At the White House, A Call To Not Be Silent

June 18, 2024Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch

Content warning: This blog addresses sexual violence and assault. 

"Sexual violence has been a tactic of war since ancient times…We cannot look away and we will not be silent." - Vice President Kamala Harris, June 17, 2024

This Monday, I was honored to be invited to represent Women of Reform Judaism and our Reform Movement at the White House. At the invitation of the Office of the Vice President and the White House Gender Policy Council, I attended a convening on conflict-related sexual violence to mark the annual International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The event featured remarks by Vice President Harris, a roundtable of survivors and experts from around the world, and a partial screening of the new documentary film, Screams Before Silence.

Earlier this month, together with other URJ leaders, I was in conversation with Sheryl Sandberg about the Screams Before Silence Film, which tells the difficult, important story of the victims and survivors of the Hamas attacks on October 7th. Sandberg visited Israel to capture first-person testimony from first responders, released hostages, forensic experts, advocates, and others, to reveal the uncompromising truth that Hamas used rape, sexual and physical assault, and other forms of gender-based violence.

I was moved, both viewing the film and attending today's event, on so many levels.

Within days following the October 7th attacks, Women of Reform Judaism was one of the first in North America to speak out against the gender-based violence. In line with our legacy, we unequivocally believe all victims of sexual violence and rape. We believe Israeli women. We believed them from the start of the war, and we continue to believe them.

Earlier this year, I led a feminist delegation to Israel, bringing North American Jewish leaders to bear witness to these atrocities. The trip was titled, "We will not be silent," a sentiment that the vice president echoed within her remarks.

For one week during the mission, we sat with survivors of the Hamas attack on Israeli communities on the Gaza border. We walked through the rubble of Kfar Azza, where 60 people were murdered and 18 kidnapped. We met Liora, who hid with her family for 35 hours in the safe room of her home until the Israeli army rescued them, with little access to water, food, or electricity. We met Dr. Cochav Elkayam-Levy who is leading the effort to document every single instance of sexual violence on and since October 7th to make sure the victims and survivors are not forgotten.

I thought of them as I made my way to the event on Monday. This gathering situated the devastating attack on October 7th and the ongoing war in context of broader conflicts. Each one is tragic, all of them are significant.

As I came into the White House complex, I was struck by the long line of women and female-identifying leaders queuing up to enter. It was a warm day, and our subject was heavy, yet women were embracing and shaking hands, reuniting, and meeting each other.

I was thrilled to see several of the inspiring women leaders I have interviewed this year for my podcast, Just For This, including Daphne Price (JOFA) and Tiffany Harris (Moishe House). Our partners at Women's Rabbinic Network, National Council of Jewish Women, and many other leaders beyond the Jewish feminist organizations with whom we most often partner were present as well. We strengthen each other when we do this difficult work together.

We were ushered into a meeting room, balancing the solemnity of the subject with the pomp of a White House gathering. Vice President Harris was the first to welcome and address the group. She highlighted instances of sexual violence from October 7th in the larger context of other conflicts such as Ukraine, Iraq, Sudan, and Russia, among other areas.

"We cannot look away and we will not be silent," Vice President Harris echoed.

Before the event, Harris met with released hostage Amit Sousanna, freed during the temporary ceasefire last November. Harris described Sousanna as brave and warned that as more hostages are released, we will have even more testimony of these horrific acts.

Harris ultimately affirmed the responsibility of us all to rid the world of conflict-based (and all) sexual violence and hold the perpetrators accountable. She also made another plea for Hamas to accept the deal on the table to have an ultimate end to this violence.

At that moment, I saw Sheryl Sandberg hugging Sousanna, who was also featured in the documentary.

Within her remarks, Sandberg declared that the world's response to this violence sets precedent for how we treat the next conflict, and that rape is never resistance.

Sousanna, who less than seven months ago was still being held hostage, closed out the program prior to the film screening. Her wounds cannot even begin to heal, as long as hostage suffering continues, she shared.

I was transported right back to Kfar Azza, directly seeing the devastation where Sousanna and others were forced out of their homes. It was hard not to think how easily she could have still been in captivity, or worse, her story only told by others, or not at all.

Having previously screened the documentary in my own home, it was powerful and challenging to watch it in a group of leaders within this field. You could sense the collective struggle, and yet, we were supporting each other by viewing it together. Nevertheless, it never gets easier to hear survivors' stories.

As the event concluded, I remarked to another attendee that in a congregational, Jewish, or other religious setting, we might have concluded with prayer, but I understood why we didn't do so in this context. I left the room feeling called to act, and at the same time, needing that receptacle for pain and suffering that prayer can so often provide.

We are encouraging all sisterhoods, congregations, and communities to organize screenings of Screams Before Silence to lift up the silenced voices of the October 7th attack, inform and equip allies with the truth, and motivate us all to demand justice. 

We are also asking constituents to contact their senator  in support of a bill that would condemn the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. Earlier this year, a bill condemning this violence passed in the House with overwhelming, bipartisan support.

As both heartbreaking and invigorating as this event was, it was but one moment at the White House. We can't forget the bigger conflict at hand. There are too many innocent Gazans suffering and dying in this war, in the wake of Hamas' brutal attack, and still today, 120 Israelis, including women and children, remain hostage in Gaza. Until they are all home safe, until all women and girls are protected during times of conflict, and until those responsible are brought to justice, we will not be silent.

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