Israel's Erin Brockovich wages bold campaign to save her nation's soul
Barney ZwartzSeptember 5, 2011
Social activist Anat Hoffman, pictured in Melbourne, is taking on what she calls Israel's ''holiest cow''. Photo: Rodger CumminsSHE'S been called the Israeli Erin Brockovich or Rosa Parks for winning consumer rights from Israel's phone giant and ending gender segregation on Israeli buses, and she's been arrested at Jerusalem's Western Wall for praying like a man.
Now social activist Anat Hoffman is tackling ''Israel's holiest cow of all'' - the total focus on security - in what she sees as a battle for Israel's soul.
The focus on security, she says, not only consumes a third of the budget but silences Jews outside Israel, serves the existing powers and ensures that when people think of Israel they think first of conflict.
''Jews in the diaspora worry about Israel's physical existence, and not about those challenges that some Israelis think are even bigger, and this is, what are the values of the Jewish state? If our values are respect and co-existence, that has implications for how we resolve the conflict.''
Ms Hoffman, a Jerusalem city councillor for 14 years and now director of the Israel Religious Action Centre, has been a noted campaigner for religious pluralism, women's rights and for Palestinians in Israel.
In Melbourne to speak yesterday to two of the leading liberal Jewish congregations, Temple Beth Israel and the Leo Baeck Centre, Ms Hoffman said: ''People think, 'if I care about Israel, I should live there and if I don't, I shouldn't criticise'. This doesn't do Israel a service.''
Ms Hoffman took on Israel's main telecom company when she questioned her huge bill and demanded that it be itemised.
''I was told, 'we have many wars and the Holocaust, we are nation-building, we can't waste time on itemising bills'. That's when I became allergic to the security excuse.''
She formed an ''afflicted clients' association'' which soon had 5000 members - and victory.
Later came the bus battle. Until this year, women had to enter and sit at the back of buses, with men at the front. Five women soldiers were disciplined by the army when they were late because their bus was full - only the back part.
Ms Hoffman went to the Supreme Court, and since January 30, buses have carried a notice saying passengers may sit where they like and it is a felony to harass them.
But getting orthodox men to accept this is a different matter, so Ms Hoffman has organised ''freedom rides'', where they sit in the front of the bus and get Orthodox women to join them.
She said: ''Orthodox women were willing to stand up and be counted. People call me Rosa Parks, but it is they.
''They have a lot of courage in their community, they say to us, 'save us from our rabbis'.''
Last year she was arrested at Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, of the former temple, under a law that forbids religiously offending others, because she prayed like a man, out loud, wearing a prayer shawl and holding a Torah. Women can pray there, in an area one-quarter the size of the men's, but it must be silent.
She is hugely encouraged by the ''Israeli spring'' - the tent cities of protesters culminating in marches and rallies this weekend - because it shows young people share her priorities.
Ms Hoffman, who calls herself ''profoundly religious'' in the more liberal Reform tradition of Judaism, thinks the influence of the ultra-orthodox on secular society is one of Israel's biggest problems, and turns Israelis away from religion.
''Look at Israel's entrepreneurship in every field, from medicine, to agriculture, to nine Nobel prize winners. We are second only to the US in patents registered. Israel takes your breath away, except in one thing - Judaism.
''There are ultra-orthodox in New York or Melbourne, but they don't ask for segregated buses because they can't get away with it. Israel is too important to be left to the Israelis.''
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/israels-erin-brockovich-wages-bold-campaign-to-save-her-nations-soul-20110904-1jsg1.html#ixzz1X6xePaF4