Several Israeli and women’s rights groups held a special session at the United Nations in New York City on Dec. 4 featuring an event called “Hear Our Voices” where they shed light on the stories of Israeli women and girls who faced sexual violence at the hands of Hamas on Oct. 7 and condemned the use of such violence as a weapon of war.
The event, which was organized through the combined efforts of Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, the World Zionist Organization, Interwoven/Shazur, National Council of Jewish Women, and Schusterman Family Philanthropies, spotlighted the stories of Israelis victimized by Hamas and included remarks from featured speakers Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton and more.
“Anytime rape is used as a tool of war, it must be condemned. It must be called out, and it must never be normalized. And for so many reasons, for the women who lost their lives in this way, for Israel, for Jewish women and for humanity, we have to be speaking out,” said Sheila Katz, CEO of the D.C.-based National Council of Jewish Women.
Katz said that the event happened due in large part to the efforts of Ambassador Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., and added that it was important to have the program on the U.N. stage to capture the attention of 42 countries that were formally represented at the event to ensure that these horrors can’t happen again.
Katz also noted that the event took a long time to come together, happening almost two months after the Hamas attacks and the reports of horrific sexual violence, largely due to virtual silence from international women’s groups.
“We put on the special session of the United Nations that UN Women should have put on weeks ago. So it was essential. We did it because these are the kinds of things that the United Nations is supposed to be doing,” Katz said.
UN Women only released a statement on the reports of gender-based violence during the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks 57 days after it occurred. The group subsequently released a second statement on the Friday before the Hear Our Voices event after it had already been planned.
Katz said that NCJW has been pleased with new statements from various women’s rights groups before and after the event, despite it taking an unusually long time for them to be issued.
“We welcome that [new UN Women] statement. We’re glad they made it … this hearing was for anyone that has been silent to date, to feel that they can come in and say something out loud. And we’ve actually been really happy that this week we’ve seen some new statements come out,” Katz said.
Another important piece of the event that several participants and sponsors stressed was that this event was separate from the war in Gaza and the larger political issues surrounding it that have caused tenuous disagreement at the U.N.
This event was about protecting women from gender-based violence and the organizers did not want outside issues related to the conflict to interfere with that message.
“Each story lends itself to the importance of addressing the weaponizing of sexual violence against women and against them, but this was really about women and making sure that Israeli women get the same attention and validation as do other women who experience sexual violence during wartime,” said Daphne Lazar Price of Silver Spring, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, one of the groups that co-sponsored a rally that took place before the event.
Katz agreed, adding that being on the side of preventing and condemning gender-based and sexual violence is not and should not be a political or divisive idea.
“This isn’t a hard ask to make and it’s not going to be a hard statement to make. And that’s why we want to zero in on that space. Sheryl Sandberg said in her op-ed in CNN that we want something we can all agree on. And we don’t want to let the geopolitics and the complexity of that situation take away that it should be actually very simple to be able to say that people stand against rape,” Katz said.
The days following the event have seen a stronger public stance on the issues from women’s groups and Lazar Price added that Sheryl Sandberg has begun a social media campaign called #UnitedAgainstRape where she and other celebrities are adding their voices and bringing further light and discussion to the public sphere.
And while there is no way to undue the trauma for the victims of this violence on Oct. 7, programs like the Hear Our Voices event provide a public forum for outreach and a way to help garner support for the victims and show the resolve of these affiliated groups to stop it from happening again.
“Oct. 7 showed us the worst of humanity. And the only way we counter that is by being the best of humanity. And when the silence is as loud as it has been we have to fill that silence with compassion and I think that’s the first step,” Katz said.