A memorial exhibit in Tel Aviv recreates the scenes at the Nova musical festival, where scores of women were raped and murdered during Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel. (Photo/Miriam Kaim)
A memorial exhibit in Tel Aviv recreates the scenes at the Nova musical festival, where scores of women were raped and murdered during Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel. (Photo/Miriam Kaim)

World has turned its back on Israeli women, leaders of rape crisis centers tell Bay Area Jews

The world’s silence and even denial about the widespread rapes of Israeli women on Oct. 7 have only compounded the horrors of that day, leaders of Israeli sexual assault and domestic violence programs told Bay Area Jews on Wednesday.

“We really do feel so alone,” said Miriam Schler, executive director of the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center. “We feel betrayed by the entire feminist community, the entire human rights community all over the world.”

Schler and two other leaders of Israeli nonprofits that focus on female survivors of violence spoke to more than 200 people attending an online event, “(S)heroes on the Ground,” presented by the Bay Area Jewish domestic-violence prevention organization Shalom Bayit, the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area and Elluminate, a New York nonprofit that focuses on women’s issues.

The silence and denial have persisted despite countless news reports, including a two-month investigation from the New York Times that in graphic detail recounted the brutality of Hamas terrorists against women, based on videos, photos, cellphone data and interviews with over 150 people.

Just as damning as the denial is the “but,” Schler said. Some people outside Israel will acknowledge the mass rapes and mutilations of women, but then point to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, insinuating that one justifies the other.

“I stand completely against the occupation,” Schler said. “But that has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the justification of rape. There is no excuse for rape, period.”

Orit Sulitzeanu serves as executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, an umbrella group for nine such centers.

Everybody is running after this golden piece of evidence.

Most of the rape victims, attacked at the Nova music festival and in the communities and kibbutzim near Gaza, did not survive the Oct. 7 massacre, Sulitzeanu said.

“Most of them were killed, murdered brutally,” she said. “There are survivors that are alive, but they cannot talk right now.”

Sulitzeanu doesn’t believe that any of the rape survivors should feel pressure to speak publicly and should instead focus on recovery.

“There will not be any woman who will say my name is XYZ and I was gang-raped by Hamas terrorists. This will not happen — maybe never, but of course not now,” she said.

Yet Israel finds itself in an inconceivable position of needing to prove in detail that mass sexual violence took place on Oct. 7.

“Everybody is running after this golden piece of evidence,” Sulitzeanu said. But most of the direct evidence is “under the ground.”

The scale of death on Oct. 7 — more than 1,200 people — meant that Israel treated the event as an act of terrorism and not a crime scene. Israel’s forensic institute, for example, didn’t bring rape kits with them, she noted.

But there is strong evidence from first responders, soldiers, police officers and people “who collected the mutilated corpses,” Sulitzeanu said, and direct witnesses have given testimony to Israeli authorities.

Schler called the denial from feminists and progressive activists she’d admired her entire life “absolutely shocking and devastating.”

The Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center has been inundated with calls since Oct. 7, she said. The center has added 10 support groups focused on trauma and has run about 50 resilience workshops for first responders and volunteers who witnessed the aftermath, as well as for therapists, educators and journalists.

“We can’t even call it post-traumatic stress disorder,” Schler said. “We are living the trauma right now.”

She also described the anguish that Israelis feel about the hostages taken into Gaza on Oct. 7. The Israeli government estimates that 105 of those still captive may be alive, including 14 women who are between ages 18 and 39.

“That whole situation — it’s kind of the sick dystopia of ‘The Hunger Games’ meets ‘Schindler’s List.’ And the world is just sitting there, and we’re all waiting to see who’s going to be murdered now,” Schler said.

Tamar Shwartz serves as CEO of Ruach Nashit/Women’s Spirit, which helps domestic violence survivors in Israel find jobs and economic independence as a way out of their relationships. Shwartz said the trauma from Oct. 7 and the pressures of the Israel-Hamas war have been felt dramatically in homes.

Women have faced more violence from their partners, she said. Some have felt compelled to return to their partners when they’ve run out of money due to a job loss or needing to care for children full time when Israel’s schools closed at the start of the war.

“Women are calling us and saying: ‘I have a dilemma. Maybe I go back to my husband. OK, he will hit me, but I will have [food] to eat,’” Shwartz said. “How do you answer to such a dilemma?”

The Israeli government’s decision to sharply expand the number of gun permits has also created fear for women whose abusive partners now have a weapon in the home.

“The husband doesn’t have to use the weapon. She just knows he has a pistol in the drawer. She is immediately very obedient because she’s very afraid,” Shwartz said.

The unprecedented situation forced her nonprofit to shift gears.

“Usually we help only with tools — coaching and mentoring. But in these cases, we went from house to house and gave them food,” Shwartz said.

All on the panel told attendees that their organizations need both financial assistance and public support. “What we need from you is to help raise awareness,” Schler said.

Naomi Tucker, founding executive director of Shalom Bayit, called the three women her “sheroes.”

“It is never easy to do the trauma work we do every day,” Tucker said, “but now that is compounded in unfathomable ways as these heroic women continue to do their work while grieving, while tending to their families and communities, while holding intensely amplified trauma among their clients and while watching as the world has ignored, denied and blamed Israeli women and girls for the rapes perpetrated by Hamas on October 7th.”

Natalie Weinstein
Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is J.'s senior editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at CNET News and, in the 1990s, as a reporter and editor at J., which was then called the Jewish Bulletin.