Sexual Violence Is Never Justified

The months since October 7 have been absolutely painful for Jews worldwide, but especially so for Jewish women. Aside from the horror and outrage of the October 7th attack itself, and subsequence rise in antisemitism, we’re also contending with widespread denial of the reality of sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli victims. 

Somehow there continues to be debate over whether Hamas merely murdered their victims or raped them as well, despite robust evidence – from video footage to verbal statements –  that the terrorist group proudly and unabashedly did both. The fact that the United Nations took two months to put out a statement – which failed even to mention the nationality of the victims – is just the most visible example of the daily dynamics Jewish women are facing, often among those with whom we have worked side by side in alliance. Some of the loudest voices denying or demanding more evidence for well established acts of sexual violence and rape are from the same people who have proudly tweeted #believewomen and #metoo. 

Somehow the viral video of Naama Levy – the seat of her sweatpants soaked in blood – being dragged through Gaza isn’t enough. Eye witness testimony from the survivors of the Nova Music Festival who saw Hamas terrorists gang raping and brutalizing Israeli women isn’t enough. News reports about Hamas dismembering the breasts and mutilating the vaginas of women – some dead, some still alive, isn’t enough. The recent report from the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel detailing “systematic and widespread” acts of sexual violence on October 7th by Hamas isn’t enough. Yet for those who seek to deny the lived experience of Israeli victims and survivors of sexual violence, these barbaric acts are deemed either lies or government propaganda designed to distract.

Imagine calling for increasingly more “evidence”—or worse, refuting the evidence – of the rape and torture of any other group of women. It would be unimaginable if it weren’t actually happening.

Instead, the families of the 134 hostages still held in Gaza are on a global speaking tour of their trauma in an attempt to humanize their loved ones – to justify their mere existence –  and help secure their release. It’s both deeply moving and deeply obscene that they should have to resort to this. 

Yarden Gonen is a nurse in Tel Aviv, her sister Romi has been in captivity since October 7th. She considers herself lucky because she got to talk to Romi before Hamas kidnapped her. She doesn’t know if her sister is still alive, but if she is, she worries that Romi might have been raped and impregnated by her captors. Unlike in America, where an estimated 65,000 pregnancies have occurred as a result of rape since the fall of Roe, Israeli and Jewish law is very clear: if Romi has become pregnant, and if she is freed soon, she will be able to obtain an abortion. And Yarden has good reason to worry about a possible pregnancy. Aside from the rapes that took place on October 7th itself, we know that Hamas has abused and assaulted the hostages in captivity. After watching Hamas murder her father, eighteen year-old Agam Goldstein Almog spent 51 days captive in Gaza. She’s since recounted the story of another hostage who told her how a guard held a gun to her head, stripped off her clothes and violated her as she cried.

Some on the political left– those we have historically considered allies, aligned on American issues of social justice –  have actually accused Jewish and Israeli women of weaponizing our perceived racial status to harm Arab men with “white woman tears.”  

As Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, put it: “Either rape is always unacceptable. Or it isn’t. Either all women are believed. Or they aren’t. Either we condemn rape as a weapon of war. Or we normalize it.”

Aside from the substantial evidence of sexual violence, Hamas in fact documented its own brutality on October 7th, including footage of the murder of an Israeli grandmother, which they uploaded to her own Facebook page for her family and friends to see. They have proudly GoPro’ed their crimes. Their blanket denial of rape should be regarded as the gaslighting it is.

The depravity of it all is almost unspeakable, but speak out we must. 

At least the United Nations is finally speaking out , albeit four months later, releasing a report this week that found rape was committed in multiple locations on October 7. 

After viewing the 47-minute video compiled by the IDF of the atrocities committed on October 7, Pramila Patten, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Special Envoy for Sexual Violence in Conflicts said she was unable to sleep for a week: “Only after I saw the video did I understand things that I didn’t understand before in terms of the magnitude of the disaster that happened.” Upon visiting Kibbutz Be’eri – one of the sites of the horrific attacks, Patten said: “I saw things here that I have not seen anywhere in the world. The world outside cannot understand the magnitude of the event.”

Here’s what we, as Jews and as women, need now from the rest of the world:

We need everyone to speak up and push back against the denial of the sexual violence used to torture and kill innocent Israeli women. Rape and sexual torture is never justified, and it is never resistance. There are only about 15 million Jews in the entire world; we cannot be the only ones protesting our own dehumanization. Israelis and Jews are forced to hold multiple painful truths at once and struggle with complexity. We need you to do the same. Standing up for the rights of innocent civilians in Gaza does not require being blind to the brutal terror inflicted against Israeli women on October 7th and continuing now in captivity. The two are not mutually exclusive. It is possible– and indeed necessary – to fight for all the innocents involved in this horror.

We cannot ignore that sexual violence was one of the tools of terror used by Hamas on October 7th and continues with the captivity of the hostages. The longer we ignore—or worse, justify—violence against any women, the farther we move from shared decency and dignity, and the farther we move from the hope of shared humanity or empathy, which is essential for peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief executive for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press.