One thing is true: Hamas and other Palestinian militants committed unspeakable sexual violence against Israeli civilians on October 7. “The full scale of the assault is yet to be uncovered,” according to a position paper published by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, a nongovernmental organization.
Two things are not true: That the October 7 rapes and sexual mutilation were ignored or covered up by the United Nations gender-equality organization U.N. Women and a conspiracy of Western feminists, global human rights organizations, and U.S. progressives. Or that behind this alleged rape denial lies antisemitism: “#MeToo, except if you’re a Jew.”
Yes, some individuals and extreme-left organizations have denied these atrocities or upheld them as justified resistance. But it is not U.N. Women’s role to make day-after condemnations of unverified acts of violence against women, and verifying such acts, particularly amid the chaos of war, takes a long time.
There has been no cover-up. If anything, the public’s fixation on sexual violence heightens attention to the Hamas-led crimes. The scandal that unfolded in early December was largely manufactured by right-wing pundits who until this moment didn’t give a fig about rape. Mainstream media, which had grown correctly cautious after repeating unconfirmed reports about who bombed Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City in mid-October, could not resist feeding their audiences’ prurience. Then some feminists took the bait, creating false moral distinctions — and strategic divisions — between those who care about rape and those who also recognize the urgency of ending Israel’s occupation and indiscriminate killing.
Ultimately, the outcry distracts from the annihilation of Gaza and its people and lends Israel justification in perpetuating it. Needless to say, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is exploiting the opportunity.
How did U.N. Women, an unlikely villain, become the center of this whipped-up storm?
On October 13 — two days after Israel cut off food, water, and fuel to Gaza while it continued its indiscriminate bombardment — U.N. Women, whose mission is to promote gender equality globally, issued its first statement on the war: “UN Women condemns the attacks on civilians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and is deeply alarmed by the devastating impact on civilians including women and girls,” it began. The 198-word statement called for “unrestricted humanitarian aid,” a restoration of the basics for survival to Gaza, and the “immediate release of hostages.” It reiterated the group’s support of Palestinian women in their fight for social, political, and economic rights. It did not say the same for Israeli Jewish women, who already have these rights in the Israeli Constitution. Hamas was not mentioned.
On October 20, the organization published a “Rapid Assessment and Humanitarian Response in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Among the bullet points: 493,000 women and girls were already displaced from their homes; 668,000 were in need of protection from gender-based violence. This document did not mention Hamas’s attacks either. It did not report on human rights violations or even provide a death toll.
The United Nations more broadly was not idle on the subject, however. Also on October 20, its Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory called for submissions to its investigation of war crimes committed on all sides of the conflict. The investigation, launched three days after the attacks, is applying particular focus to sexual and gender-based violence.
The first organized criticism of U.N. Women came on October 30 from the U.S.-based National Council of Jewish Women, the Israel Women’s Network, and 140-plus Jewish and Israeli women’s organizations. “It is inconceivable that a UN organization that is responsible for women’s rights is ignoring the hostages captured and held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the murder of hundreds of innocent people,” their statement declared. In fact, U.N. Women on October 13 did not mention Hamas, but neither did it ignore the Israeli murder victims or the hostages.
Absent from this critique — or from subsequent ones — was a demand for accountability on the part of the Israeli government, which had rejected a Palestinian proposal for a five-day ceasefire and hostage release in mid-October and was now botching its own investigations into the sexual crimes.
In early November, Israeli women’s groups flagged what The Guardian called “significant failings” on the part of the state “in preserving forensic evidence that could have shone a light on the scale of sexual violence committed against women and girls in last month’s Hamas attacks.” One report suggested that the investigation’s lack of cohesion and coordination was to blame for the failure to photograph, preserve, or properly examine the bodies for evidence of sexual assault before their burial. In fact, said the Times of Israel, the problem wasn’t necessarily incompetence; not using “time-consuming crime scene investigation protocols to document rape cases” was the result of forensic triage, which prioritized identifying the dead, burned, and decaying bodies. That decision, claimed the Times, “has fueled international skepticism over Hamas’s sexual abuse of victims.”
While the government was stumbling, it fell to civil society groups, such as the ad hoc Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children as well as Physicians for Human Rights, to document the assaults. One of the authors of the physicians’ group’s paper told the New Yorker that they excluded videotapes recorded by the Israeli security agency Shin Bet, in which Hamas fighters assert that they were ordered to commit the murders and “sully” Israeli women. Such evidence was “unreliable,” said the PHR author, because of what the paper called “severe concern that the interrogations included the use of torture.”
On November 22, the Civil Commission presented its findings to U.N. Women in advance of the Security Council meeting on the effects of the hostilities on women and children.
On November 24, U.N. Women deleted an Instagram post condemning Hamas’s “brutal attacks” and calling for immediate release of the hostages, and replaced it with one missing the condemnation of Hamas. It did so, according to a spokesperson, to convey support for the temporary truce and hostage exchange, which had been extended the day before the prescheduled post went up.
