The Anti-Israel Left Hits a New Low with Rape Denialism
Here’s what we know and how we know it.
THE LAST FEW DAYS have seen a troubling turn in the public discussion of one aspect of the October 7 attack on Israel: the reports of acts of sexual violence committed by Hamas, reports that some commentators on the left have denied or dismissed.
On Sunday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, responded to questions from CNN’s Dana Bash about the tepid condemnation of sexual atrocities toward Israeli women by deflecting to everything from the war in Iraq to alleged Israeli war crimes while couching her own condemnation in such sanitized terms as “what Hamas has done” until specifically pushed by Bash on the question of rape. Facing widespread criticism, Jayapal released a statement two days later clarifying her remarks and saying she “unequivocally condemn[s]” Hamas’s “use of rape and sexual violence as an act of war.”
Meanwhile, some prominent voices in the progressive media went one step further to question whether any rapes happened at all. Writer and podcast host Briahna Joy Gray led the chorus, dismissing reports of rape by Hamas commandos as “the uncorroborated eyewitness account of *men*” and brushing aside accusations of #MeToo hypocrisy because “no female victims have offered testimony.” Gray did find words of harsh condemnation—for Israel, for failing to collect rape kits.
In fact, Gray’s tweet notably omits a female eyewitness who describes having seen a woman being raped by two Hamas terrorists and shot in the head during the second rape. As for the lack of testimony from actual victims of sexual violence by Hamas, one obvious likely reason for it is very grim: they’re dead. (Some may also be among the hostages.) The non-collection of rape kits, noted in some Israeli media, is also due to extremely grim reasons:
In the wake of the unprecedentedly large mass-casualty event, physical evidence of sexual assault was not collected from corpses by Israel’s overtaxed morgue facilities amid their ongoing scramble to identify the people killed, many of whose bodies were mutilated and burned. More than a month after Hamas rampaged through border communities near the Gaza Strip and a massive outdoor music festival, Israel is still identifying the dead through disaster victim identification protocols.
What’s more, the burning and mutilation of the bodies not only made identification difficult but, in some cases, may well have destroyed physical evidence of rape.
LET’S GO BACK AND REVIEW some of what we know about sexual violence during the Hamas rampage on October 7 and how we know it. Reports of sexual violence surfaced almost immediately. Among the first and most harrowing viral images from that day was a Hamas clip showing the abduction of 19-year-old Naama Levy, who had just finished her training to become an observation soldier, from the Nachal Oz army base. Levy, who had also been a peace activist, was seen being hustled into the back seat of a Jeep with her right Achilles tendon slashed, apparently to hobble her and prevent her escape, and the crotch of her pants visibly stained with blood. (If she is still alive, she still remains a hostage.)
The sight of the motionless, nearly naked, almost certainly dead body of German-Israeli tattoo artist and music festival-goer Shani Louk being paraded by in the back of a pickup truck by a group of jeering Hamas men also quickly set off speculation about rape.
An October 8 report in the online Jewish magazine Tablet by Liel Leibovitz, based on firsthand interviews with survivors of the Nova rave festival massacre, included one survivor’s statement that “women have been raped at the area of the rave next to their friends [sic] bodies, dead bodies.”
And, just as quickly, there were dismissive comments from the left—for instance, from podcaster Noah Kulwin, a contributing editor to the progressive magazine Jewish Currents:
The notion that any talk about the rape of Israeli women by Hamas terrorists is a racist ploy to “weaponize” racism against “brown men” is still quite prevalent in certain leftist and pro-Palestinian quarters of social media. “Another white woman just dying to believe brown & black men are rapists,” a leftist pro-Palestine account tweeted at Ariel Gold, herself a self-described “Jewish lefty, social justice & faith activist, Palestinian rights advocate,” after she tweeted that one could “believe women and demand accountability for the sexual violence of Oct7” while also deploring the deaths in Gaza. (Never mind that Gold was careful to hedge her condemnation with the disclaimer that Hamas rapes were “far from unique, in fact part and parcel of all wars.”)
Leaving aside the validity of racial classification that defines Palestinians as “brown” and Israelis as “white,” the claim that the use of rape as a weapon of war and terror is specifically associated with “brown men” is easy to disprove. Before the Hamas attack, the most recent, and widely publicized, reports of weaponized sexual violence focused on Russian war crimes in Ukraine after the February 2022 invasion; prior to that war, the biggest international outrage about wartime rape was directed at Serbia over the mass rapes of Bosnian Muslim women, conducted as part of a deliberate ethnic cleansing strategy.
