Sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas must be condemned, Jewish feminists say
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Sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas must be condemned, Jewish feminists say

NCJW's Sheila Katz: “At the end of the day, rape is rape. You’re either against it or you’re not. And you are either against antisemitism or you are not."

NCJW CEO Sheila Katz speaks at the "Hear Our Voices" session at the U.N. (Photo by Perry Bindelglass)
NCJW CEO Sheila Katz speaks at the "Hear Our Voices" session at the U.N. (Photo by Perry Bindelglass)

Warning: contains graphic descriptions of violence

Two months after Hamas’ deadly incursion into Israel, National Council of Jewish Women helped organize a hearing at the United Nations to present testimony about the sexual violence suffered by Jewish women at the hands of the terrorists on Oct. 7.

They shouldn’t have had to, Jewish feminists say.

“We hosted the hearing that they (the UN) should have hosted weeks ago,” Sheila Katz, CEO of NCJW, told the Chronicle. “And we intentionally invited feminist organizations and partner organizations to be there to bear witness with us.”

The Dec. 4 session, titled “Hear Our Voices,” was also sponsored by the Israel Mission to the UN and others. It was held in response to the deafening silence of feminist and other progressive organizations following reports that Hamas had brutalized Jewish women’s bodies as a tool of war.

Feminist organizations, especially, should have issued unequivocal statements condemning the attacks and in support of Jewish women, Katz said.

But that largely didn’t happen, and Jewish feminists both here and abroad are calling out the neglect and working to change the paradigm.

“There were hints pretty early on that sexual violence was used on [Oct.7], with the question of whether it was a case here and there, or whether it was pervasive,” Katz said. “In the weeks since, it has become very clear that rape was used as a tool of war, that sexual assault was premeditated and a part of the plan of the day. And as this evidence has come forward in particularly clear ways, because it’s important to believe women always — as witnesses started saying what they saw — it’s just been so critical that the world as a whole, feminist organizations included, speak out and say something that we can for sure agree on, which is that rape should never be used as a tool of war, ever.”

It took UN Women eight weeks after the Hamas attack to issue a statement condemning the sexual violence and, when one was finally published, it was widely criticized as “generic.”

Katz did not mince words when identifying the “one common denominator” regarding the lack of response to the brutalization of Jewish women: Antisemitism.

“There are other complexities as well,” she explained. “Organizations that are domestic that focus on assault in any way, shape or form tend not to comment on what they consider a global political issue. We also heard from people that they were scared to comment on Israel generally, that they know it’s heated, that they worried about backlash, that they felt that they had to comment on the full war.

“But what I can say at the end of the day,” Katz continued, “particularly in the conversations I’ve had, is that anytime hate happens, anytime a terrorist attack happens, anytime sexual violence happens, those are the right times to call it out. And we must. When we don’t call out rape, particularly when it’s used as a tool of war, we normalize it to become a tool of war. And not just that — we normalize sexual assault generally and broadly.”

At the U.N. session, the descriptions of the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas terrorists included and went beyond rape. Simcha Greiniman, a first responder who collected victims’ remains from the sites of attacks, testified about finding a woman’s body, naked from the waist down, leaning over a bed. A live grenade was hidden in the hand of her corpse.

Genital mutilation was prevalent among the bodies he recovered. “Nails and different objects” were found in one woman’s genitals. Another person’s body was so badly damaged “we couldn’t even identify if it’s a man or a woman,” Greiniman said.

Several female soldiers had been “shot in the crotch, intimate parts, vagina, or shot in the breast. This seemed to be systematic genital mutilation of a group of victims,” Shari Mendes, an architect who prepares bodies for burial, testified.

Progressive funders weigh in — but not on behalf of Israeli women
Last month, an open letter initiated by 28 funders — including the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the Black Feminist Fund, the Fund for Global Human Rights and the Global Fund for Women — and signed by scores of others, called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, highlighting the plight of Gazans.

“We call for the US and European governments to stop enabling war crimes through unconditional military support, and for Israel to end its collective punishment of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents,” the letter reads. “We also take seriously our responsibility to address the root causes of what we see unfolding today — the decades of systematic violence, military occupation and displacement that all Palestinians, especially in Gaza, have experienced at the hands of the Israeli government.”

While mentioning that 1,200 Israelis were killed in the opening paragraph, the letter is silent as to the well-documented incidents of sexual assault and mutilation of Jews at the hands of Hamas.

Judy Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Greater Pittsburgh, which provides grants addressing the needs of women and girls in both the Jewish and broader community, said she, and many of her colleagues from across the country, are “really concerned” because those who signed the letter “are not operating from a feminist perspective of open dialogue, and reaching out and conversation.”

The JWF, which is part of the national Jewish Women’s Funding Network, will work with colleagues to try to rectify that.

