Updates to post on ‘Women of the Wall’ & alleged gender segregation in Petah Tikva

This story has been updated below

On Feb. 19, we posted about Harriet Sherwood’s Feb. 17 Guardian report, ‘Sarah Silverman tweet puts women’s Western Wall protest in global spotlight, which focused on a protest by an Israeli group (‘Women of the Wall’) against restrictions imposed on women who pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem.


Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem

We noted that such protests resonate with a lot of Israelis who object to Haredi hegemony over religious practices in the state, but examined the following quote in the Guardian story for accuracy.

Despite some notable legal victories, “this is still a huge issue”, said [Anat] Hoffman, who is also director of [IRAC] the Israel Religious Action Centre [and chairperson of ‘Women of the Wall’], which campaigns against segregation and the exclusion of women. “Every day we get calls reporting things to us. Just yesterday, we heard that the water-drinking fountains at Petah Tikva cemetery have been segregated.”

IRAC is the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Judaism movement in Israel.

Due to the fact that Hoffman evidently didn’t provide the source of her claim to Sherwood, we did our own investigation, and contacted an Israeli blogger named Anne, a resident of Petah Tikva [a city in central Israel, 10.6 km east of Tel Aviv], who investigated the matter personally.

Anne wrote the following:

I got [to the cemetery in Petah Tikvah] during a funeral (so I visited my grandmother’s grave while I was there) and then wandered around and took photos of the taps. First of all, there are no “drinking fountains” at the cemetery. I don’t think any cemetery has these.  What they do have are taps to ritually wash your hands when leaving the cemetery (Netilat Yadayim). As you can see (in the photos), there were men and women washing hands together. The second set of taps are located outside the men’s toilets but are certainly used by both men and women. As you can see, there is no sign at all about separation, and I have washed my hands there many times. The “wall” dividing the two sides is simply to allow more taps in one small area.

So, contrary to the claim made by Hoffman there are no gender segregated “drinking fountains” in the Petah Tikva cemetery, and likely no “drinking fountains” at all.  Further, the ritual hand washing taps, as Anne noted, are not segregated by gender.

However, this morning, we were contacted by a CiF Watch reader who supports the mission of the Israeli Religious Action Centre, and had emailed the group to seek comment on the claim made by their director.  Here’s their reply:

 It seemed Anat did confuse the cities when she said it was Petah Tikva. The city where we found the gender segregated washing station was in Kiryat Gat [a city in southern Israel, 56 km south of Tel Aviv]. I have attached a picture below. This will be corrected and in past and for all future statements on the issue.

Here’s the photo they sent.

Seperate washing stations

So, there appears to indeed be separate men’s and women’s ritual hand washing stations at the cemetery in Kiryat Gat. 

Though the connection between this particular gender separation practice at one Israeli cemetery and the restrictions imposed on women who pray at the Kotel is debatable, there’s a larger point to be made about Hoffman’s gaffe.

Though she was born in Jerusalem, Anat Hoffman spent time in the US (she earned her undergraduate degree from UCLA) and speaks flawless English.

Whilst conflating Petah Tikva with Kiryat Gat does not represent a major substantive error, Hoffman would likely be familiar with the ritual washing practice at Jewish cemeteries (symbolizing the dissociation from the impurity of death), and it therefore seems reasonable to ask why – unless Sherwood quoted her incorrectly – she would mistake a drinking fountain with a ritual hand-washing station.

The idea of separate drinking fountains (broadly speaking) evokes, for many, a very particular historical association  – particularly to Americans.

If the Reform Movement wishes to effectively advocate for an end to Orthodox control of religious life in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the state, and also be taken seriously as a proudly Zionist movement, it seems fair to expect their spokespeople to exercise care in avoiding imprecise, inflammatory language which could aggravate the already volatile secular-religious divide in the Jewish state.

women of the wall

Homepage of ‘Women of the Wall’

UPDATE: A reader in the comment section of our original post on this issue found a recent Ynet article from Feb. 11 (in Hebrew) reporting that, following complaints by some of the clientele at the cemetery about the segregated washing stations, the sign was removed (by orders of the Ministry of Religious Affairs) and the policy ended.  

UPDATE 2:  Thanks to a reader for pointing out that I incorrectly wrote that Anat Hoffman was a rabbi. She is not. The post has been corrected.  

