Regina Sandler-Phillips
Renewing ways of peace in a world on fire

Support (Don’t Weaponize) Survivors of Sexual Violence

Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We need to listen to the diverse voices as well as the silences— neither denying nor exploiting any survivor’s experience.

Horrific sexual violence has returned to media headlines and volatile debates over 22 weeks of war in Gaza. How can we respond in ways that do not cause further harm?

First, we need to recognize what is mostly ignored between news cycles: the far-reaching scope and long-term devastations of sexual violence, across the globe and throughout millennia. This trauma encompasses conflict-related sexual violence and other assaults by strangers as well as more covert forms of sexual abuse and sexual coercion. Most sexual violence involves attackers and predators who are known to their survivors in family, work, school, and social relationships.

My own experiences of supporting survivors of sexual violence began more than 40 years ago, on telephone crisis hotlines and in hospital emergency rooms, faith-based shelters and public high schools of New York City. I bore firsthand witness to how survivors were often retraumatized by medical staff, police, and social service agencies.

I came to understand all too well why most experiences of sexual violence are not formally reported. As I struggled to advocate for changes in the multiple systems that impacted survivors, I learned to uphold a core principle of support and solidarity: survivor experiences must never be weaponized.

Non-weaponization is a path that neither denies nor exploits the diverse experiences of survivors. And that is complicated — because even the word “weaponize” has been seized upon by opposing parties to the war in Gaza. Simply put, any advocacy that is not primarily concerned with the protection and healing of survivors—all survivors , regardless of their national, religious, ethnic or political identities — carries the risk of weaponization.

Weaponization is not the same as contextualization. “It is our human obligation to contextualize [this] violence,” declared Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI) in the immediate aftermath of the October 7th attacks. A contextualized understanding of the harm does not justify the offenses, diminish their severity, or devalue the lives of those murdered. On the contrary — such understanding is crucial to our wounded, life-affirming society.” PHRI subsequently published one of the first reports of sexual violence as a weapon of war in the Hamas attacks, and has consistently kept the welfare of Israeli hostages front and center.

Yet we should not rush to contextualize when responding directly to individual survivors. Sexual violence is trauma, and healing from trauma involves a grieving process. When showing up to console those who are grieving a death, Jewish tradition advises less talking and more listening. We should be mindful of this tradition when showing up to support survivors of what has sometimes been described as “soul murder.”

In the early years of the U.S. rape crisis movement, psychiatrist Dr. Judith Herman was among the first to document connections between the traumas of war combat and the traumas of sexual violence survivors, especially those violated within family relationships. “If trauma shames and isolates, then recovery must take place in community,” Herman wrote in her most recent book. “Listening, therefore, turns out to be a radical act” — an act that goes to the root and heart of the challenges before us.

The first Israeli rape crisis center was founded in 1978; there are now nine such centers affiliated with the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI). ARCCI advocates continue to absorb secondary trauma from the October 7th attacks as they face a surge in overall requests for support. They have also expressed a deep sense of betrayal by international feminist and human rights organizations that did not immediately acknowledge or condemn the sexual violence of October 7th.

Yet ARCCI representatives, like other advocates, continue to center the needs of survivors. A survivor-centered approach recognizes that the responses of Israel’s political, military, and law enforcement leaders to sexual violence prior to October 7th were equivocal at best. This contrasts starkly with the outrage that some of these same Israeli leaders now express in the context of war.

Israeli medical and mental health services have even been mandated by court order to release post-10/7 treatment details to police without survivor consent. This reinforces the original trauma of survivors. It further violates them and further weaponizes their experiences. As the executive director of ARCCI [trigger warning for the full article] has declared:

The surviving women and men are not obliged to meet any expectations or demands of the state and society in connection with the trauma they experienced. They need only to think of themselves — their souls and their bodies — and regain the control they have lost….The Israeli government has an obligation to care for women [and men] who are trying to bring some stability back to the chaotic reality which has broken them.

