Episode 105: Hear Their Voices: Sexual Violence on October 7

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Jen: Hi, this is Jen Richler.

Nahanni: And Nahanni Rous. We’re here with another episode of Can We Talk, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet.

Jen: First, a word from our sponsor, the University of San Francisco’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice. JSSJ’s graduate-level certificate program in JEDI— Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion—is more than an educational program; it’s a call to action to improve the future of every Jewish institution. Classes meet the moment with supportive learning that helps students navigate an evolving and challenging Jewish community landscape. Learn more and apply by January 12 for spring classes at USFCA.EDU/JEDI.

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Now, on to the show. Please note, this episode includes graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

Nahanni: One of the many horrific dimensions of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel was widespread sexual violence. Hamas terrorists murdered over 1,200 people and abducted at least 240. They also raped, tortured, and mutilated women’s bodies before, and in some cases after, executing them.

Jen: News about the rapes started emerging in Israeli media and internationally within days of the attack, but few women’s organizations spoke up to condemn the sexual violence. Some even questioned whether the claims were true.

Nahanni: Since then, testimonies, video and forensic evidence have made it clear that dozens of women were raped and brutalized by Hamas on October 7. The true figure may be much higher. And the crimes are gruesome beyond most people’s imagination.

Jen: In this episode of Can We Talk?, we’ll discuss the sexual violence of October 7, the effort to collect evidence, and the international response—or lack thereof.

Nahanni: One of the organizations that was slow to speak up was UN Women, a United Nations organization tasked with safeguarding human rights for women around the world. After nearly two months, the group finally condemned Hamas for the sexual violence. They made their statement just days before Jewish organizations held a special session at the UN to call attention to the crimes and demand a response.

Jen: On December 4, in front of a packed room, politicians and activists expressed horror at the crimes and outrage at the lack of response from women’s organizations. One of the speakers was Mandana Dayani, a feminist activist in the US. She called out feminist organizations for failing to live up to their values.

Mandana: When we commit to speaking out about protecting women and girls, that means all women and girls [applause]. When we said believe women, we meant all women [applause]. 

Showing moral leadership does not require you to just pick a team and ignore the brutal contours of the real world. It is time that my fellow leaders, activists, and communities that have still remained silent open their hearts. You must not turn away from women who have been raped and massacred in the most horrific fashion, simply because you dislike their government. [applause]

Jen: Many of the speakers at the UN urged women’s groups not to put the polarized politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ahead of women’s rights. Hilary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand were the high profile speakers. But what really stays with you are the testimonies Israelis gave about the sexual assault committed by Hamas.

Nahanni:  Later in the episode we’ll hear excerpts from some of these testimonies. We’ll also speak with Sheila Katz of the National Council of Jewish Women, one of the sponsors of the UN event.

Jen: Over the past two months, more and more evidence has shown that the sexual violence of October 7 was widespread and happened in multiple locations. We might never know the full extent of the crimes. Most of the women who were raped are dead. In the chaotic days after the attack, the priority was identifying victims and preparing bodies for burial, rather than collecting forensic evidence. But many organizations in Israel are working to collect whatever evidence they can, and that work is ongoing. Investigators say it might take months to complete.

Nahanni: In November, Physicians for Human Rights Israel published a paper compiling evidence about the sexual assaults. The goal was to show that the cases of sexual violence were not isolated incidents and should be investigated as a war crime. I spoke with Hadas Ziv, director of ethics and policy at Physicians for Human Rights Israel and an author of the report.

Hadas: We thought that it should not be, uh, only an issue for women’s organizations. We saw that only women’s organizations, and of course our government, are talking about it, and we thought that it actually is a matter of human rights and we should also get involved. So what we decided to do is to look at all the available testimonies that were made public and on, uh, you know, groups like Telegram, WhatsApp videos, and to contact, um, people that we know maybe have some information.

Nahanni: And what was your role in that process?

Hadas: Actually I took on myself, uh, to really watch the available videos and photos, which I'm not sure I don't regret. But, I think some of it, at least, was necessary in order to verify that we have the correct materials.

Nahanni: Yeah. Oh, I'm sure that those images are not something that you can ever forget.

Hadas: No.

