Women in Israel: From back of bus to top of agenda

Leading activist Anat Hoffman will keynote conference on gender segregation

Anat Hoffman has been detained by police many times in the course of her decades-long crusade for social justice, during which she has repeatedly confronted gender segregation and discrimination at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and elsewhere.

She learned the difference between being detained and being arrested last autumn, when she was jailed for wearing a Jewish prayer shawl at the Wall – an act forbidden to women by Orthodox religious authorities there.

The police “checked me naked, completely, without my underwear,” said the longtime leader of Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center. “They dragged me on the floor… They threw me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw food through a little window in the door. I lay on the floor covered with my tallit.”

Despite that experience, when Hoffman comes to Brandeis Sunday, April 14, to give the 5th Annual Markowicz Lecture on Gender and Human Rights, she will focus on the positive. Her talk on “Women in Israel: From the Back of the Bus to the Top of the Agenda,” at 7 p.m. in Wasserman Cinematheque, is the keynote address for a conference the following day on gender segregation organized by Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, a project of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

“There are fantastic victories,” Hoffman said in a recent telephone interview. “Ten years ago, buses were legally [gender] segregated. On almost 100 bus lines, women were asked to enter by the back door and sit in the back of the bus. Almost all have signs now that say this segregation is illegal. There has been a dramatic decline in the number of segregated lines.”

She said great progress also has been made against gender segregation in cemeteries, where Hoffman and her allies successfully sued in a case in which religious authorities refused to allow a woman to eulogize her father, and on the airwaves, where a radio station they sued for refusing to hire women and for beeping out comments by female Members of Knesset was ordered by the government to change its practices or face loss of its license. In the most recent election, 27 of the 120 Knesset seats went to women – the most in Israel’s history.

“It’s not 60,” Hoffman said, “but it’s not bad.”

She is acutely aware that many challenges remain, noting that “every time we eliminate segregation in one place – oops! – it pops up in another.” 

Women of the Wall, for example, has had limited success changing rules established by religious authorities and enforced by the police that sharply circumscribe women’s activities at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

Still, Hoffman said, “Women of the Wall has scored a victory by moving out of obscurity and becoming one of the major issues under discussion in the Jewish world today. We have been around for 24 years but only in the last year and half has that taken place. Paratroopers who joined us have shown it is the consensus view” that women should be able to participate in ritual at the Wall. “Israelis had given up on the Wall, but now that has changed.”

Hoffman was born in Jerusalem and in her youth was a national swimming champion who represented Israel in international competitions. She graduated UCLA with a degree in psychology, found her calling as a social activist and was a longtime member of the Jerusalem City Council. 

The conference Hoffman is keynoting is titled “Gendered Rites/Gendered Rights: Sex Segregation, Religious Practice, and Public Life,” and will be held Monday, April 15, in the Luria rooms of Hassenfeld Conference Center.

Scholars from the United States, Israel, Canada and France will participate in panels exploring borderlines between religion and public life; sex segregation and public life; and current trends in sex segregation.

 Full conference details are at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute website. RSVPs are recommended for the keynote address.


About the Markowicz Memorial Lecture

The Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights was created by Sylvia Neil, founder of the Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law project, and her husband, Dan Fischel, in memory of Sylvia's late sister, Diane, to honor her commitment to gender equality and social justice. The series features internationally renowned scholars, judges, and activists discussing ways of negotiating the tensions between gender equality and religious or cultural norms.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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