These words parallel another clear, strong statement of how to believe and support survivors in the current conflict, from six Israeli Arab / Palestinian Israeli women’s organizations:

It’s crucial not to doubt the credibility of claims or directions taken by women or their relatives when brought to organizations dedicated to these issues. Women’s bodies should never be exploited for political gains or leverage.

Women who’ve experienced assault have the right to receive necessary medical, psychological, and emotional support. They should have the freedom to choose whom to share their experiences with and what information to disclose.

The signatories to this statement rarely make headlines. Their words are also too likely to be dismissed because they contextualize sexual violence with reference to other forms of violence experienced by Palestinian women.

Some Israeli Jewish advocates have called for condemnation of sexual violence without contextualizing. Again, listening should always take precedence over contextualizing when supporting survivors directly. It is understandable that advocates absorbing secondary trauma might seek this for themselves as well.

Yet collective survivor-centered advocacy must contextualize violence—which, again, does not mean justifying any of its horrific manifestations. A year before the Hamas attacks, ARCCI’s executive director observed that  “Israeli society is a society bathed in sexual violence, and women pay a difficult and heavy price for it.” This is contextual.

The loosened restrictions on Israeli gun licenses are deeply contextual in how they exacerbate violence against women. Recent wartime measures have increased this very literal weaponization. And there is perhaps nothing more contextual than the welfare of hostages still in captivity, who remain vulnerable to further sexual violence.

Weaponization can also occur when an individual survivor uses personal experience to condemn entire communities or nations associated with particular attackers. One released Israeli hostage has described voyeurism among the harms inflicted by her Hamas captors, while declaring that “Everyone [in Gaza] are terrorists…there are no innocent civilians, not one.” In fact, nearly half of Gaza’s ~2 million residents are children and adolescents who have been traumatized by multiple wars.

Non-weaponization prevents further harm. Sensitive responses to the trauma of survivors should be accompanied by responsible countering of any dehumanizing statements not grounded in a survivor’s direct experience.

We should also listen to the voices of international advocates who have remained steadfast in centering the needs of all survivors. The Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs (KASAP) has affirmed core values of shared safety and healing across all lines of conflict:

KASAP aims to establish a supportive and safe community for every survivor of sexual violence….As the fighting in Gaza continues, we call for all parties to protect civilians, especially children, and to forcefully condemn antisemitism and Islamophobia in the U.S and around the globe.

Traumatized and grieving survivors in Kentucky, with connections to loved ones in Israel and Gaza, are also contending with increasing hate and intolerance directed towards Jewish and Muslim communities in their local environment….Now is the time to stand together against hate….If you or someone you care about has experienced sexual violence and is having trouble, please know KASAP’s 13 rape crisis centers in Kentucky are available to provide both direct support and provide connection to other useful resources.

As this non-weaponizing statement reflects so powerfully, what was true about sexual violence — in Israel, Palestine, and beyond — before the attacks of October 7th remains true now. There are conflict brutalities and stranger attacks that make headlines, and there are conflict brutalities and stranger attacks that are never reported. There is sexual abuse that is exposed decades later, and there are many more sexual traumas in family, work, school and social relationships that remain shrouded in silence. At any moment, emotional wounds from any of these experiences may be ripped open by our violence-saturated media.

If any good can come out of current attempts to deny, exploit, or otherwise weaponize the devastations of sexual violence, it may take the form of responding with more careful listening to the diverse experiences of survivors on all sides of conflict. May we continue to heal and grow together toward our commitments to such response.

About the Author
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips offers "How to Mourn AND Organize" programs through Ways of Peace Community Resources in Brooklyn, NY. She lived in Israel from 1989-1994, served in NYC leadership roles in the post-9/11 disaster relief, and coordinates an ongoing remote vigil for those lost to pandemics and wars. She sings in several languages.
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