Nahanni: Um, so I mean, you can decide how much you want to share, but I think it's also important for people to understand the kinds of crimes that we're talking about. So can you—

Hadas: describe some of the things…?

Nahanni: Yeah, and summarize some of what's in the paper and some of what you saw in the videos.

Hadas: Uh, so I can say that from the videos, one that really, um, was horrible for me to see was a young woman. Uh, she's already known, Shani, because she was murdered later. Um, I think she was still alive then, [she] was taken on a truck, open truck, in the streets of Gaza, and people [are] spitting on her and she's like, humiliated, and being exposed and it was like a parade of a victory or something. This was very difficult to see.

Another one is of, again, a young woman being taken and, um, there’s blood on her pants, which make it quite easy to imagine what she went through.

But also photographs and testimonies of women being found with legs spread, pelvises broken, vaginas torn. Um…yeah.

Nahanni: What is the scale of what happened?

Hadas: I think this is yet to be uncovered. Two public interviews with people who saw the bodies in Shura camp, which is the military camp where they have bodies to identify, et cetera. And they speak about a lot of cases.

I don't think we'll get the accurate numbers ever, uh, because some of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Uh, but it's not, uh, sporadic cases here and there.

Nahanni: Is this sexual violence a new dimension in the history of this conflict?

Hadas:  Absolutely. Absolutely. I, you know, I work in Physicians for Human Rights from 1995, and even before that, I've seen conflict. As a child, I was 11 when the Yom Kippur war was, uh, broke. So I've seen pain and I've seen victims, and bus bombing, et cetera. Um, I've never witnessed something like that. Never.

Jen: We’re going to step away from the interview with Hadas for a moment and share excerpts from a few of the testimonies that were given at the UN. Over 600 people were in the room to hear these testimonies. We think it’s important to know the nature of the sexual violence and bodily mutilation, and to hear the stories that many people in Israel have been hearing for the past two months. Just to remind everyone, the descriptions you’re about to hear are extremely disturbing.

Nahanni: The first testimony is from Yael Richert, a chief superintendent in the Israel Police’s Criminal Investigation Unit. She's reading from an account given by a survivor of the Nova music festival, where Hamas terrorists killed over 360 people.

Yael: Everything was an apocalypse of corpses. Girls without clothes, without underwear. People cut in half. Butchered. Some were beheaded. There were girls with a broken pelvis, due to repetitive rapes. Their legs were spread wide apart in a split.

Jen: This next clip is from Shari Mendes, an army reservist who was working at the Shura base that Hadas mentioned. She’s part of a unit tasked with identifying the bodies of female soldiers.

Shari: Many young women arrived in bloody, shredded rags, or just in underwear, and their underwear was often very bloody. Our team commander saw several female soldiers who were shot in the crotch, intimate parts, vagina…or shot in the breast. This seemed to be a systematic genital mutilation of a group of victims.

Nahanni: The last clip we’ll share is from Simcha Greinman, a deputy commander in ZAKA, an Israeli search and rescue organization. He describes what he saw when he went into a house in one of the southern kibbutzim. He’s so shaken as he speaks that he has to pause to collect himself.

Simcha: When I walked into the house…. I saw in front of my eyes  a woman, laying, she was naked…She had nails and different…. She had nails and different objects…in her female organs.

I’m standing in front of you to make sure that you hear the voices of those women that cannot stand next to us now, and be here, to scream out what happened to them.

Nahanni: Every one of these crimes is horrific on its own. Hadas Ziv from Physicians for Human Rights says the next step is to determine whether together these crimes qualify as a war crime.

Hadas: That's what we really asked for professional bodies to investigate. Whether there was a method, whether you can define it as a crime against humanity. Because our report, uh, did not attempt to stand to the, you know, legal threshold, but just to raise awareness and say, please investigate it professionally.

Nahanni: What do you need to show for it to qualify as a crime against humanity?

Hadas: You either need to show that it was part of the, uh, orders and method–

Nahanni: Part of the plan.

Hadas: Yes, part of the plan and the orders that those, uh, people got from their, uh, commanders. Or that it was, um, not specific cases, but really many. So either as a  method or that it is widespread or both, but you don't need to prove both.

Nahanni: Mm-Hmm. But it does sound like it was widespread.