On December 1, eight weeks after the fact, U.N. Women released a statement “unequivocally condemn[ing] the brutal attacks by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7.” It continued: “We are alarmed by the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during those attacks.”
The right was first to portray these events as collaboration with terrorists. Fox News — the outfit that’s paid Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham hundreds of millions of dollars to fan white paranoia and inform white Christians that Jews are replacing them — was now the great protector of Jewish dignity and life.
Among those leading the charge was Tomi Lahren, an Ingraham clone who hosts a rant fest on the anti-woke sports channel OutKick. Before this, the only things Lahren had to say about rape were that women lie, rape culture isn’t real, and nongendered school bathrooms lead to sexual assault.
Nevertheless, she began to make the rounds. On November 29, Lahren growled alongside Martha MacCallum, another thin, white, Foxie blond, after watching a CNN clip of U.N. Women Deputy Executive Director Sarah Hendriks explaining why the organization did not issue a straightforward condemnation of the Hamas attacks.
“U.N. Women always supports impartial independent investigations into any serious allegations of gender-based or sexual crimes,” Hendriks said. But investigation is not her organization’s department. She went on at length elucidating U.N. structure, “mechanisms,” and protocols. MacCallum called the response a “word salad,” composed of such arcane vocabulary as “‘context’ and ‘providing’ and ‘knowledge’” — and declared the whole thing a dereliction of moral duty.
It was indeed a specimen of the U.N.’s bureaucratic tone-deafness. Hendriks might have stressed the importance of statements based on facts, without whose accuracy the global body has no credibility.
She could have noted that documenting war crimes is a lengthy, painstaking process. Human Rights Watch issued a report two years after the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which the Hutu-dominated government of Rwanda raped and sexually mutilated a quarter-million Tutsi women, girls, and men. The International Criminal Court tribunal against the perpetrators began in 1998 and lasted until 2022. The U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia spent nine years investigating war crimes committed during the Balkans wars of the 1990s including the rape, sexual torture, and enslavement of some 20,000 to 50,000 girls and women. The ICC is still looking into human rights abuses committed during Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, in 2014.
Israeli officials have twice revised the death toll from October 7 downward from an original estimate of 1,400. In November they announced it was “around 1,200.” A month later the data were more precise: 695 Israeli civilians killed, including 36 children, as well as 373 security forces and 71 foreigners, for a total of 1,139. Lahav 433, the country’s FBI, does not expect to finish its fact-finding on the Hamas-led incursion for many months.
But on Fox News, the punchline was preordained. It’s time to defund the U.N., Lahren asserted. The National Review chimed in: “UN Women Is a Disgrace.”
U.N. Women’s December 1 statement satisfied no one. Instead, the field of wrongdoers widened to include those who had not adequately condemned U.N. Women for not condemning Hamas. At the top of the list were women. The conservative TV talk show host Piers Morgan framed a segment on the issue: “Why are so many female so-called progressives finding it impossible to come out and scream from the rooftops?”
As always, brown and Black congressional progressives had to be punished. In an interview with Dana Bash on CNN, Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., repeatedly expressed disgust at Hamas’s actions, but also allowed that “we have to be balanced about the outrages that are happening to Palestinians.”
That, apparently, was impermissible. Among Jayapal’s detractors was Concerned Women for America, which supports Israel because Israel “is an important issue to God.” (Here at home, though, CWA respects Jews so much that it “is leading a movement dedicated to impacting the culture for Christ through education and public policy.”) Feminists for Life, which does not support a rape exception for abortion, also took a swipe at Jayapal.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens also scolded the representative. His bona fides on violence against women can be found in other pieces, about, for instance, the “vindictive excesses” of the #MeToo movement. In 2016, he called antisemitism “the disease of the Arab mind.” Squad members Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., also got their share of vilification.
Once the right broke the ice, scores of media outlets — from the Daily Beast to Northeastern University’s newspaper — joined in. CNN’s “The Amanpour Hour” had previously conducted two interviews, one with a survivor of the music festival attack and another with an Israeli psychologist who specializes in trauma, in which neither the journalist nor the subject mentioned rape. Now it ran a segment headlined “Are Reports of Sexual Violence on October 7 Being Ignored?” The sole interviewee was Israeli legal scholar Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, who cited the Shin Bet videotapes in which Hamas soldiers confessed to receiving “instruction and permission” from their commanders “to perform these atrocities.” CNN host Bianna Golodryga did not challenge these claims and even appeared to reinforce them, referring to the report by Physicians for Human Rights, which had strongly suggested that Shin Bet extracted such statements with torture.
Liberal feminists took to the podium. On December 4, Sheryl Sandberg, former chief operating officer of Facebook’s parent company Meta, appeared at an event with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Hillary Clinton. Sandberg leaned in courageously: “We need to hear your voices loudly and clearly saying, ‘Rape is unacceptable,’” she said.
