25 October 2012

How We Treat Our Own

anat hoffman:  photo courtesy 'women of the wall'
It was my late grandmother, a Minsk native and immigrant to Milwaukee, who explained to me that as a Jew I had a special relationship to the State of Israel.  I was sitting beside her one day while Golda Meir was being interviewed on American television.  "She was my babysitter here in Milwaukee," Grandma explained.  "Then she moved to Israel and built a state."

I learned Hebrew in Madison from a woman named Bilha.  At Hebrew University in 1985, another Golda regularly hosted American students for Shabbat dinner.  That same year a single mom named Haya asked me to hang out with her kid Yonaton, who needed a male role model.  We played basketball on Fridays, walked around Baka, and at 3 pm each Friday afternoon, I was sent back to Mount Scopus with a delicious chocolate cake.  She was a music teacher and peace activist.  In rabbinical school another Haya told me to read more poetry and at NYU in the early 21st century, a woman named Naomi, with bone crushing fierceness, told me of battles for equality of women in the American and Israeli Jewish leadership that would make David blush with timidity for his supposed heroism against Goliath.  In the last ten years I've watched a friend named Shifra insist that men and women be paid and promoted equally in Jewish life and worked with women named Nessa and Julie to honor the memory of a mentor named Lisa who insisted that the voice of the Jewish people be a voice of justice and equality for all people in this troubled world.  My wife Rachel fought for inmates on death row in Alabama, switched careers in her forties to become a therapist, and let's end this paragraph with a fitting tribute to my fatherhood:  I am helping bring three daughters into the world.  Watch out.

When I read, with pain, sorrow, anger and disgust about the arrest and abuse of my friend Anat Hoffman at the hands of the Jerusalem police, for daring to recite the Jewish people's deepest words of faith in the holiest place on earth for the Jewish people, I briefly mourned the death of an idealization of the Jewish state as the national homeland for all Jewish people until I saw, in a kind of hologram of truth, the faces of all my Jewish female teachers who would rather fight than mourn; who'd rather build than destroy; who'd rather make life than hasten the death of friendship, devotion and peace among brothers and sisters of the One God.

Anat Hoffman was arrested for wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, in the Kotel area.  She recited the Shma aloud, a serious offense under the Roman Empire as well as under the rabbinic authorities who supervise the Western Wall.  Of her arrest and mistreatment by the Jerusalem police, Hoffman told the journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen:
 “In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.“I’m a tough cookie, but I was just so miserable. And for what? I was with the Hadassah women saying Sh’ma Israel.”
It's nothing less than a total outrage.  Any Prime Minister seeking the support of American Jewry, not to mention his own population, ought to have the courage to decisively break the power of this corrupt religious authority, or simply lose moral legitimacy in matters related to the idea that national institutions belong to the entire Jewish people.

Birthright trips; UJA missions; URJ and USCJ missions--each of which purport to uphold the values of equality of gender--are morally obligated from this time forth to either not visit the Kotel on future visits to Israel, or, in visiting, to perform acts of civil disobedience, until the message is heard loud and clear that the Jewish people is not "a free people in its own land" while women are repressed and manhandled by security working on behalf of religious extremism.

Congregation Beth Elohim, in February, plans to bring 50 of its members to Israel.  We will either not visit the Kotel, or come to do civil disobedience.  We'll keep you posted.

If this is how we treat our own, is it any wonder that we are more distant from peace with Palestinians than any time in recent memory?

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