THE MOTTO “BELIEVE WOMEN” or “Believe All Women,” which Briahna Joy Gray now explicitly rejects as an “absurd overreach,” emerged as a way to counter the tradition of regarding female rape complainants as uniquely untrustworthy; it arguably swung too far in the opposite direction, toward treating sex crime accusations as uniquely credible and disregarding the actual existence of false or dubious allegations. Ironically, just a few years ago Gray herself was among the most enthusiastic promoters of one such allegation: Tara Reade’s extensively discredited story of being sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by Joe Biden when she worked on his Senate staff in the 1990s.
In the case of the Hamas rapes, the credibility of female victims is not at stake (probably, as noted above, because the victims are either dead or being held hostage). But the casual dismissal, by Gray and others, of October 7 survivors who say that they witnessed rapes is based on remarkably uncharitable interpretations and strained reasoning. One man’s account of seeing the gang rape and murder of a woman at the music festival is derided by Gray as “fetishistic” because he describes the victim as “a beautiful woman with the face of an angel.” (That mention of the victim’s beauty has elicited far more progressive indignation than a captured woman being mocked as “one of the Jewish dogs” in a Hamas video clip that also includes an apparent rape threat.) Another left-wing commentator, Grayzone News writer Aaron Maté, has discounted the same man’s testimony as unreliable because he also reported witnessing a Hamas terrorist behead another woman with a shovel. It’s not clear why Maté considers this a credibility-busting claim when a confirmed, gruesome Hamas video actually shows a male Thai worker being decapitated with a garden hoe.
But let’s grant that accounts by traumatized survivors of a horrific attack should be treated with some caution. The fact is that the reality of Hamas’s use of rape as a weapon of terror is confirmed by extensive evidence that is only now beginning to emerge—not only the testimonies of first responders and forensic investigators who have described their harrowing discoveries, but actual photographic and video records. According to the Times of Israel, the video clips shown to journalists in close screening by Israeli authorities, gathered from Hamas bodycams as well as victims’ dashboard camera and phones include images of “partially clothed, dead women and charred remains of victims who had been bound before they were burned alive”:
In one video, a woman is unclothed from the waist down, with her underpants hanging off one thigh. She is lying face down and is dead. In another, a mutilated dead woman has her dress hitched up to her waist, with no underpants.
A BBC investigation published on Tuesday confirms these gruesome facts and provides additional details:
Videos of naked and bloodied women filmed by Hamas on the day of the attack, and photographs of bodies taken at the sites afterwards, suggest that women were sexually targeted by their attackers. . . .
Multiple photographs from the sites after the attack show the bodies of women naked from the waist down, or with their underwear ripped to one side, legs splayed, with signs of trauma to their genitals and legs.
(For the record, an Israeli sexual violence survivors’ group spokeswoman has told BBC Radio 4 that there is evidence of male victims of sexual assault as well.)
At an event hosted this week at the United Nations, Israelis who handled the bodies of the dead recounted what they saw:
The body of one woman had “nails and different objects in her female organs.” In another house, a person’s genitals were so mutilated that “we couldn’t identify if it was a man or a woman.”
Simcha Greinman, a volunteer who helped collect the remains of victims of the Hamas-led Oct. 7 assault on Israel, took long pauses as he spoke those words on Monday. . . .
Shari Mendes, a member of an Israeli military reserve unit tasked with preparing the bodies of fallen female soldiers for burial, said her team saw several who were killed on Oct. 7 “who were shot in the crotch, intimate parts, vagina, or were shot in the breast.”
Others had mutilated faces, or multiple gunshots to their heads.
Yet the denial and minimization of sexual violence continues. One tactic is a subtle goalpost-shifting: maybe there was rape, but no evidence of mass rape as a tactic. (This from, among others, Boston-based writer and health researcher Natalie Shure, who has over 65,000 Twitter followers.)
(It’s not clear what “sex exceptionalism” means here.) In a subsequent tweet, Matthews appears to accuse not only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but the BBC of using claims of sexual violence against Israeli women to boost support for a continuing war.
Such mealy-mouthed evasions have prompted some Jewish activists to start a campaign with a bitterly sarcastic slogan: “#MeToo unless you’re a Jew.” One may debate whether the insistence on denying or downplaying Hamas rapes is driven by prejudice against Jews or prejudice in favor of groups perceived as “marginalized,” “anti-colonialist,” or opposed to and victimized by “Western imperialism.” What’s not in question is that this mindset is leading to an appalling moral blindness—the kind of blindness that can make someone think Joe Biden sexually assaulting a woman on his staff is more likely than terrorists on a murder and torture spree raping some of their victims.
Correction (December 7, 2023, 11:30 a.m. EST): As originally published, this article misidentified Heidi Matthews as a “Harvard law professor.” While she earned an S.J.D. from Harvard Law and was awarded fellowships during her studies, she was not a professor there. Her affiliation has been corrected in the article text.