After accompanying British troops as they liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, Richard Dimbleby produced one of the most viscerally horrifying — and powerful — dispatches in the BBC’s history. “I find it hard to describe adequately the horrible things that I’ve seen and heard,” he began, “but here unadorned are the facts.”
His language was spare, his descriptions factual — and yet, his bosses didn’t want to broadcast the report. A compromise was only reached after he threatened to resign and his script was cut in half. The reason, his son Jonathan later revealed, was that “the BBC needed more sources to support what had happened to Jews and worried that if you mentioned one group of people and not others, it might seem biased or wrong”.
The events of October 7 do not compare to the Holocaust, but a similar reluctance to consider both its primary victims remains. We see it in the defaced posters of kidnapped Israelis by people who claim they are “propaganda”, in the antisemitic disinformation peddled online, and in the weekly pro-Palestine demonstrations that fail to call out Hamas’s terrorism. But perhaps most peculiarly, we also see it in the silence of organisations and activist groups dedicated to fighting for women’s safety.
After Hamas terrorists set about murdering, raping and abducting as many women as they could, one might have expected widespread condemnation from the West’s feminist groups. After all, Hamas had provided enough evidence of its crimes — within hours, they were posting footage of abducted young women in bloodied trousers being paraded around Gaza. Even beforehand, its feminist credentials were hardly glowing: it mandates the hijab, has made it illegal to travel without a male guardian, and refused to ban physical or sexual abuse within the family.
The response among the majority of groups committed to ending violence against women and girls (VAWG) was threefold: to keep quiet, to disbelieve the victims, or to insinuate they deserved their fate. In the words of 140 American “prominent feminist scholars”, to stand in solidarity with Israeli women is to give in to “colonial feminism”.
Here in the UK, this approach is perhaps best embodied in the work of Sisters Uncut, a charity that boasts its own “Feministo” committed to “taking direct action for domestic violence services”. Until this month, the activists’ work has generally taken the form of media-savvy stunts: dyeing the water of Trafalgar Square’s fountains red, setting off rape alarms outside police stations, occupying the roofs of council buildings. Yet all paled in comparison to the demonstration it organised earlier this month: a call for Israel to put down its weapons that ultimately shut down London’s Liverpool Street Station.
Afterwards, the charity issued a 600-word statement, filled with references to “apartheid”, “genocide” and disproved reports that the IDF had bombed Gaza’s Al-Ahli hospital. There was no mention, however, of the 239 abducted Israelis, roughly 100 of whom are believed to be women, or the sexual assaults that took place on October 7. When journalist Hadley Freeman pointed out this wasn’t terribly feminist of them, the group responded by claiming reports of Hamas’s sex attacks amounted to “the Islamophobic and racist weaponisation of sexual violence”. Towards the end of their rambling statement, they concluded: “no people would ever accept being murdered, humiliated, dispossessed, racially targeted, oppressed, cleansed, exiled and colonised without resisting.”
Other feminist groups fell into a similar victim-blaming step. Southall Black Sisters, another charity committed to ending violence against women, did at least mourn the loss of life on both sides, but blamed it on “the Israeli government’s declaration of war on Gaza”. Elsewhere, Women for Women UK, which specialises in helping “women survivors of war” and calls itself a “non-partisan organisation”, has decided to raise money only for Palestinian women. Even Women’s Place UK, once viewed as an outlier for its brave campaigning for women-only spaces, decided to call for an “immediate ceasefire” without mentioning sexual violence.
In fact, the only VAWG charity in the UK to call out Hamas’s sexual violence was Jewish Women’s Aid. “Such acts have a permanent impact on survivors and damaging psychological effects on women, particularly women who are victim-survivors of sexual violence,” it said in a statement. “The public silence from many UK domestic/sexual abuse sector organisations further impacts the isolation and fear our clients are experiencing.”
