is a huge factor in Israeli society, whether it is manifest in treatment of African refugees, Asian temporary workers or the Sephardic / Ashkenazic divides. But it is not the only factor in the treatment of Palestinians ( not that the other factors are nice or glorious) and to reduce the entire issue to racism is an oversimplification that allows people to ignore other factors like extreme militarism and nationalism.
    Prejudice can take other forms than just racism, though it often leads to “perceived physical differentiation” of the other no matter what.
    But it usually starts with differences in language, faith and culture and then leads to perceived physical differentiation and not the other way around.
    Many Israelis ( I think half) are not of European descent- and thus equally “unwhite” as Palestinians. So called racial distinctions like these are more socially based. European Jews were not so long ago considered “nonwhite” in Europe and North America. As were all Eastern Europeans, and Greeks and Italians. (See also How the Irish Became White).
    My point is merely that the contrast of North American activism and willingness to criticize Israel (or lack thereof) in one situation and not another is more nuanced than just racism.

  7. Reading this makes me think of this story from the atheist community:
    The short version is someone who is active in feminist circles in that community has something sketchy happen to her & he calls it out. In response she’s verbally attacked & threatened from all directions including a public response from the famous Richard Dawkins saying, she has no right to complain since worse things are happening to women elsewhere.
    Yes there are worse things happening in Israel and around the world than what happened to Hoffman. People should obviously be aware when they are making decisions on where to be active and acknowledge that some decisions are emotional and identity-linked. Still, why does that mean it’s immoral to stand with Hoffman and support the cause of the religious freedom of Jewish women and Jewish egalitarian communities until one becomes an activist in every more serious world cause?

  8. @Boxthorn I hear your point and I think the diff is that most American Jews feel their cousins in Kiryas accept and desire those conditions. Clearly its not all one way or the other, I’ve heard stories of those trying to escape. Bt in an interesting parallel to the subject of the post, those same ppl are probly as reluctant to confront domestic haredim for these issues as they are the Israeli establishment for the issues outlined in the post. Nice connection Boxy!

  9. Ah, RTB, I understand you now and totally agree.
    Dan Ab, I would agree that one need not be active on every issue to be a moral voice, but the offense I’m highlighting is a declared intent to never criticize Israel on any matters except state religion. That belief has no depth to me, particularly when the reasons are high rhetoric about Israel’s soul and especially when real people are dying. If we want to make identity issues so preeminently important (“existential”) then life should be *at least* as important, if not more so.
    Dave, good point although there’s a big difference between here in Israel and there in America: the government doesn’t enforce gender segregation there and it does here. And while gender segregation is bad in America and American Judaism, haredim in Kiryat Joel can opt to leave that society with a full high school education. In Israel, haredim aren’t given the basic societal tools to live outside their communities of birth, so they can’t leave the same way. It’s an uglier problem here than in the States.

  10. Another way to look at is that people may get their feet wet with criticizing Israel over gender discrimination and then, once they see that the sky has not fallen because of their responsible criticism, be more comfortable criticizing on other fronts.
    Dan Ab, your point is also very insightful.
    It is not immoral to take one stand and not the other. It is in some ways inconsistent, which is OK if it is acknowledged as such. No one is free from inconsistencies.

  11. More to the point of Anat Hoffman, I’m not sure where I come down here. There’s an aspect to the situation being ignored, and which I am not sufficiently familiar with to expound at length on – the current situation at the Western Wall is a product of negotiation and compromise by many parties. It’s not a simple as saying “the penguins have a monopoly on the wall”. That’s just not the case. What is the actual agreement? What is the state’s commitment in enforcing that agreement to maintain public order? That entire layer of complexity and context is missing from that discussion, on which this discussion is framed.
    I’ll also ask a question that KFJ didn’t…
    What if Anat Hoffman was trying to pray on the other side of the Wall? For the past 40 years, the Israeli government has held to an agreement with the Islamic Waqf to prevent Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. Jews who visit the other side are escorted by Israeli police, and have historically been beaten, dragged away and jailed for merely opening their lips in quiet prayer. That is no exaggeration, though somehow those stories never make their way to Jewschool. It is only in recent months and years that a flood of Jewish activists, after going through the Supreme Court, forced the GoI to organize “prayer tours”, which escort small groups of Jews to quietly (read: silently) pray on the other side. Vocal expressions of Jewish faith remain prohibited, and violators are violently dragged away in the middle of prayer and never again allowed on the Mount. The Conservative movement has yet to issue an opinion on the matter, as far as I know.
    Clearly, for the sake of ensuring public order and security at a site of immense sensitivity, the GoI has made commitments to multiple parties. These agreements are not always subject to a perfect interpretation of human rights or respect for individual dignity, but they represent a general consensus among most actors. Furthermore, I believe the spirit of these agreements have been generally upheld by the Supreme Court, with wide lenience given to the GoI in ensuring security at the Mount.
    Just throwing some context into this. Again, I’m not sure where I come down here – there are merits to guaranteeing freedom of faith/expression argument, but also considerable merits to the imperfect but peaceful status quo.

  12. Israel is the only country with a sizeable Jewish population that actively enacts and implements anti-Semitic laws. As long as we understand anti-Semitic laws to be those that interfere with Jewish religious and communal life, with the intention of suppressing some or all of it.

  13. I don’t know if Anat Hoffman did a good thing or a bad thing, but I know that she did it here. I only pay attention to people who are here.

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