Judy Cohen (Photo by Donald Koch.)
“What we’re trying to do is take the politics out of it,” Cohen said. “We all have feelings about what is happening in Gaza. We cannot be human without having feelings about the death of civilians and the horrors that we’re hearing. However, that does not take away from Hamas being a terrorist organization and the atrocities that they committed, and the silence at a national level of feminist organizations and lack of support that we’re all feeling.”

Cohen noted “how deeply embedded the anti-Israel and somewhat antisemitic overtones are in the far-left, which some of our feminist partners are subscribing to,” and acknowledged that “it’s not going to be resolved overnight.”

“But we believe in dialogue and conversation and education,” she said, “and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not going to be arguing or confronting. We are really approaching this with feminist values: collaboration, openness, dialogue, community, spirit of community. We feel there’s been a lack of that framework.”

Following the Dec. 4 hearing, national NCJW circulated a video of the UN testimony to its partner organizations, encouraging them to share it with their network and those groups that have yet to condemn the sexual violence of Oct. 7.

“Continuing to create visibility and continuing to step into the challenging moment of calling our feminist organizations to the table continues to remain important,” Marissa Fogel, executive director of NCJW Pittsburgh, said.

While NCJW’s Pittsburgh section received “statements of deep grief and solidarity with the pain that the Jewish community, and especially the Pittsburgh Jewish community, is experiencing, right now,” from some of its social justice partners, Fogel said, raising awareness and condemning sexual violence globally is essential.

“I think when we provide visibility into the disproportionate ways in which women’s bodies are used, whether it’s in the violence of war, or as tools for political power, we see the connection points around how these instances really continue to galvanize us to dig in our heels to fight for the rights of women here, whether it’s in our city, our state or across the country.”

Fogel will co-create a series called “Courageous Conversations,” to help NCJW sections navigate challenging conversations and “to have the tools that they need to continue to move forward as it relates to deepening understanding, calling our partners in and bringing them closer in an effort to empower the volunteers and the staff and all of those advocates who work in those sections to feel confident as they move forward with partnerships.”

A view from Israel
Hamutal Gouri is a self-described “feminist, anti-occupation, peace activist.” Since Oct. 7, the Israeli has published articles calling out the silence of feminists in response to Hamas’ use of sexual violence as a tool of war.

Hamutal Gouri (Photo by Avigail Pipperno-Be’er)
That silence has led to “a sad understanding that one’s moral compass, in terms of what is humanly acceptable and what is humanly completely unacceptable, is subjected to one’s political stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Gouri said. “And that is a very sad thought.”

Things are different on the ground in Israel, she said.

“In Israel, Arab feminist organizations published a statement that condemns these heinous crimes unequivocally, and also saying our feminism is indivisible,” Gouri said. “It’s not a question of where we stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Other feminists around the world, though, “have failed bitterly,” she said.

In some cases, their stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is a justified criticism of policies and actions of the Israeli government,” Gouri said, adding that she agrees with some of those criticisms. But in other cases, positions on the conflict are a result of “a super simplistic, over-simplified, and sometimes a lack of knowledge.”

She cited the common trope among progressives that Israel is a “white colonizer” — when Jews and Palestinians have shared the land for centuries, and when 50% of Jews in Israel are people of color — as an example.

Those spewing these simplistic views, she said, are guilty of “intellectual laziness, moral laziness, or moral failure.”

Gouri said she was particularly disappointed with some of the signatories to the funders’ letter calling for a ceasefire.

“Our organizations that we thought were our partners, that we had shared goals, or at least we expected them as feminist funders and organizations to be sensitive and to share moral indignation in the face of the brutal attacks of Oct. 7, regardless of where they stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said. “Our expectation of feminist funders and organizations is that we believe women and that rape is never OK. It’s never OK.”


Speaking out to make a difference

The testimony presented at “Hear Our Voices” was picked up by many mainstream media outlets, including CNN, NPR, The New York Times and The Guardian. And a few feminist organizations, notably Planned Parenthood and Reproductive Freedom for All, issued statements condemning Hamas’sexual violence after hearing accounts from the witnesses at the UN.

NCJW’s Katz was buoyed by this reaction and said she expects more to come in the weeks ahead.

Still, the immense effort it took to break the silence was disheartening for Jewish feminists.

“We shouldn’t have to tell people who claim to be our allies that calling out rape when it’s used as a weapon of war in Israel is bad,” Katz said. “We should not have to do that. We should not have to put on a special session of the United Nations. We should not have to do any of that.”

It’s imperative to keep calling out the violence, Katz said.

“At this point, particularly in light of sharing the testimony that we did on [Dec. 4], no one can say any more that this didn’t happen,” Katz said.

“At the end of the day, rape is rape,” she continued. “You’re either against it or you’re not. And you are either against antisemitism or you are not. These things are actually simple. There is no excuse for not calling out rape. There is no excuse for not being able to have empathy for Israeli women as they are killed.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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