Police call for pressing charges against Torah-carrying activist at Western Wall
By Raphael Ahren • Ha’aretz
The Jerusalem police have recommended that the state prosecution press charges against the leader of a women's group fighting for the right to read from the Torah at the Western Wall, following a brawl this summer during which the group's leader was arrested for walking with a Torah scroll at the holy site.
A police spokeswoman this week confirmed that the investigation against Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman has been concluded and its results forwarded to the prosecutor. According to a statement by Women of the Wall, the police recommend indicting the 56-year-old mother of three - her youngest is 14 - for the felony of "gravely obstructing a police officer in the performance of his duties." The sentence for such a conviction is up to three years in prison, Hoffman's lawyer said.
"Not that I'm looking forward to having my freedom curtailed, but oftentimes you have to pay a personal price for your beliefs," said Hoffman, who is also executive director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, about the prospect of a prison sentence. "I will find it extremely surprising if someone in the [prosecutor's office] will actually pursue this. But if they will pursue it, I am willing to pay the price," she added.
On July 12, Hoffman was arrested and questioned for several hours by local police after she held a Torah scroll in the women's section of the Wall and attempted to walk to the nearby Robinson's Arch, which is designated for prayer groups that do not conform to traditional Orthodox rite.
According to a Women of the Wall representative, the police had asked Hoffman to stop walking with the scroll, but she refused. Officers then "tried to forcefully remove the Torah from her hands," the representative said. The police argued she was arrested for violating a Supreme Court order when she "prayed" with a Torah scroll. She was fined NIS 5,000 and banned from the site for 30 days.
Hoffman, a member of Meretz who served 14 years on Jerusalem's city council, said she has "great faith in our legal system." Should the prosecutor go through with a trial, she added, "I will not try to defend myself on medical or personal grounds, or in any way dissuade them, except for the fact that I believe that in the midst of prayer, with over 200 women present, it was absolutely within my right to hold a Torah scroll and lead them to Robinson's Arch."
Women at the Wall started holding monthly prayer services at the site more than 20 years ago. Initially just a handful of women, the group has grown immensely in recent months. A large part of the nearly 300 men and women attending the group's services are native English speakers, according to Hoffman. "They know better," she said about the high number of Anglos, referring to the strong progressive Jewish movements in North America and Britain.
"She's not going to go to prison, not even for one day, either way," said Hoffman's lawyer, David Barhoom. Her "so-called violence" against the police cannot be viewed in vacuum, he told Anglo File, and if charges were brought up against her, the case would have to settle the question whether the police was justified in stopping her in the first place
Banning private Torahs
According to a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, women are forbidden from reading aloud from a Torah at the Wall. Hoffman and her attorney maintain she did not violate the Supreme Court ruling, yet Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch told Anglo File he considers the group's actions a "provocation." In a move aimed at curtailing the group's activity, he said he recently enacted a regulation that bars anyone from privately bringing Torah scrolls to the Wall area without his permission.
Rabinovitch, who was put in charge of the site by the Religious Services Ministry, told Anglo File prayer services should be conducted with one of the over 100 scrolls available at the site. The reasons for his new rule are twofold, he explained. First, it should prevent Torah scrolls from being stolen, as he says has happened throughout the country and has been attempted - unsuccessfully - at the Wall. Secondly, the measure aims to "hinder the Women of the Wall and other groups that deviate from the local custom from their provocations," the rabbi said.
"I am not interested in having a halakhic or an ideological discussion, but the Western Wall belongs to the entire Jewish people. We have to make every effort to make every Jew feel at home there," Rabinovitch told Anglo File. He likened the Jewish people to different children of one father, who all adopted different religious practices. While this is everyone's right, when they visit their father the sons need to conduct themselves in the same way they were brought up, he said.
"Regardless of what [Women of the Wall] do is correct or not, the Western Wall is not the place for them to practice as they see fit. They're enough places for them to do that," he added. Women of the Wall officials say they vehemently oppose the new "dictatorial procedure" and demand its cancellation. The "unreasonable strictness" of the regulation "promise[s] to worsen conditions for women even further," a statement by the group declared.
The group also rejects Rabinovitch's explanation that the new regulations are meant to protect public property. "There are other ways to deal with [potential theft of Torah scrolls]," the group wrote in a letter to the rabbi. "Torah scrolls have never been stolen from the Wall," Hoffman told Anglo File. "He's saying he's preempting something that has never happened in 43 years? The rabbi of the Wall is taking the holiest place of the Jewish people and instead of treating it as a national monument, open to all, even to those who are worshiping in a way that's different from his custom, he's actually making a regulation that's tailor-made around his own belief," she said.
While certain sectors of the Israeli public - including Anglos - support the group's fight against what they describe as discrimination against women at the Wall, even some non-Orthodox observers find their methods too confrontational and thus inappropriate.
"Sending our daughters to be wrapped in tallit at the section of the Wall that is run according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law is a violation... of our agreement with the State of Israel," an Israeli-born female Masorti rabbi told WeNews in June regarding the 2003 High Court ruling on the issue of prayer shawls at the holy site. "It violates the moral-legal principle of minhag makom: respect for the customs of a certain place and for the rabbi and community that adheres to him." Some Women of the Wall members use prayer shawls.
But Hoffman insists her actions are anything but a provocation.
"We've been doing this for 22 years," she said about Women of the Wall's monthly prayer group. "We're there all the time. What has changed is not us, what changed is the powers that be, the power of the state behind the most fanatic Orthodoxy," she said, adding that over the last half decade many changes occurred at the Wall that seem to cement an Orthodox grip on the site. "It became an Ultra-Orthodox synagogue."