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Kaplen JCC Hosts Presentation on Sexual Violence Against Women Committed by Hamas on Oct. 7

On Tuesday, Dec. 5, Cochav Elkayam-Levy and Yifat Bitton, Israeli lawyers and experts in human rights law and gender equality, presented their documentation of the brutal acts of gender and sexual violence that Hamas terrorists committed on Oct. 7 at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Elkayam-Levy is the new chair of Israel’s Civil Commission on Oct. 7th Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children and she and Bitton had been at the U.N. the previous day sharing their findings and insisting that the U.N. take notice of the crimes Hamas committed. In the audience at Tuesday’s presentation were close to 30 area professionals and clergy as well as many members of the JCC’s leadership team and department head staff.

Elkayam-Levy started by saying that as soon as news of what was occurring on Oct. 7 began to reach the public, it became clear to her that what Israel was experiencing was crimes against humanity.

As part of an international group of human rights and women’s rights lawyers, Elkayam-Levy and Bitton have colleagues from around the world whom they work with and are in various WhatsApp groups together. They contacted these groups immediately but got no response. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they thought that their colleagues might be processing the events of Oct. 7 and needed time to react. However, as time passed, they continued to receive no response and have yet to get one. The U.N.’s reaction has been a mirror reflection of this as well, and of note is that some of their colleagues are members of U.N. women’s rights and other committees.

Elkayam-Levy and Bitton felt a deep sense of betrayal: people they expected to stand up with them have remained silent, have contextualized the rape and brutality, and/or have focused on Gaza.

The two lawyers realized they were alone, not only in working to document the heinous crimes Hamas committed but in sharing them with the world. They proceeded to inform the international community that what they were doing was wrong, flying in the face of basic protocols on how to deal with sexually abused women and rape victims. To deny women’s pain and experiences is retraumatizing, making healing longer and sometimes impossible.

They also realized that authorities in Israel were struggling with the atrocities and evidence they were collecting and needed guidance. Family members of survivors, soldiers and government officials were coming forward with testimonies that could make the case for crimes against humanity, and this evidence had to be collected in a systematic way.

Elkayam-Levy has undertaken transforming the investigative apparatus in Israel so that it could proceed. Since Israel was alone in taking on this work, the country has had to create its own investigative protocols, ones that would, of course, comply with the legal and other procedural standards of the international community.

On describing the holy and crucial work of meticulously collecting all evidence of sexual and gender-based violence on Oct. 7, Elkayam-Levy said, “We have a burned puzzle.”

Some pieces are permanently destroyed, some pieces might perhaps return damaged but still in ways that Elkayam-Levy and her team can connect to other pieces; every scrap of evidence therefore is important. Sarah Aharony, a gender studies professor based in Ben-Gurion University, is creating an archive with the information that won’t be available for public viewing for 50-75 years.

Elkayam-Levy shared that this situation is particularly unprecedented because Israel has a lot of evidence of genocide, much of it by the perpetrators themselves, and at the same time “a deep and vast denial” of events in the international community, showing an “astonishing level of dehumanization of Jews and Israelis.” She said it was difficult to work in such a hostile and antisemitic environment.

Another important point she made was that Hamas terrorists came not only to deliberately traumatize women and children, but also families as a whole, and this was evident in the ways bodies were found and mutilated. This new form of violence needs a new term to describe it, she argued. Captured Hamas terrorists have revealed that their actions were sanctioned by religious leaders, who gave them permission to carry out these types of rapes, mutilations and murders.

Elkayam-Levy ended by saying her trip to the U.S. was to share the work of her commission with as wide an audience as possible; to let the world know what happened on Oct.7 and to continue to advocate for justice on behalf of the victims. Though she remains disappointed in the colleagues who did not show up for her and for the Israeli and other victims of Oct. 7, she and Bitton have formed new coalitions, and she encouraged anyone who is feeling alone at this time to do the same. She stressed that the Jewish people do have “moral allies fighting alongside us and we should continue to find and work with them.”

Those who are silent, she stated, are not only complicit; from her work, Elkayam-Levy knows how damaging not believing women is, but this “denial mechanism,” she added, “has been inflicted on all of us, women, yes, but all of us Jews.”

Silence has become an active form of antisemitism; when the atrocities of Oct. 7 go uncondemned and are even justified and celebrated, others are empowered to see them as legitimate forms of expression. This creates instability not only for Jews, but for the entire Western world, and for civilization itself. “When you deny the crimes, you deny humanity. That’s why they’re called ‘crimes against humanity.’” Elkayam-Levy’s words were a stark warning to those who are silent, who contextualize, or who endorse and celebrate Oct. 7, to be careful of what they are unleashing.

Tikvah Wiener is co-director of The Idea Institute, an educational consulting company. She lives in Teaneck.

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