Hadas: Uh, yeah. I, I think it sounds like it was, uh, widespread. But, you know, and then you ask how many? How many do I need to show? In order to prove, and this is for the legal, uh, people to do.

Nahanni: Uh huh. And what would be the legal address for this?

Hadas: Okay, so there's—I think there's a big discussion in Israel itself about it. Uh, and here it's—I think that it's important that it will reach the International Criminal Court, but Israel has a position, long-standing position, of not recognizing, uh, the International Criminal Court, saying that our court is enough. And, uh, also fearing that the investigation will also go to, uh, suspicion of  war crimes that Israel is committing in Gaza.

So Israel is an ambiguous place here. Um, so it is yet to be seen. But meanwhile, it is being investigated by the police in Israel, and they say that it's one of the—that it is the biggest investigation they've ever had.

Nahanni: Hmm. I want to back up a little bit to the challenges of collecting and publicizing this kind of testimony. Can you talk about that?

Hadas: I think human rights organizations usually look at what's going on now and wait for the conflict to end in order to analyze whether it is a crime against humanity, whether there are war crimes in Gaza, et cetera, et cetera. And we felt that we cannot wait, that something needs to be done now with the information that we have now, understanding that we don't have the whole picture, but we have enough in order to say something, because, uh, it is important in order to raise awareness to professional bodies that need to investigate it.

But also raise awareness to our medical system that has been defunded, um, and doesn't have enough resources. And we wanted our leaders to know that there's trauma that needs different, uh, treatment, [a] different system, not just the ordinary bureaucratic public health system.

We need a special trauma-sensitive treatment to be available and accessible to all victims. And to understand that some of them don't have the social support that they used to, either because the kibbutz is now evacuated and they live in different places, or the family's been—some of it were murdered or abducted.

So we wanted to raise awareness for that. And also  to make any effort possible in order to bring the people back because they need to be treated as soon as possible.

Nahanni: Hadas is referring to the more than a hundred hostages still held in Gaza. A doctor who treated released hostages said that some of them were sexually assaulted or abused. I asked Hadas whether she thought former hostages and other survivors of October 7 were getting adequate care.

Hadas: I think there's a lot of, um, attention now, uh, and I know that women’s organizations and civil society are being consulted and, and I hope that they are. But I also know that the trauma goes far beyond just those victims. It goes to the rescue teams, to the doctors that [have] seen them. I know that the people that are working [at] the Institute of Forensic Medicine, they are understaffed, and the amount of things that they've seen, I'm sure they're haunted by it and they need help.

So I know that we are now in a crisis, and I know that most of [the] people in our society are traumatized. As a woman, as a mother—of course I'm not comparing—but everyone feels that it's unsafe to be in a female body. It's unsafe for your daughters, for yourself.

And to see what's going on now is also, um, raising question of why, when I'm being raped as a part of a war, I'm of interest to my government. But when I speak about women's rights in our health system, in our country, I'm not of interest to them. So this is another way of something that we need to object [to], is the abuse of the victims as a tool in a propaganda game. They need to gain or regain control on their lives. First and foremost, they deserve treatment. And then go prove a crime against humanity, but be respectful of them and what they want and what they need.

And also to, at the same time, working on these bleeding wounds in my own society and looking at what happened in Gaza is also putting us in some kind of, um, torn mental place. Because Israeli society now unites in its own pain, and sometimes is unwilling to listen to whether what we are doing in Gaza is a crime also. So in a way, you are a stranger in your own society at the same time that you bleed with your own society.

Nahanni: Yeah. You were talking about the women who have been raped, their stories being almost exploited in the propaganda war. Can you just say a little bit more about that?

Hadas: I think it's a time where our government needs to be a bit more sensitive with how they are using this information. And I would prefer politicians to be more respectful. And let the investigative parties do their work, um, sensitively, slowly, uh, and with respect.

What I feel that I'm being betrayed and I think that we, uh, are being manipulated. Women’s rights went backwards with this very extreme right-wing government with its religious parties inside. Uh, but then suddenly women are okay for you to do the propaganda and to justify our war on Gaza. And I think that this is not respectful. And first of all, just ask for our forgiveness. Really. There's no recognition of the betrayal that all of us feel. Women specifically, because of what happened. But I think everyone.

