DDuring the Hamas attacks of October 7, Israeli girls and women – from young children to the elderly – were subject to gang rapes and humiliating sexual assaults. Some of their corpses were raped. Hostages released reported about the sexual violence they and other captives endured during their detention in Gaza. As human rights defenders in the fight against gender-based violence and anti-Semitism, we were – and remain – deeply troubled by the situation. slow response international organizations, governments and civil society to these horrific events.
Some groups were initially hesitant or posted and then retracted information, citing the need for additional evidence in a situation where obtaining such documents is inherently difficult. This reaction is in striking contrast to the global movement against gender-based violence’s typical emphasis on the importance of listening to and believing survivors’ stories.
When other groups experienced gender-based violence, feminist leaders, women’s groups and United Nations agencies, including independent experts, responded quickly – in some cases within days – to speak out. This was true even when victims were still seeking justice. This was the case during the brutal repression against Iranian women and girls and their protests, Yazidi women under the genocidal rule of the Islamic State, and Nigerian girls in the hands of Boko Haram thugs. They did not wait two months to condemn these actions, the time to gather the necessary facts. This does not mean that one atrocity or human rights violation is worse than another. It’s not a competition. Every crime is horrific and its perpetrators must be prosecuted.
We are pleased that President Biden, under whose administration we serve, condemned Hamas’s use of rape and sexual assault immediately after the attacks, and in December called “All of us – government, international organizations, civil society and businesses – strongly and unequivocally condemn the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas terrorists. Unequivocally, without exception.
But too many others – particularly those with a mandate to address gender-based violence – have remained silent or only late and reluctantly pronounced during the three months following these barbaric attacks. We echo the sentiment of US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who said: “Where is the universal condemnation? And where is the outrage? Our position is clear: the voices of all women must be heard and believed. A woman’s experience of gender-based violence should not be sidelined or discredited.
We feel compelled to ask: why is this situation different from when other women have faced similar violence? What explains this obvious reluctance to speak out? The only difference is the perception that these were Jewish victims – and were seen by some as somehow deserving – victims. (The victims included non-Jewish women, but the vast majority were Jewish.)
The silence that followed was more than worrying; this suggests a deeper problem of anti-Semitism that needs to be recognized and addressed. This apparent reluctance to believe the accounts of Jewish women, a stark departure from the global commitment to believing survivors and condemning such acts, mimics patterns of Holocaust denial, perpetuating a cycle of anti-Semitism by reinforcing the stereotype that Jews are untrustworthy. Such denial of the experiences of Jewish women is a significant anomaly and must be exposed for what it is: a blatant manifestation of deep-seated anti-Semitism.
The use of sexual violence as a tool of war is undeniably increasing. Ignoring or delaying a response to credible reports of such horrific acts inadvertently validates those acts. Not only does this deprive victims of justice, it also emboldens perpetrators.
This fight transcends borders and cultural divisions. In recognizing the horrific experiences of Israeli women, we must also clearly recognize that Palestinian women and girls are victims and survivors of gender-based violence. Rape and mutilation of women are never acceptable. There are no “buts” when it comes to gender-based violence. The use of sexual violence in conflicts to coerce, terrorize, sow fear or for any other reason is no exception. This is something we all need to agree on – regardless of our position on the larger conflict.
Three months later, as we reflect on these events and the responses to them, it is time to face the uncomfortable reality: the silence around reports of sexual violence on October 7 and the discrediting of the accounts cannot are not only a failure of justice, they are indicative of deeper prejudices that we must collectively combat. May this serve as a call for change, a moment to reaffirm our commitment to all survivors and victims of gender-based violence and to challenge the underlying and often unconscious biases that hinder our pursuit of justice and equality . In the fight for human rights and against gender-based violence and anti-Semitism, believing that women’s voices is not just a matter of justice – it is an urgent necessity.
Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt is the United States’ special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. Ambassador Michèle Taylor is the permanent representative of the United States to the UN Human Rights Council.
Information and support for anyone affected by issues of rape or sexual abuse is available from the following organisations. The UK, Rape crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotlandor 0800 0246 991 at North Ireland. In the USA, Rain offers assistance at 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html
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