The Israeli U.N. mission hosted an event on Dec. 4, 2023, to focus on the rapes committed by Hamas on Oct. 7 and to press the international community to speak out more forcefully against the sexual violence.
(Photo/JTA-Jackie Hajdenberg)
The Israeli U.N. mission hosted an event on Dec. 4, 2023, to focus on the rapes committed by Hamas on Oct. 7 and to press the international community to speak out more forcefully against the sexual violence. (Photo/JTA-Jackie Hajdenberg)

Jewish activists take campaign about Oct. 7 sex crimes to the UN

(JTA) — Less than a week after the United Nations secretary general urged an investigation into reported sexual violence by Hamas, the Israeli U.N. mission held a conference on the allegations and pressed the international community to speak out more forcefully against them.

“We have come so far in believing survivors of sexual assault in so many situations. That’s why the silence on these war crimes is dangerous,” said former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg, the event’s keynote speaker. “The world has to decide who to believe. Do we believe the Hamas spokesperson who said that rape is forbidden, therefore it couldn’t have possibly happened on October 7th? Or do we believe the women whose bodies tell us how they spent the last few minutes of their lives?”

CNN op-ed by Sandberg, and an accompanying Instagram post, have been at the center of a growing protest by Israeli and Jewish women who charge that the U.N. and other international bodies have dismissed or downplayed reports of sexual violence during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The protest has spread via the hashtag #Me_Too_UNless_UR_a_Jew and found its real-life expression in Monday’s event, which drew 700 people to U.N. headquarters on Manhattan’s East Side.

Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan took aim in particular at U.N. Women — the organization’s arm for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment — which caught flak for posting and then deleting a statement condemning the Hamas attack.

The Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations on Dec. 4 held a special session on sexual violence committed by Hamas during the terror attacks on Oct. 7 (Photo/JTA-Jackie Hajdenberg)
The Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations on Dec. 4 held a special session on sexual violence committed by Hamas during the terror attacks on Oct. 7 (Photo/JTA-Jackie Hajdenberg)

Before the gathering, protesters and prominent women’s rights advocates demonstrated outside the U.N., accusing the world body of betraying Israeli women and the feminist movement by staying largely silent about Hamas’ crimes. Organizers estimated 1,000 participants attended the protest, with the crowd chanting, “Rape is rape,” “Shame on the U.N.,” and holding signs that said, “Believe Jewish women.”

“Israeli women are the subject of a collective international denial, the same one inflicted on individual sexual violence victims, questioning and delegitimizing their experiences,” said Cochav Elkayam Levy, the head of an Israeli commission investigating crimes against women on Oct. 7. “When the institutions that are globally mandated to protect women stay silent, not only international law loses meaning, humanity’s sacred values lose meaning.”

Several actors attended the event, including Tovah Feldshuh, Julianna Margulies, Emmy Rossum and Debra Messing, all of whom have spoken out against antisemitism or Hamas’ attack. (Margulies was also fresh off an apology after making disparaging comments about Black Americans who have not supported Jews after Oct. 7.)

The event also featured people who tended to victims of the event, including representatives from ZAKA, the Orthodox Israeli first-responder organization, and the Israeli police, who have been collecting and documenting evidence from victims of sexual violence and people who witnessed the violence. They recounted graphic stories, to which the crowd responded vocally with murmurs, gasps and tears. Some in the audience exchanged tissues, hugs and pats on the back for extra support.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democrat, also came and discussed seeing a compilation of footage of the attack that a group of senators recently viewed.

“I’ve seen much of the raw footage. It takes your breath away,” she said. “You can’t unsee it.”

Speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the event, Sandberg said silence surrounding sexual violence is connected to a dearth of female representation on the world stage.

“You look in that hall at those flags — those are countries run by men, very few are run by women. I really wanted that to change in my lifetime. It’s not going to happen, not going to be close,” she said. “But that means the progress we fought for to get women’s women’s rights and protection of our bodies, protection of who we are, protection against systematic, sexualized violence — can’t be lost. And that is why anyone can speak out. And when they speak out, we have to all unite together as quickly as possible.”

With additional reporting by Luke Tress.

Jackie Hajdenberg
Jackie Hajdenberg

Jackie Hajdenberg is a reporter at JTA. She has a degree in political science from Barnard College and a master’s in journalism from Columbia Journalism School. Her reporting and writing has appeared in USA Today, PBS Frontline, the Detroit Free Press, Vox and Hey Alma. She writes satire and hangs out on Twitter @DrJackieMrsHajd