This past Shabbat marked an important day: November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
It is an annual day of activism, founded and designated by the United Nations. Calling for an end to violence against women and girls around the world, it also marks the beginning of the period known as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.
Like others in the gender equality sector, for many years I have proudly supported the 16 Days. My colleagues and I have worked to acknowledge the unacceptable burden of family and gender-based violence – not only within our own Jewish community, but across Australia as a whole.
I feel exceptionally privileged to lead this work. Anyone who knows me will tell you that the International Day means a great deal to me, both professionally and personally. It is a cause about which I am deeply passionate.
But this year, I confess that my passion has waned – and I’d like to tell you why.
There have been many hurtful silences since October 7: of interfaith leaders; of mainstream media; of non-Jews; the left. The 16 Days has shone light on a silence that is both deafening, and especially galling: that of women’s rights organisations.
Prominent among the unspeakable atrocities committed on October 7 were specific and targeted acts of sexual violence against women and girls.
As though that weren’t horrific enough, there are countless women’s organisations and feminist leaders who since then have, at best, said nothing; and at worst, have excused, obfuscated, or flat-out denied that this sexual violence even occurred.
Who have repeatedly refused, despite the pleas of Jewish and Israeli women’s organisations, to condemn these despicable acts. Some have framed the rapes of October 7 as ‘an act of resistance’; still others have implied that Israel was somehow ‘asking for it’.
Those of us in the women’s advocacy space recognise the well-worn tropes that victims of sexual assault so often hear: ‘Where’s the evidence? She’s making it up. She’s exaggerating. That didn’t happen.’
But this time, we’re hearing these words from women themselves. From so-called feminist leaders – the exact voices who are usually loudest in speaking against these vile assertions. Who are normally united in their unequivocal and universal condemnation of violence against women – except, it seems, when it comes to Jewish women.
We hear about ‘reports of’ violence. ‘Alleged’ assaults.
We have the receipts. The sexual violence of October 7 is not alleged, but well-documented – yet still, we are not believed.
We have Hamas terrorists who were carrying written instructions to facilitate rape: the Hebrew transliteration for ‘take off your pants’. Captured operatives who have themselves attested to committing acts of sexual violence; who have boasted about this.
We have the first-hand accounts of survivors: testimonials of gang rape; eyewitnesses who saw friends passed around and violated before they were shot, their last moments on this earth ones of unfathomable terror.
We have videos and photographs of young women with blood between their legs. Footage of women’s bodies — stripped, degraded, mutilated, paraded in the streets and spat on.
We have evidence recovered from the bodies of the deceased by ZAKA and forensic experts: shattered pelvic bones, disfigured genitals. Not only young adult women – elderly women and girls as well.
These acts of violence are unspeakable – and the failure to acknowledge them is a further violation; a double assault. As Michal Herzog, First Lady of the State of Israel, said last week: this silence is a betrayal of all women.
For seven weeks, UN Women – the founders of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – had refused to condemn the sexual violence experienced by Israeli women and girls. Last week, in response to mounting pressure from Jewish women’s organisations, a statement finally acknowledged the ‘alleged reports’ of violence – only to be deleted shortly after. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has been similarly mute.
The condemnation of sexual violence should not be a question of politics. No matter how one feels about Israel’s complex history, irrespective of how empathetic one may be to the plight of Palestinian people – rape should never be seen as an ;‘unfortunate but expected’ cost of war or a ‘tool of liberation’.
The failure to speak against these horrific acts – the silence of our sisters – is unforgiveable.
Like so many other Jewish women, I feel utterly betrayed by our fellow feminists. Angry, bereft, and completely disillusioned by the cause to which we have been so devoted. It’s a pain that even bears its own name: #MeToo – Unless You’re A Jew.
The silence is particularly galling given the immense contribution of Jewish women to modern feminism. The key names of the second wave – the foremothers of gender equality, both here and abroad – are overwhelmingly, disproportionately Jewish: Betty Friedan; Bella Abzug; Gloria Steinem; Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Letty Cottin Pogrebin; Zelda D’Aprano; Andrea Dworkin; the list goes on. Activists who fought fiercely and tirelessly – for the rights of all women, not only Jewish women. Who today have been abandoned by the same movement they fought so hard to establish.
I wish there were a neat way to sum up this message. I wish I could tell you that feminist leaders and organisations have seen the error of their ways. That they have apologised for their silence and rightly condemned the heinous acts of October 7. Sadly, we are still waiting.
But we are anything but silent. Jewish women and their allies, across Melbourne, around the world, are furious; screaming for acknowledgement, for change, for justice.
We hope you’ll join us.