Will Catholic feminists be a voice for the voiceless when it comes to the Israeli, mainly Jewish, October 7 victims of rape who cannot speak? Teresa Pirola writes about an injustice that has gone unacknowledged by many advocates for women and justice, and looks for the response of her own Catholic community.
Why has it taken so long for the world, and even Israeli authorities, to acknowledge the growing evidence that sexual violence against Israeli women was a significant component of the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7? This was the question addressed at a seminar last month by Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, Founding Director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University Law Faculty in Israel, whose career has encompassed membership of a United Nations convention on discrimination against women.
Speaking at an online gathering hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia on 10 December 2023, Professor Halperin-Kaddari outlined a number of factors that delayed the investigation of sexual crimes in the aftermath of October 7.
In terms of Israel’s response, one reason was the sheer number of corpses and body parts that were being brought into morgues, and the confusion and desperation among the Israeli population to know if relatives were dead, taken hostage or missing for other reasons.
“The first priority was victim identification,” Halperin-Kaddari explains, adding that, due to the overload of corpses to be examined, in many cases examinations were too late for collecting forensic evidence of rape.
Another complicating factor was the lack of personal testimony, as the vast majority of suspected victims of rape were also murdered. Of those who survived, a number are believed to be hostages, or are not ready to speak about their ordeal.
There was a further reason why investigations into sexual violence lagged, says Halperin-Kaddari. It was not part of the protocol. Israeli procedure for dealing with a victim of a terror attack did not enquire into the possibility of rape. Never before had rape been identified as a weapon of war used by Hamas.
But why, as reports of sexual violence began to emerge within a week of October 7, did it take so long for them to be acknowledged by the United Nations and by international justice groups and women’s organisations? The crescendo of voices now protesting the silence surrounding the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 has included academics, women’s rights activists, and first-responders. On social media, the slogan “Me Too unless you are Jew” signals the distressing view that the women’s rights movement has betrayed Israeli and Jewish women.
Halperin-Kaddari believes that part of the problem is that too many people are ‘hardwired’ to view the conflict through a lens that depicts Israelis as aggressors and Palestinians as perpetual victims. Israel’s military response and the ensuing war in Gaza seemed to reinforce this in the minds of many who eschew the complexities. In Halperin-Kaddari’s view, it was this ingrained impression that likely prevented those who would normally be attentive to rape allegations from acknowledging the mounting evidence and calling for a full investigation into the claim that on October 7 Hamas used brutal forms of gendered-based sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Thankfully, UN Women has now made a clear statement and the official investigation is underway. According to Halperin-Kaddari, while it is difficult to establish the case without surviving victims, the evidence is there, including information that points to the premeditation of the attacks. There is the testimony of first responders on the scene, those who collected the bodies or who received the victims at hospitals and morgues, as well as photographic evidence. Repetitive scenes, witnessed in multiple locations, indicate widespread acts of sexual violence: bodies stripped of clothes, torn underwear, bleeding from the genitals, broken pelvises, mutilated and eviscerated sexual organs, bodies of women and girls who had been shot in the breast, vagina, face or head, often multiple times.
There is also eye-witness testimony of gang rape of unspeakable brutality and the admissions of captured Hamas militants saying that they had orders to ‘dirty’ the Israeli women, or ‘to whore them’.
So, why should this horrific subject find space in a blog devoted to issues of Christian-Jewish relations? Clearly, our interfaith commitments must never be sanitised slogans or window dressing; Christian relations with Jews demands concrete action and falls squarely into the category of what it means to be “a just neighbour” against the backdrop of the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is especially the case in light of the fraught history of Christian relations with the Jewish people, remembering that Nazi atrocities against Jews were too often met by the silence of Christians who turned a blind eye to, or even collaborated with, the persecution of their Jewish neighbours.
This must not happen again. Professor Halperin-Kaddari sheds light on a specific moment in our own present-day story where violence against women calls for protest, in the context of October 7 being the largest systematic slaughter of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust.
So, I ask members of my own church community, where are the voices of Catholic feminists? Will they condemn Hamas’ atrocities? Will they be a voice for the voiceless, in this case, for the Israeli, mainly Jewish, victims of rape who cannot speak? Will they advocate for the return of the hostages, including the 17 women between the ages of 20 and 40 who remain in captivity and at risk of abuse at the hands of Hamas?
It is heartening to hear the voices of those courageous Muslim women who have recently spoken out against Hamas' atrocities and the weaponising of rape on October 7. I am listening to hear the voices raised from the Catholic sisterhood too.
The oft-repeated declaration, “Never again” (to the past atrocities of the Nazis) should not be an empty platitude. Protesting the gender-based atrocities of October 7 is one way to show that we mean what we say.
Teresa Pirola, ThD is a freelance writer and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press/Stimulus, 2023).
Image: Destruction in Beeri after the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023. Source: Zeev Stein Pikiwiki Israel, Wikimedia Commons
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