Sometimes it takes a friend to tell you that you’re an idiot. Actually, Anat was kinder than that — in keeping with rabbinic teaching that reproof needs to be done for the benefit of the admonished rather than the admonisher (which is harder than it seems, given the feel-good buzz of self-righteousness).
It was years ago, and I was excitedly babbling about my afternoon at the archaeological park being excavated at the City of David.
“You know who’s directing the dig?” she asked. (I didn’t.)
“You know the site is directly under the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, right?” (Well, yeah….)
And slowly, gently, and with much love, she reminded me how politically loaded every stone in Jerusalem can be. Jewish settlers had been moving into the area, sometimes making the lives of their Palestinian neighbors deliberately unpleasant in hopes that they would leave. The excavations were in their own way obscuring the Palestinian identity of the place. The stories we tell, and who gets to tell them, have a deep impact on people’s lives.
My friend Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, inspires me with her courageous work on behalf of women and minorities in Israel. Allow me to share a few additional stories about her and the impact she has on my life.
Anat does not give up and tenaciously fights against ultra-orthodox efforts to make women sit at the back of the bus, stand in separate lines, or change seats on airplanes to accommodate men who claim they cannot sit next to a woman for religious reasons. She strives to remove rabbis from government-sponsored posts if they espouse racist positions. And she has argued in the Supreme Court, and the court of public opinion, for equal rights of Bedouins in Israel, Palestinians, women, LGBTQ organizations/individuals, and non-orthodox Jews.
Decades ago, Anat co-founded Women of the Wall, and this year, there will be a state-sponsored egalitarian space for prayer and reading of Torah at the Western Wall. She makes me patient but not complacent in the pursuit of justice.
She never stops learning. Asked to speak at hundreds of events, she always looks forward to the questions and comments as real opportunities to hear what others have to say. Anat embodies an almost childlike openness to the world and notices with contagious delight things I generally take for granted. Awestruck at her first sight of Lake Michigan, she dragged me to the shore to sip its water, so amazed was she of this freshwater lake. Walking through a duty-free shop, she mused that Jews can never really be “duty-free.”
I rarely look at things the way I used to after spending time with Anat.
She does not lose hope. Sometimes it comes off as typical Israeli toughness, embedded in a culture that senses danger if you show where it hurts. For Anat, however, it is about refusing to give in to despair.
She tells a story about Rahab, the prostitute who protects Israelite scouts in Joshua 2. To ensure the safety of her household when they return to conquer Jericho, they tell her to tie a red thread to the window.
“Hebrew has words for rope, for string, for cord,” Anat says.
“But how fitting that she’s instructed to use a whisper-thin thread, a tikvat chut shani. There’s a play on the word tikvah, or hope.”
Rahab had done what she thought was right; she did what she could. She had to hope that these foreigners would remember their promise when they returned with troops and violence ensued — and they did. Hope may be only a fragile thread, but it connects us one to another, and brings out our best.
Anat does not lose her sense of humor, although circumstances sometimes give it a darkish cast. After extremists scrawled hate-filled slurs on the walls of Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, Anat showed up with scrub brush and detergent in hand, but the tools failed to erase the ugly epithets. So she joked about getting a sandblaster to keep in her office closet, just in case.
When she was arrested in 2012 for the “crime” of wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and publicly reciting the Sh’ma (a Jewish prayer) with a congregation of women at the Western Wall, she was subjected to fierce intimidation. She commented with her usual empathy and sharp wit:
“I felt I had endured ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment… and then I realized it was not unusual at all.”
Anat makes me smile even when the situation is grim.
Above all, Anat never forfeits her compassion. She is willing to shine a light on the darkest aspects of Israeli society, fighting to improve them but never hating the people who let it happen.
“Love is what remains after you know the truth,” she said.