And on the other hand, I would ask people who think, how can you say it's a crime against humanity, prove it, bring more evidence, how many, et cetera, et cetera, to be a bit more careful with what they ask us to do. Because a) to watch and to listen is a traumatizing experience in itself. And also, to pressure people to give testimonies and then find inaccuracies here and there—it's what they do to rape victims all the time. “Ah, but you, in the first time you said it took, you know, it was here and then you say it was there,” and exploiting every contradiction in what someone says to, um, attack the whole issue itself.

But I think that all the groups that either try to deny it should look into their own, uh, character and think why? Why was it so important to deny it? Why was it important to keep silent?

And I think that this is the other, the mirror actually, of the government. If you, um, recognize and acknowledge and sympathize, does it say that you justify what I'm doing in Gaza? No. You can sympathize with human beings as human beings and to look at the politics as the politics. And this is what I would expect from myself and what I expect from them.

And I feel my womb, my body, I don't think it should be a part of the Jewish resurrection in Israel, nor is it a part in the Palestinian liberation. It's my body, my decision. I control what I do with it.

Nahanni: Hadas Ziv heads the ethics and policy department at Physicians for Human Rights Israel. As Hadas says, many international groups have kept silent about these atrocities, and some people claim there’s not enough proof. This, despite the videos, eyewitness accounts, and even the fact that Hamas itself initially publicized some of the acts.

Jen: Many Jews feel hurt and outraged by this silence—and especially betrayed by feminist groups who advocate for believing women’s accounts of rape. The hashtag “me too unless You're a Jew” emerged on social media to express this anger and quickly caught on.

Sheila Katz is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has NGO status at the UN. NCJW was one of the sponsors of the UN session on Hamas’s sexual violence of October 7. I spoke to Sheila the day after the session. She talked about how she  felt when the feminist community remained silent— especially UN women.

Sheila: UN Women's sole job is calling out gender-based violence when it happens. It's alerting people to gender-based violence when it happens around the world and making sure we're a united front in confronting that and addressing that. But in a massive situation where it's so clear that rape is used as a tool of war, as it was so early on in Israel, they have made statements with a lot less evidence from other countries. And so that began the journey to say, “Hey, where are you on this?” And, um, and I do believe that the reason they took a statement the Friday before this event was a culmination of a lot of the women's groups calling on this, and this event that was looming that ambassadors were going to come to that was going to get a lot of press.

I just want to say I'm celebrating that that statement came out. There's a lot of people who are saying it wasn't enough. We need to celebrate when people make statements. Any group that takes a statement in the next few weeks, we're going to celebrate, because we kind of just spent two weeks or so, three weeks or so, raising the flag and saying, here's what you need to know. And now we're giving people an opportunity to do right again.

UN women, I hold to a different standard because this is their responsibility and their mission, but for other organizations, I do think, um, whether they didn't have the information, they didn't understand what the sources were, or they were just simply afraid to comment because they felt like they were commenting on the Middle East and that's not feminist organizations’ specialty…

Jen: You're getting a little bit of the reasons why groups may have been reluctant to make a more, um, explicit statement condemning Hamas, um, for the—

Sheila: Well, let me be clear: The number one reason was antisemitism. Antisemitism is everywhere. It is a systemic part of what we experience in this country and in the world. And part of antisemitism is assuming all Jews have power, all Jews are white, like a variety of other tropes.

And so, for people who believe that all Jews have power, seeing us as a marginalized people is not something that they connect with.

Jen: One thing that has struck me is the narrative for a lot of these progressive groups is a really black-and-white binary of victim and aggressor in which Israel is clearly the latter. And so I think this information that's coming out that shows Israel to be a victim is —and it's this is no way to excuse it, but just to understand what's happening and, like, almost on a cognitive level—is that it's, like, people who have been so invested in that narrative of Israel as aggressor are unwilling to assimilate this information that says, wait, Israel was victimized here.

Sheila: Here's what I want to say. Um, rape is never acceptable. And that is the thing that I really want to feel like everybody everywhere can say. I don't care if you are somebody who has lots of power. I don't care if you're a bad person. I don't care what your lived experiences are. No one deserves to be raped. Full stop. The end.