13 replies »

  1. ‘to expect their spokespeople to exercise care in avoiding imprecise, inflammatory language which could aggravate the already volatile secular-religious divide in the Jewish state.’

    True. But orthodox Jewry has no problem using imprecise, inflammatory language which could aggravate the already volatile secular-religious divide in the Jewish state.’

    It was years ago on the television and the then leader of the Mafdal was confronting Amnon Rubenstein on Reform Judaism. He had brought along a newspaper advertisement from the US where some ‘rabbi’ was offering ‘Judaism in 24 hrs‘. Rubenstein dismissed the advert saying that no ‘recognised’ Reform organisation in the US would associate itself with such an advert.

    Shaas had a promotion at the time of the elections with a woman with a heavy Russian accent obtaining a ‘conversion’ during a telephone conversation.

    Can you get more provocative than that?

  2. “orthodox Jewry has no problem using imprecise, inflammatory language which could aggravate the already volatile secular-religious divide in the Jewish state.’

    Yes, I completely agree.

    • Well done Adam for publishing an update that corrects misconceptions so swiftly and fully. The Guardian could learn a thing or two from this approach!

      Although that thread was sidetracked (mea culpa) into a discussion about gender equality in Israel as a whole, I would say that the fundamental point of the previous article remains – that Harriet Sherwood was happy to quote AS FACT a third hand reference to a rumour that was clearly inaccurate and obviously took no steps to verify that rumour or to point out that it was merely that.

      Further, if my imperfect Ivrit and Google Translate is to be trusted, it seems these “segregated” washing basins are no longer separated between men and women (see the y-net article linked to in the other thread).

      • Your Hebrew and Google Translate are correct–not only were the signs removed, but they were removed very rapidly after visitors to the cemetery were shocked to see them.

        • Here’s what I put on the other thread about that article:

          Google Translate apparently got the gist correct. Yes, the signs were removed very rapidly, Here’s my translation of the last paragraph:

          “The Religious Services Ministry agreed that the separation at the cemetery was inappropriate. Following ynet’s inquiry, the Ministry took care of the problem and reported, “There was signage above the taps, and it was removed.” “

      • There’s a comment by a Yael Sade Alony on that Ynet article which translates as follows:

        שטויות. הייתי שם באזכרה ביום שישי האחרון ושמתי לב לשלטים, וגם שמתי לב שאף אחד, כולל הדתיים שהיו במקום, לא התייחסו אליהם ושטפו ידיים אחד בשוקת של השניה…

        “Nonsense. I was at a memorial service there last Friday and I noticed the signs, and I also noticed that no one, including the religious people there, took any notice of the signs and washed their hands at each other’s wash basins”.

        In other words, even if there is official segregation, one can see that a) there is no separating wall (mechitza) and there is no one to enforce the segregation. A storm in a teacup, even if the signs were not taken down as claimed by the authorities.

  3. Well done to Adam and to the anonymous CifWatch reader for correcting the mistake. I now eagerly await with bated breath (face slowly turning blue) for a correction to be made in the Guardian…

  4. Since you are a stickler for accuracy- Anat Hoffman is not a Rabbi. I think you are confusing her with Sarah Silverman’s sister.

  5. Yesterday I sent the article to my cousin, who is Orthodox and lives near Petach Tikva, This is her reply:

    ‘Thank you for sending this. Of course this is all terribly false. There are NO drinking fountains, that I know of and the washing stations are NOT segregated. I am at the cemetery very often. I have even spoken to men at the washing stations after a funeral or a memorial service (like telling someone I have my car and don’t need a ride home). I also do research there about once a month. I have sent this to the director of the Chevra Kadisha in Petach Tikva. We are on very good terms and I only wish his English, which is just so-so, would be good enough to make a response.’

    • Moshe, did you read my own account from yesterday’s post? And did you read Adam’s update above? They admit that they confused Petach Tikva with Kiryat Gat.

      As your cousin says, it is completely untrue that there is any segregated washing stands in PT – that’s what the whole post was about yesterday.

      • Anneinpt,

        As you can see I sent my cousin the article yesterday before I was aware it was meant to be Kiryat Gat. Thank you for pointing this out to me. My cousin’s response corroborates that Petach Tikva doesn’t have segregated washing stations, I will tell her it wasn’t Petach Tikva but Kiryat Gat,,