Demonstrators outside a Dec. 4 UN special session by the Permanent Mission of Israel to the UN about sexual violence committed by Hamas during the terror attacks on Oct. 7 (Photo/JTA-Jackie Hajdenberg)
Demonstrators outside a Dec. 4 UN special session by the Permanent Mission of Israel to the UN about sexual violence committed by Hamas during the terror attacks on Oct. 7 (Photo/JTA-Jackie Hajdenberg)

The women’s movement has a double standard when sexual violence happens to Israelis

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Do you want to talk about what just happened in Israel? 

I didn’t have to think for very long. 

“No,” I responded to the email. “I don’t think this group is a safe space.” 

On Oct. 12, I joined a regular scheduled Zoom call with major women’s rights organizations, as I have done since the group was founded.

The coordinator, who happens to be Jewish, began the call by asking for a moment to recognize the horrific terrorist attack that had just occurred in Israel. She asked those gathered to think about their Jewish colleagues and the pain that they are in.

Her comments were met with silence. Had this very same terrorist attack happened to any other group, any other people, the Zoom chat would have been filled with messages of sympathy, shared pain, offers to stand together and to help amplify messages.

But none of that happened. No “heart” reactions appeared on the squares of those with whom we have sat in coalition and in sisterhood for years. No messages of support or care came through in the chat. I received no private messages asking if we were OK.

Finally, I wrote “thank you” in the chat. The other Jewish organization participating did the same. That was the last time I participated in the calls.

I thought the silence was bad enough. I never expected what would come next — denial.

Sexual violence happened on Oct. 7

There is abundant evidence that Hamas and other terrorists committed horrifying acts of sexual violence on Oct. 7. Sexual violence has unfortunately been a part of armed conflict for thousands of years, and is used to humiliate and degrade both individuals and their broader communities.

There is no reason to think that the terrorists who infiltrated southern Israel on Oct. 7 would act any differently than generations of invaders who came before them. And yet, many women’s rights organizations are going out of their way to deny the horrific violence done to Jewish women.

A rape crisis center at Canada’s University of Alberta earlier this month signed onto an open letter, which includes the idea that calling Hamas terrorists is Islamophobic and denies that Israeli women were raped by Hamas.

For those of us who work to end domestic and sexual violence, there are two key tenets: Believe women. And never blame the victim. This letter — and I cannot stress this enough, coming from a rape crisis center — managed to go against both.

Advocates who work with survivors know that not being believed, or being called a liar deserving of the violence, is retraumatizing for victims, and silences others who might come forward.

And yet here we were. The brutal rapes, bodily mutilations and sadistic murder of women and children on Oct. 7 is being dismissed as lies and Zionist propaganda.

Why are these crimes OK when they happen to Israeli bodies? To Jewish bodies?

In 2008, the United Nations’ Security Council declared rape a war crime. In 2017, Angelina Jolie, then special envoy to the U.N., urged the U.N. to do more to prevent and punish sexual violence during war. She explained that sexual violence, “is cheaper than a bullet, and it has lasting consequences that unfold with sickening predictability that make it so cruelly effective.”

Where is Angelia Jolie now that crimes have been committed against Israeli women and children? Where, for that matter, is the U.N.?

As has been widely reported, the U.N. — and specifically, the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women — failed to immediately condemn the mass raping of Israeli women and girls by Hamas. Instead, they waited 49 days, and then did so only after a viral condemnation by Sheryl Sandberg, multiple news reports and a global social media campaign calling out UN Women and other women’s organizations for their double standards. Even then, the “statement” by UN Women (really a post on the social media network formerly known as Twitter) said the following:

“We met with Israeli women’s organizations & heard about the work of the Civil Commission for crimes against women & children.

“We remain alarmed by gender-based violence reports on 7 Oct & call for rigorous investigation, prioritizing the rights, needs & safety of those affected.”

They remain silent about the hostages. Silent on the urgent care the rape victims need. Silent on protecting them from further assault.

Silent.

Instead, they call for “rigorous investigation” — not believing the victims by calling for further proof before taking a stance. They also failed to name the victims as Israeli women, instead writing “those affected.”

Abundant evidence of rape and assault of Jewish women

We know what happened. Survivors of the Nova Festival have reported in graphic detail witnessing a gang rape. Those who have handled the bodies of the deceased report broken pelvic bones and horrific bodily mutilation. There was a widely shown video on multiple news channels of a young woman being shoved into a jeep, the seat of her sweatpants soaked in her blood. Those of us who bore witness to the raw footage, publicized by Hamas and then shown to us by the IDF, saw additional videos, some taken by the GoPro cameras worn by the terrorists, of women and young girls lying on the ground or tied to beds, undergarments around their ankles. We saw footage of naked women being dragged through the streets of Gaza City, trophies of war, to be kicked, spat upon and worse.

No decent person wants civilians to be harmed, no matter what nationality they may be. The world should condemn the violence perpetrated against Israeli women and children — no more, but certainly no less, than they have and would do for any other people.

After I watched the 45-minute reel of raw footage at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., I spoke with Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a former Member of Knesset and now Israel’s Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism. She explained that the silence, especially by those who would speak out for victims from any other community, is made possible by the three Ds of antisemitism — dehumanization, delegitimization and double standards.

I am haunted by Shylock’s line from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” I didn’t appreciate the line or the sentiment when I first read the book in high school, but now the cry to be recognized as human is prescient. And painful.

Though my organization focuses on many critical women’s issues, we take a particularly active role in combatting domestic and sexual violence. For those who have called and emailed and asked me, because of my position and the mission of Jewish Women International, to explain what is happening, I have no charitable explanation. My only explanation is hate.

For those who ask me how I’m feeling or what we can do, my answer is that we must keep talking about and calling out the hypocrisy and double standards. We can keep crying for justice, and for those in positions of power to speak out.

We must keep demanding that the horrific crimes committed against Israeli women and girls be condemned in the same full-throated way by those who decry the plight of women and children in Gaza.

In an Oct. 23 letter written after the Oct. 20 report by UN Women on the “devastating impact of the crisis in Gaza on women and girls,” which neglected to mention how Israeli women were also brutalized, seven Israeli women, all experts in international crime and violence against women, condemned the double standards:

As reputable international bodies charged with the protection of all human beings, and in particular the most vulnerable, we expect an unequivocal condemnation of [the Oct. 7 atrocities committed against Israeli women and children] without equating them with what is now happening in Gaza, tragic as that is.

They went on to explain that what is happening in Gaza is “a tragic war.” But what happened in Israel on Oct. 7 is “evil incarnate” and, like the massacres under Nazi rule, “must be condemned without equivocation.”

When the letter went unanswered, Dr. Elkayam Levy, executive director of the Deborah Institute and adjunct professor on gender, peace and security at Reichman University, founded the Civil Commission on Oct. 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children, focusing her energy full-time on collecting evidence of the crimes.

This is not an easy task. Many of the victims’ bodies were burned or have been buried. But this is where we are now: collecting the evidence of horrific crimes, crimes with video proof, with testimony of witnesses — because for some reason, the proof that would be enough for anyone else is not enough for us.

I fear none of this work will change minds. That nothing I or anyone else will say will make a difference.

I am overwhelmed by a sense of aloneness in the world. But even if what we say will not make a difference, we must continue to tell the simple reality: Violence against Jewish bodies, Israeli bodies, is a crime against humanity.

The world might ignore it. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of J. or the Forward.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Meredith Jacobs

Meredith Jacobs is the CEO of Jewish Women International.