(JTA) — In a world divided over the Israel-Hamas war, Sheryl Sandberg — the former Meta COO and author of “Lean In,” the bestselling book about women’s equity in the workforce — offered up an idea that she thought could bring everyone together.
“No matter which marches you are attending — or if you are attending none at all; no matter which flag you are flying — or if you are flying none at all; no matter what religion you practice — or if you practice none at all, there is one opinion that everyone can agree on: Rape should never be used as an act of war,” she wrote on Monday in a graphic and emotional op-ed for CNN. Sandberg posted a video to Instagram on Monday with a similar message.
That Sandberg felt the need to make the argument reflects the simmering resentment felt by many Israeli and Jewish advocates over widespread skepticism or even rejection of claims that Hamas terrorists raped Israeli women during their assault on Israel on Oct. 7. The response she got on social media — including on the platforms she helped create — underscored their anxiety.
“[A]nd so where’s the evidence?” reads the most-liked reply on Instagram which, alongside Facebook, is part of Meta. (Sandberg left the company last year after 14 years.)
Whether women were raped during the Hamas assault has been debated since the attack occurred, when video emerged of Hamas terrorists bundling an Israeli woman with what appeared to be blood on her pants into a vehicle in Gaza. Since then, Israeli police, military investigators and emergency responders have gathered testimony from people who witnessed sexual assault on Oct. 7 and documented evidence of assaults on the bodies of some who died.
Israeli police said they have “multiple witnesses for several cases” of sexual abuse, but did not disclose the number of witness testimonies or active sexual assault cases being investigated, the Times of Israel reported. Police also have video evidence, testimony from interrogations, and photographs of victims’ bodies that suggest sexual assault took place on Oct. 7, according to the report.
Yet six years after the #MeToo movement aimed to change the global conversation about believing women, some say the silence — or worse, open disbelief — about what happened to Israeli women suggests that progress has been uneven.
“It was not called out to the extent it should have been,” Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And organizations that have long spoken out against sexual assault and against war crimes seem to have been comfortable being silent as this happened to Israeli women.”
The Me Too International movement in its initial statement on the war on Nov. 13 said that the organization “recognizes that sexual violence often functions as a weapon of war and imperialism” and called for a ceasefire in Gaza, without mentioning the sexual violence that had occurred in Israel. A clarifying statement sent out two days later specifically mentioned the sexual violence experienced by Israeli women in October.
“We received some feedback from survivors asking for clarity about our statement,” the updated MeToo statement said. “We stand unequivocally with ALL survivors of sexual violence in this moment, including Israeli women who have given horrific accounts of gender-based violence in the last month.”
Some are reserving particular outrage for UN Women, the United Nations’ women’s organization that has issued multiple statements and reports about the state of Palestinian women and children in Gaza since Oct. 7, but has not issued any reports about sexual violence against Israeli women during that time.
“In their silence, these organizations have rendered themselves irrelevant,” Rotem Izak, an Israeli journalist at Yediot Ahronot and Ynet, wrote in an essay condemning UN Women for staying silent on sexual violence perpetrated against Israelis.
“Not because they shouted the cry of the Gazan women who pay with their bodies and lives for the deeds of Hamas. This is a fact; a painful fact,” Izak said. “However, ignoring the crimes of October 7 that led to this terrible war is an additional form of violence.”
Late last month, NCJW and more than 140 other women’s groups also called on UN Women to condemn the Hamas attack and “do everything in their power to expose and recognize these atrocious and horrific acts of violence against women and girls and to bring the release of all hostages immediately.”
Katz said it had been painful just to make the ask.
“We shouldn’t have to convince people who claim to be our friends and allies that raping Israelis is wrong,” she added. “Using rape as a tool of war is something that we should all agree is bad. The end, full stop. The fact that the United Nations and UN Women haven’t been able to say that is egregious.”
Entrepreneurs Danielle Ofek and Nataly Livski launched a petition last week that has so far collected a quarter-million signatures criticizing UN Women. Called “#MeToo_UNless_UR_A_Jew,” the campaign seeks to provide a voice for the women still held hostage or missing in Gaza. The associated hashtag has also trended on X, formerly known as Twitter.
While the UN group has not addressed the rape allegations, others have gone further and openly cast doubt on them. In Canada, a letter calling on a political leaders to stop broadcasting “the repeated and unverified accusation that Palestinians were guilty of sexual violence” drew thousands of signatories. One of them was the head of a campus sexual assault center who was subsequently fired.
Sandberg, who is Jewish and had previously expressed pain over Oct. 7 and its aftermath, said her decision to make the video statement on Instagram was fueled by understanding just how widespread such dismissal had become.
“We have come so far in believing survivors of rape and assault in so many situations, yet this time, many are ignoring the stories that these bodies tell us about how these women spent the last moments of their lives,” Sandberg wrote in the CNN op-ed. “Not loudly condemning the rapes of October 7 — or any rapes — is a massive step backward for the women — and men — of the world. The ground gained was hard-fought and must not be lost.”