On Oct. 8, 2023 – a day after Israel experienced the most brutal massacre in its history – one of the first accounts of the sexual violence that Hamas waged against many of its victims surfaced. “Women have been raped at the area of the rave next to their friends’ bodies, dead bodies,” one survivor who’d attended the Tribe of Nova music festival told Tablet editor-at-large Liel Leibovitz. “Several of these rape victims appear to have been later executed,” Leibovitz added later in the piece.
Normally, one would expect a disclosure like this – not just of rape, but of rape followed by murder; rape in the midst of a violent massacre – to earn the victims and survivors sympathy and support. Yet what I saw from many people online was not empathy, but doubt and disbelief.
Over the past month and a half, as the Hamas attack gave way to a brutal military assault on Gaza, battle lines have been drawn in the public discourse. Commentators have been urged to “pick a side,” demonstrating their loyalty to one country’s wounded by ignoring or even outright mocking another people’s suffering. In the midst of this, Israeli women in particular have been hard hit, with their pain at best ignored and at worst turned into fodder for cruel memes.
When it came to Tablet’s reports of rape, an initial assumption of credibility quickly gave way to skepticism. If there were actually rapes amidst Hamas’ assault on Israel, one misinformation expert asked, then why wasn’t it all over major media outlets’ headlines? All of the knowledge about sexual assault that our society recently had refreshed during the #MeToo movement – that it is commonplace during war and especially during militant actions, that it is difficult for survivors to discuss and is often left out of media coverage either out of a discomfort with the topic or a desire to protect the victims – seemed to have been instantly forgotten.
Over a month and a half later, the amnesia has yet to lift. In its Oct. 20 report on the conflict in Gaza, UN Women neglected to make any mention of the sexual violence experienced by Israeli women on Oct. 7. Even as more reports have come out about the sexual assaults that were waged on that day, with survivors sharing their accounts with the Israeli police and the press, the wave of denial has not lifted – not online, and not among global feminist groups, who’ve remained curiously silent about the abuse of Israeli women at the hands of Hamas.
It is against this backdrop that another disturbing trend has unfolded online. In early November, the official X account for Israel shared the story of a woman who attempted to use posthumous semen retrieval – a medical procedure invented in 1980 that enables the collection of semen from a corpse – after her husband had been killed by Hamas, only to learn that her attempts had come too late.
Although PSR is controversial, it remains within the bounds of ethical medicine, particularly when employed at the request of the partner of the deceased. In Israel, where young men are more likely to die unexpectedly due to compulsory military service, it is a relatively accepted, if not incredibly common, practice.
Yet all of that nuance was lost online, partly due to the obscure phrasing that Israel’s social media managers used when discussing the procedure online. “Shaylee Atary’s husband Yahav was murdered by Hamas terrorists. She did everything in her power to retrieve his sperm,” the post read, leading readers unfamiliar with PSR to envision all manner of horrific scenarios that might entail.
Seemingly overnight, the post became fodder for a range of cruel and dehumanizing jokes. Posts about an IDF semen retrieval unit rapidly became an X meme. Any empathy for a woman who simply wanted a chance to have another child with her beloved husband after he was brutally murdered in a terrorist attack was utterly absent. When I personally attempted to highlight the grotesqueness of turning this widow into the subject of a particularly callous joke, it led only to others targeting me with vile comments about my own “love” of necrophilia and fascism.
Though these two phenomena – the erasure of Israeli women’s victimhood and the mockery of Israeli women’s suffering – might seem utterly unrelated, I cannot help but connect them in my mind.
In one corner, we have Israeli women rendered unrapeable, their accounts of sexual violence written off as little more than hysterical attempts to defame Palestinian men. In another, we have Israeli women transformed into a horrific caricature of sexual depravity, creatures willing, even eager, to violate the corpses of their loved ones in order to achieve their own selfish ends. It is a textbook strategy for the dehumanization of an enemy: Deny their ability to feel pain while mocking their cultural norms around sex and death.
Refusing to see the ways that Israeli women have been hurt, while insisting that the way that they process their grief is a depraved desecration of the people that they loved and lost, is a continued violation of their dignity.
Israeli women are all too human, just like Palestinian women and women around the globe. Recognizing that Israeli women were brutally raped on Oct. 7, or accepting their choice to employ PSR in the wake of an unfathomable loss, does not automatically provide justification for the Palestinian occupation, or any of the violence that has been waged against Palestinians in the wake of the Oct. 7 massacre. But it does require us to understand that everyone in this conflict is a human being.
There is unimaginable suffering in Israel and Palestine and no one is exempt from it.
For some people, that revelation is apparently too much to bear. As a result, Israeli women are continuing to be retraumatized as their pain goes without recognition. Θ
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