For one British Jewish VAWG worker, who has been in the sector for 20 years, the silence of other organisations was to be expected: “I have seen this become a real thing in the last few years — where ideas are imported from America: that if you are white, you will always be the oppressor. If you are working for one of these charities, you are used to a victim/perpetrator narrative which is normally true in the domestic violence context, but not when it comes to geopolitics.”
She describes how, during mandatory training at the last charity she worked for, her team was told that Jews don’t experience racism. “Incredibly, they used the Second World War as an example of racism, but of anti-black racism because of how people from the West Indies were treated.”
For those whose daughters have been abducted by Hamas, the sense of betrayal is palpable. “It is unbelievable that groups like the Red Cross and UN Women are doing nothing to help our people,” Keren Sharf Shem, whose 21-year-old French-Israeli daughter Mia was kidnapped from the Nova music festival, tells me. “It is right that the people of Gaza are getting humanitarian aid, but we deserve the same… I know from a message Mia sent to a friend that she was shot in the leg. She also has a medical condition, and the hostage video showed her after surgery for an operation on her arm. That was weeks ago — I don’t know whether she is still alive. And there are other sick people there, as well as babies and a pregnant woman. Too many people seem to have forgotten them.”
To remedy this, Israeli feminists this week launched #MeToo_Unless_Ur_A_Jew, a campaign calling for the UN Women group to focus on the gender-based violence against Israeli women. “The UN Women is turning a blind eye to Hamas’s vicious war crimes by remaining silent,” they said.
In a similar vein, Claire Waxman, London’s first Victims’ Commissioner, wrote to Reem Alsalem, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Girls, to ask why the organisation has stayed silent. In response, Waxman tells me, Alsalem claimed the evidence was “not solid” enough to warrant a statement. An incredulous Waxman points out that November 25 is the UN’s International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls: “How can we talk about eliminating violence against women and girls if we are tacitly saying it’s acceptable to rape Jewish ones?”
To counter this narrative, the Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children was also founded this week, and is currently collecting testimony about Hamas’s atrocities, ranging from victim reports and eyewitness accounts to footage released by Hamas itself. Many of those raped are dead or abducted; others are too traumatised to speak. But the story that has begun to emerge is unbearable in its horror — one of gang rape of women and children, of the dead bodies of women being hacked during or after sexual assault, and of genital mutilation.
Nachman Dyksztejna, a Ukrainian-Israeli, is one of those whose testimony bears witness to these horrors. A volunteer first responder with an organisation called Zaka, he was sent to several scenes of the massacre, including the site of Nova festival and several kibbutzim. To avoid repeating his trauma, Zaka recorded his statement alongside psychological support and sent me a written translation. Zaka also provided photographs that corroborate his descriptions. (The editors of this publication have also seen them.)
Dyksztejna’s testimony — reproduced in the next two paragraphs — is among the most harrowing I have read, and can be skipped if necessary:
“In Kibbutz Be’eri, I witnessed bodies of two women with their hands and legs tied to a bed. One of these bodies we found was sexually terrorised with a knife stuck in her vagina and all her internal organs removed. After brutally violating these women, Hamas detonated the house on them, so we found them beneath a pile of stones.
“The mini shelters scattered from the Nova party site to road 34, shelters that had been broken into, were filled with piles of women. Their clothing was torn on the upper part, but their bottoms were completely naked. Piles and piles of women, dead bodies, lying this way. When you took a closer look at their heads, you saw a single shot straight to the brain of each.”
In 1945, Dimbleby broke down several times while making his report about Belsen. “I passed through the barrier and found myself in the world of a nightmare,” he explained. But he knew he had to bear witness to the horror — just as Israelis today feel they have no choice but to report what they have seen. But when videos created by the perpetrators aren’t deemed “solid” evidence, is that enough? For so long the mantra for feminist organisations has been to “believe her”. Yet as the past month has revealed, it only goes so far — and becomes meaningless if you live in Israel.