Conover, Geffen: International women’s groups and leaders have remained silent on Hamas’ violence for too long

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The events of Oct. 7 and the war that has followed, at an incomprehensible scale of civilian violence and death, is devastating. This war so far away feels palpably close to us all and has shaken our community to its core.

For us as women, there has been an additional aspect of the attacks on Oct. 7 that has felt like a double assault: the systemic rape of women and girls by Hamas terrorists and the lack of response from the world.

Sexual and gender-based violence is horrific, with emotional wounds that linger well beyond the physical wounds. The healing process for the survivors of the Oct. 7 assaults begins with being heard and believed. We cannot overstate the importance of supporting these women, like we would all survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

We recoiled when reading about Shani Louk, a 23-year-old German Israeli, who can be seen in a Hamas-made video, semiconscious and half-naked, being taken to Gaza in the back of a pickup truck with men sitting astride her. Another video shows a woman being led out of a vehicle by heavily armed men, her wrists and ankles sliced open and her jeans bloodied at the crotch. First responders have recounted finding dead Israeli women with unmistakable evidence of rape and mutilation.

Our heartbreak is not only that these brutal sexual assaults were perpetrated against these women and girls, but that so many international women’s organizations and leaders remained silent about it for too long. That is why this has felt like a double assault.

We ask that all people of goodwill acknowledge this assault, horror and heartbreak. Your bearing witness matters. Speaking in solidarity supports survivors to describe the horrors they endured without fear. When survivors believe they will not be believed or that the crime will be minimized, many will not speak up for fear of retraumatization.

Speaking in solidarity, we bring attention to the urgent need to release all hostages still being held in Gaza, including those who endured or witnessed sexual and gender-based crimes — enabling them to receive the vital physical and emotional medical care that they are currently being denied.

Speaking in solidarity, we increase pressure on organizations to condemn and sanction the perpetrators, which helps prevent the recurrence of these severe violations of international law and fundamental morality.

As so many know firsthand, sexual and gender-based violence can be devastating, and the shame lingers well beyond the physical wounds. By speaking in solidarity, we enable the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence and their families — and the families of the victims who did not survive, like Louk — to feel the support they need to help them begin to heal.

We can join with grassroots efforts in Israel and elsewhere, such as the Deborah Institute, which has launched the Civil Commission on Oct. 7 Crimes by Hamas against Women and Children. This unique and all-too-rare collaboration of international human rights experts and women’s rights organizations was created to gather Oct. 7 testimony, evidence and advocacy and to provide expert advice.

As the Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, we are reminded that even a small flame can dispel the darkness. In that spirit, may we come together to kindle flames of hope for the world we all share, and the type of world we hope to create, together.

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom in Chicago and Rabbi Wendi Geffen is the senior rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe. They wrote this column for the Chicago Tribune.

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