Feminists began leveling accusations at other feminists. In The Forward, Letty Cottin Pogrebin indicted unnamed “sisters” (in quotes) who acknowledged the attacks but “minimized” them or “implored us to put the attacks ‘in historical and political context’” — a sin equal to “justify[ing] the mass torture and murder of women and girls.” Who were the traitorous feminists who have “turned a blind eye” to Jewish women’s suffering? “Turned a blind eye” was one of the only phrases Pogrebin linked — but the link led only to a piece in the United Kingdom’s Jewish News, also arguing that feminists are turning a blind eye to the horrors of October 7.
“Why have Western feminists been so slow to condemn Hamas rapes?” Katha Pollitt mused in The Nation. It took the National Organization for Women until November 30, she noted, to come out against the use of rape as a weapon of war — but it didn’t name Hamas. Planned Parenthood said nothing until December 5. Why? Pollitt doesn’t know. But she’s shooting at straw women. NOW is hardly the bravest body on the block. Its founders could not even agree on demanding the legalization of abortion. And since when does Planned Parenthood comment on rape?
“There is a litmus test” applied to Palestinians by Jews and Israelis in the anti-occupation left, said Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man, a Jewish human rights litigator who challenges Israeli policies in court. Not only must Palestinians denounce Hamas, they must also do so in certain words, like “barbaric.” To fail the test is to be assumed indifferent to Jewish trauma. Equivalent denunciations — of the siege, the genocidal discourse of high Israeli officials — are not required of Jews.
This testing is not malicious. It comes from a desire, on the part of Jews, for comfort from one’s comrades in an hour of trauma. Nevertheless, it has a pernicious effect: silencing Palestinians, whose anguish and rage are both historic and reignited by the present, escalating catastrophe. Requiring the performance of caring undermines the unity needed to actualize it. “I am afraid this will tear apart the progressive left if we can’t get beyond it,” said Omer-Man.
The demand that feminists rebuke U.N. Women, and the implication that the failure to do so amounts to antisemitism, is another such litmus test. It undermines the solidarity critical to action. But it is destructive in another way. Whereas Palestinian–Israeli and Jewish anti-Zionist movements reject racial and religious fundamentalism, the dynamic here appeals to tribalism.
In Israel–Palestine, tribalism is being enacted as ethnic cleansing, which the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé defined as “an ideology that is being implemented in a place where there are two ethnic groups and one group wishes the disappearance of another group.” In the discourse about Hamas-led sexual violence, the tribalism demanding allegiance to one gender conflates care for one (or more than one simultaneously) with debasement of another. “When did intersectionality, a key ethos of 21st-century feminism, become Judenrein?” asked Pogrebin, in the ugliest sentence of her piece. Judenrein is a Nazi term meaning “cleansed of Jews.”
Only the vigorous enforcement of international human rights law — which is based on the equal valuing of all people — will end the violence. Such humanism, expressed through an anti-racist, anti-violence feminism, is embodied in an open letter entitled “Feminists for a Free Palestine. Stop the Genocide. End the Occupation” that was released at the end of October by 147 “scholars in feminist, queer, and trans studies who are rooted in social justice praxis.” Many of the signers were prominent activists and academics of color, including Angela Davis and the historian Barbara Ransby. Not a few were Jews, such as the political theorist Zillah Eisenstein. Signatures now exceed 1,000.
Those inclined to infer antisemitism from an emphasis on Palestinian suffering will find it in this letter, starting from the title. They will find bias here: “We refuse the killing, maiming, kidnapping, and imprisonment of children, without exception” — because the sentence ends: “and we remember that half the population of the Gaza Strip, which is effectively an open-air prison, are children.” The document does not indict Hamas.
But its universalist politics imply that indictment: “We refuse racist, Islamophobic, [and] antisemitic … discourse, and incitement to violence, without exception,” it says. “We refuse the racist weighting of human life, without exception. Humanity is not a hierarchy.” Its spirit is the opposite of the exceptionalism stirred by right-wing cynics in the U.N. Women flap. The letter ends: “Our feminism compels us to say: Free Palestine!” So does mine.
While critics of U.N. Women were giving the Israeli government a pass for treating the sexual violence as an afterthought, the Israeli government and its apologists were deploying the uproar to do what the prime minister does best: shift the blame.
The December 4 event at which Sandberg appeared was presented by Israel’s mission to the U.N. The National Council of Jewish Women, the group that organized the first letter of protest, describes Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state” and supports “full and equal rights for Palestinian citizens … who live within the Green Line.” In other words, not Palestinians who live in the occupied territories.
Catching up to the scandal in the first week of December, Netanyahu pointed the finger everywhere but at himself. First, unaccountably, he seemed to be chiding the Israeli press. “Were you quiet because we were talking about Jewish women?” he asked at a press conference, in Hebrew. Then he identified the real bad guys and switched to English for the world to hear. “I say to the women’s rights organizations, to the human rights organizations: You’ve heard of the rape of Israeli women, horrible atrocities, sexual mutilation,” the prime minister snarled. “Where the hell are you?”
And where are the Israeli women whose pain their prime minister and his supporters are retailing in all its grisly detail? They are disappearing into propaganda, becoming talking points to legitimize the pain of other women, children, and men in the killing field on the other side of the fence.
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