And there's another flag that needs to be raised here, not just about Israeli women, but about what it means that it has been so easy for people to be just so dismissive around sexual assault when there is this much evidence.

Right. We shouldn't have to prove assault in this way. We have people saying, are there videos, release them. I don't want to have to get into a pattern of releasing anything, you know, that shows people in their trauma in that way. And, um, it sets a dangerous precedent, uh, around believing survivors.

I feel the whole world gaslit Israeli women on that day and since, and because of it, the whole world gaslit sexual assault survivors. Like, I have to tell you, I'm a rape crisis counselor. I have never seen so much trauma from survivors of sexual assault in the Jewish community as what's happened since October 7 for a few reasons, right? One is that this is classic victim-blaming behavior. “But did it really happen?” And what I have been saying to feminist organizations is that 1,200 people were killed. Rape was used as a tool of war. This is the largest mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust and it demands a global humanitarian response, and it demands your voice, right?

We can't let this pass. Every organization and leader needs to call this out. And I understand the focus on feminist leaders and secular feminist organizations. I do. But it's not just them. We're still waiting on a lot of, you know, civil rights leaders generally to say something, organizations that we work with in the human rights space to say something.

We have to do a better job of protecting people everywhere around sexual assault. And I hope the outrage people feel about not being seen and heard—these Israeli women in their last moments—I hope it then also translates to why we need people speaking out every single day about sexual violence wherever it happens.

Jen: Why is it so important for groups like UN Women and international women's groups—but as you're pointing out, also just human rights groups and anyone who cares about human rights—for them to be more vocal and explicit in their condemnation? So what I'm really asking is, what's at stake here?

Sheila: First and foremost, our humanity is at stake, right? This is about whether you believe people deserve bodily autonomy or not. You either are against all rape or you're not. Right? There's no in between.

And so, people have to denounce rape used as a tool of war by Hamas. That's the language, I would say. And like, they have to be clear about the perpetrator. We need to call out who the perpetrators are. We need to call out who the victims are.

And then you have these added layers of what's at stake around antisemitism, around women generally, around sexual assault. When we start to see people normalize rape as a tool of war, which is what happens when it's not called out, we have to understand that you have now given permission for rape to be used as a tool of antisemitism.

I can tell you that I personally have received multiple threats of rape since October 7. And most women Jewish leaders I know that have been outspoken on sexual assault since October 7 have also experienced threats of rape.

Jen: What are you hoping to see next, um, from these groups and from, you know, from human rights groups, more generally, civil rights groups. What would you like to see happen?

Sheila: People have to be on the record talking about this. Not because statements are the end all be all. They're not. But because of the silence, that silence has to be filled. That silence has to be filled for the sake of every sexual assault survivor in the world. And that silence has to be filled for the respect of the women in Israel who spent their final moments in unspeakable terror.

Jen: Sheila Katz is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Nahanni: We’re going to end with one more clip from the UN session. This is Shari Mendes again, the woman who works for the army unit that prepares the bodies of female soldiers for burial.

Shari: I want to just tell you that these barbarians did not show these women any honor in life, but it was important to us and our teams, groups of women, to show them deep love and gentleness as we prepared them for burial. We had more time in this burial room. it’s just a room for us; it’s not like the identification room. It was a room for women taking care of other women. We knew that we would likely be the last people to see these young women, and we held them in our hearts, even if just for a moment, as if they were our daughters. We really loved them.

[pause]

Jen: Thank you to Hadas Ziv and Sheila Katz, and to all the people who spoke and testified at the UN session. You can watch the full UN event at webtv.un.org. Search for “Hear Our Voices.” The Physicians for Human Rights Israel report is online at phr.org.il.

Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Judith Rosenbaum. Find us online at jwa.org/podcasts or on your favorite podcast app.

Jen: JWA is collecting stories about Jewish women’s experiences since October 7. Visit jwa.org/october7 for question prompts. Submissions can be in writing or audio, in whatever language you choose.

Nahanni:  This is the last episode of our fall season—a hard topic to end on. We’ll be back in the spring, hopefully in better times. I’m Nahanni Rous.

Jen: And I’m Jen Richler. Until next time.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 105: Hear Their Voices: Sexual Violence on October 7." (Viewed on February 26, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-105-hear-their-voices-sexual-violence-october-7>.