When I was honored last week at an NGO ceremony connected with the deliberations of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57), a libelous accusation against Israel clouded the occasion.
I was given an award as a “Trailblazer,” as part of a program dedicated to eradicating and eliminating violent acts against women and girls and empowering victims and survivors. The award was presented by the New Future Foundation, and Harlem Women International, sponsors of the event. Along with Dr. Sonja Hedgepeth, I was recognized for the work of Remember the Women Institute on sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust. Other trailblazers included female heads of state such as the presidents of Liberia and Malawi, and the prime ministers of Jamaica, Bangladesh, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Susan Rice, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Susan Brownmiller. Having our work on sexual violence during the Holocaust recognized and included by this NGO, alongside the accomplishments of this distinguished list of women is, of course, a great honor.
And it is not just an honor. It is an acknowledgment that Jewish women suffered sexual violence during the Holocaust. They were raped, they were forced into prostitution, they were violated in many ways, including forced sterilization, often without their knowledge. Through the recognition of our work, the suffering of these women during the Holocaust is now on the record of the deliberations of the NGOs that met in parallel sessions during the CSW57 official meetings at the UN. I am grateful to the organizer, Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely, known as the honorary mayor of Harlem, for including our work in this context.
However, despite the importance of this inclusion, I unfortunately also have to report the incidence of what I can only call the newest form of blood libel. This was, after all, an event connected with the United Nations. And those of us who believe that Israel deserves a fair hearing there tend to hold our breath when the United Nations is deliberating. Everything was perfectly fine until the very last sentence of the very last speaker on the program, who announced that in October 2013, there would be a “million woman march” to Washington, DC. The marchers will gather in front of the Justice Department to protest against and demand justice for the forced sterilization of African American women that had taken place in the United States, a very legitimate protest. She then concluded: “And forced sterilization is still going on in the world today; in Israel, Ethiopian women are being sterilized.”
With no opportunity for public rebuttal, I spoke privately with the perpetrator of what I consider a blood libel. I tried to explain that she was mistaken, that there had been a reprehensible program to give temporary contraceptives (sometimes without their knowledge) to some Ethiopian Jewish women who had immigrated to Israel. Temporary contraception is not sterilization. Furthermore, this program had been exposed by the Israeli press and had been ended (without government admission that it ever took place). She insisted I was a victim of Israeli government propaganda and she knew better. She said that she had spoken with Ethiopian women who had been sterilized by the Israeli government. This would be highly unlikely, since there is no evidence of forced sterilization; nor did she provide details of how, when, or where she supposedly spoke to these women.
There was no arguing with her any further. She, of course, never mentioned in her public remarks that the so-called “Ethiopians” in question were in fact Jewish and had been rescued from danger and brought to Israel. I believe that most of the audience had no idea at all about any of the history of this amazing rescue (albeit with some serious flaws) of a long lost Jewish community. I am not sure that she herself knows any of these facts, nor wants to know. Instead, it was a perfect opportunity to trash Israel with a false statement, and get away with it.
As I listened to her militant anti-Semitic rhetoric, I thought back to a month ago, when I broke my wrist in Jerusalem. The break required surgery at Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem. I wanted to invite this spewer of anti-Israel lies to see how Israeli democracy operates at Hadassah. My first stop was the Terem emergency clinic, where the Moslem doctor in charge sent me to the hospital emergency room. At Hadassah, I sat in the waiting room before I was seen by a doctor in the orthopedic emergency department. All around me were other patients or those accompanying people being treated. Among them were three teenagers speaking Arabic, a group of soldiers that included one of Ethiopian descent, ultra-Orthodox Jews, a Moslem woman about to be admitted to the hospital, and people speaking Russian. (I single these people out because they were recognizable by their speech or dress.)
The resident who saw me was Jewish. (When I broke my ankle six years ago, the doctor was Moslem.) The resident said I needed surgery, and recommended Dr. Amal Khoury, an extremely capable and kind orthopedic trauma surgeon, an Israeli Christian Palestinian from Nazareth. I was in the hospital overnight in the new Davidson Tower. Among the staff who interacted with me during my stay were Jews from the United States, Russia, North Africa, Ethiopia and elsewhere. There were also Moslem and Christian Arabs, either Israeli citizens or Palestinians. The resident who signed my release from the hospital was an Arab. The patients in the hospital bear these and other backgrounds, and the hospital policy is to treat them all equally. The speaker at the NGO event and others who make false defamatory statements should instead come to Israel, visit Hadassah hospital, and see for themselves how things really work.
The libelous statement about forced sterilization angered me not only because it was a blatant anti-Israel lie. Through my work on women and the Holocaust, I have personally met and spoken with Jewish women who were forcibly sterilized by the Nazis. Israel, both the culture and the government, is entrenched in the memory of these atrocities, and accusing Israel of perpetrating this crime on a new generation of Jewish women can only be called blood libel. With all of the human rights violations, especially against women, throughout the rest of the Middle East, Israel has a remarkably better record. There are indeed human rights and women’s rights problems in Israel, but not forced sterilization. And compared with what is going on elsewhere in the region, Israel is the last place that should be singled out for violations against women. Passover is coming soon. Will Jews still be accused of using the blood of Christian children to bake our matzohs? Enough already!