The world must confront the sexual violence of Oct. 7

(RNS) — There is an expression: “I wish I could un-see that.”

Trigger warning: There are not enough trigger warnings that I could issue for this essay, which conscience demands that I write. If you cannot handle stories about violence against women, please pass this one by.

There are many things I wish I could un-see or un-hear. This is something I wish I could un-read.

I am referring to one of the most important pieces The New York Times has published in recent memory — its report on cases of rape, mutilation and torture by Hamas on Oct. 7.

In the words of the report: “The attacks against women were not isolated events but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence.”

This New York Times report was obscenely delayed — as have been the responses from the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations and particularly international women’s groups.

Call it what it is: denial.

From Laura E. Adkins in the Forward:

A new report painstakingly documents a campaign of coordinated sexual violence by Hamas in graphic detail. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late. Although the investigation described specific and horrifying incidents in graphic detail, the general picture that emerged was not a new one. We have known for months that terrorists conducted a coordinated campaign of sexual violence as part of the devastating Oct. 7 attacks that were designed to traumatize and humiliate the Israeli public.

Raz Cohen’s sobering eyewitness testimony on the carnage of the Nova Festival, recounted by the Times? It was first shared by PBS on Oct. 11. Detailed forensic evidence of rape and mutilation? Reuters and other outlets were reporting on that by Oct. 14. Ample first responder testimony? Covered in the Forward and other outlets by Oct. 17. And even that gruesome story of a woman’s breast being sliced off, passed around and played with as she was still alive and being raped? The Times of Israel reported on it a month and a half ago …

it took the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 49 days and an international pressure campaign to issue a tepid post expressing “alarm” (not condemnation) at reports of gender-based violence in Israel and to call for a broader investigation.

Read the report.

Urge your friends to read the report.

There is yet another group who must read the report: those who support Hamas, or who justify the actions of Hamas as justified acts of resistance, or who minimize the actions of Hamas, or who have the unmitigated, ignorant gall to refer to the Israel Defense Forces’ war against Hamas as “genocide” and/or “ethnic cleansing.” (These would be the same people who know neither the definition of genocide in international law, nor could identify the “river and the sea” between which “Palestine will be free.”)

It is horrifying and sobering to note that this latter group includes many of our young people.

According to a Harvard-Harris poll, as reported in Newsweek:

Just 52 percent of this group [young people, age 18-24] said they supported Israel, while 48 percent said they supported Hamas … the Harvard-Harris poll revealed that 51 percent of 18 to 24 year olds said Hamas’s violence against Israeli civilians was justified, while just 49 percent don’t think so.

When it came to the rape of Jewish women, knowingly or not, Hamas was utilizing the Nazi playbook.

From Marta Havryshko, “Sexual Violence in the Holocaust: Perspectives from Ghettos and Camps in Ukraine”:

Political and ideological factors significantly contributed to the proliferation of sexual violence during the Holocaust. Sexual humiliation of the Jewish body was an inevitable consequence of the dehumanizing Nazi racial theories… Rape could be but one way to punish and humiliate the Jews. In this framework, rapists placed the blame for the rape on women themselves, believing they “deserved” it for their political choice. Consequently, women were raped not just because they were women, but specifically because they were Jewish women.

This is painfully, obscenely familiar. As it was when I encountered it on the Ukraine-Poland border last year; an aid worker said these chilling words about the plight of Ukrainian women who were fleeing: “We are running out of rape kits.”

A friend said to me: “What happened on Oct. 7 is worse than the Holocaust.”

There is no cruelty Olympics in which nations must compete.

But, having said that, there are significant ways in which we must compare and contrast Oct. 7 with the Holocaust.

First: The Nazis did everything possible to conceal their crimes against humanity. Not Hamas. Hamas recorded those acts on body cams; in some cases, taking videos of murders on the victims’ own mobile phones, and then uploading those videos so that all could see them — especially the families of the victims. 

Second: The Nazis did everything possible to deny their crimes against humanity. Not Hamas. Terrorists called their parents, boasting of their murders of Jews.

But there is a darker and deeper contrast here.

Let us understand the historical flow of the events of the Holocaust. It began with acts of violence against Jews and Jewish businesses, culminating in Kristallnacht, November 1938.

There were the roundups and mass executions of Jews by the mobile killing squads of the Einsatzgruppen in Nazi-occupied territories.

But then came the “final solution”: the January 1942 conference at Wannsee, which planned the mass murder of Jews in the gas chambers.

In other words: The Holocaust began with up-front-and-personal acts of violence against Jews.

But those acts of violence were phased out.

Why? Because they were inefficient. With the introduction of the gas chambers, mass killing became industrialized, routinized, mechanized, subject to bureaucracy and therefore de-personalized.

So the events of Oct. 7 were a reversion to a more “personal” version of killing.

The modern world had not encountered this kind of killing. Well, yes, actually we did: Rwanda, 1994, in which Hutus brutally murdered 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis in attacks that included rape and the deliberate infection of HIV as weapons.

And, before and beyond that? The only other parallels in Jewish history are the Khmelnytskyi (Chmielnicki) massacres of the Jews in Ukraine, 1648–1650, which also included unspeakable and unprintable violence against women, as well as the rape of Jewish women in the pogrom of Kishinev, which the Hebrew poet H.N. Bialik chronicled in his epic poem “The City of Slaughter.”

So, why now are people so reluctant to accept the reality of mass rape and violence against Jewish women?

It is not only Jew-hatred, though it is surely that — the idea that of all the women in the world, only Jewish women in Israel are exempt from our moral vision and concern.

It is not only that these events fly in the face of the accepted narrative, in which the Palestinians are the victims and the Jews are the aggressors.

Once again, from the Forward:

To acknowledge Israeli pain and suffering in particular threatens the reductive worldview in which victim and oppressor are the only categorizations that really matter. Because if individual Israelis can be victims as well as members of a nation that has occupied another’s territory for decades — and if individual Palestinians can at once suffer under occupation  and be capable of committing horrific acts of terrorism — then the entire house of cards collapses on itself.

It is also something far simpler.

I now believe the reason for the denial of violence against women, as well as the wider events of Oct. 7, is that the modern mind simply cannot encompass this level of horror. It so much flies in the face of our rationality, our sense of what it means to be modern, that the mind simply shuts down.

The mind, of course, resists such shutting down. That is why the elite of the intellectual classes — university professors — seek to understand and justify what happened. That is why their bosses — university presidents — seek to find some kind of context in which proclamations of violence against Jews depend on “context.”

They seek to intellectualize this.

They cannot. 

That is also why people are ripping down posters of hostages. It is not only that they believe Israelis/Jews, as “oppressors,” are outside our moral universe (yes, even infants).

It is also because the rational mind cannot encompass what has happened. We simply lack the moral vocabulary for it.

But, in truth, we do not need a moral vocabulary for this.

We only need to howl, and to scream. Because that is the only way to reach those who cannot and will not hear.

I hated writing this piece. And yet, I had to do it. In the waning hours of 2023, it may have been the most distressing thing I had to do the whole year. 

If I have caused you pain, forgive me.

But if you can possibly transcend your pain, please do not remain silent now.

And may it be a better year for all of us.

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