Violence Against Women In Times of War is Nothing New, and That Scares Me

October 27, 2023Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch (she/her)

Content Warning: This article mentions rape and sexual violence. 

For as long as we have recorded our stories and history, war has led to the devaluing of women’s lives and an increase in violence against women. 

As a mother, a rabbi, and the leader of a Jewish women’s organization representing tens of thousands of women around the world, I am disgusted by the numerous accounts of violence against women that emerged following Hamas’ brutal attack in Israel. 

Since ancient times, from the rape of Dinah to the kidnapping of Helen of Troy, war and violence against women’s bodies have been intertwined. 

For me, the story of our Torah is most often a story of joy. Hours before the war began, less than three weeks ago, I danced and sang with my family, celebrating Simchat Torah, our final Fall festival.  

Adults, parents, grandparents, women, and men, all held up the fragile, handwritten panels of the Torah scroll, with the young children seated in the middle, in awe. I felt connected to Jewish people worldwide, rejoicing in that same sacred story.  

When I awoke the next morning, my joy evaporated. I felt helpless, connected to Jews around the world through shared fear and concern, rather than unity and tradition.  

My feed and inbox filled with news of destruction, graphic images of dead bodies, people crying out for kidnapped and missing loved ones. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict far pre-dates the ambushes that began Hamas’ latest attack. Nevertheless, these newest crimes of war are reprehensible: kidnapping of grandmothers suffering dementia, beheading of infants, and raping of young women being dragged through the streets. The horrors of Hamas’ brutality felt immediately personal.  

Every day, new reports of terror fill our screens, yet I can’t get those initial haunting images of women suffering out of my head. When my husband read one of those horrid headlines, he threw his phone across the room and started to cry. As the Jewish saying goes, am echad im lev echad: one people with one heart. 

My sacred community, where I felt such joy during our holiday, is now full of pain and devastation. We are suffering all kinds of harm; the disturbing stories of gender-based violence, once plastered on every screen, are now fading into the background.   

Endemic even in times of peace, the risk of violence against women only increases during armed conflict. As Russia’s war on Ukraine persists, women have reported increased sexual and gender-based violence and perilous health conditions. When an armed conflict does end, the impacts of sexual violence persist, including unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and stigmatization. 

In this current war in Israel, many of the now more than 200 captives are women, facing violence, pain, and suffering. Women of Reform Judaism immediately issued a statement in reaction to the captives, in addition to the other reported war crimes, calling for an end to this cruelty. At least four have been released for “humanitarian reasons,” yet many still remain prisoners. Mia Schem, a 21-year-old who was kidnapped at the Nova Music Festival, was the first to be seen in a video released by Hamas. She pleaded to be back with her family and showed physical wounds on her arm. Every minute these captives are not released back to their families is more time for violence to persist.      

Pidyon shvuyim, the Jewish duty to free the captive, is considered a “great mitzvah” in the Talmud (Bava Batra 8b). In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, United Arab List chair Mansour Abbas called on Palestinian factions to release the imprisoned, citing that these actions go against Islamic values. The violation of both Jewish and Islamic values is apparent. 

Here’s where the Jewish text is problematic. When women are captives of war, tradition views them as property - worth the value of their ketubah, the marriage contract. While some rabbis argue that a captive wife may be redeemed for up to ten times her worth, others suggest that this practice imposes an undue burden on the community. Some go so far as to say that if a wife is captured a second time, the husband should divorce her (Ketubot 52b). Today, we live by a Jewish ethic that values all life as precious, and gender-based violence cannot stand. To save one life is to save a world entire (Sanhedrin 37a). 

Time and again, throughout history, women’s lives and bodies have been degraded in a time of war. Many stories will be told of Hamas’ brutality as this war continues, as innocent Israelis and Palestinians fear for their lives, and as those who were kidnapped remain hostage. This is a story we cannot ignore: the excessive and disproportionate violence against women, stemming from our oldest days to this present, terrible moment.   

I am scared for the captives, and I am scared for my young daughter. Our family lived in Tel Aviv last winter, and she came home to the United States speaking Hebrew words and phrases. I want her to grow up learning stories of joy and hope, not concern and fear. I am frightened for her, and for all the women who will suffer disproportionate and indiscriminate violence in a world where such evil remains unchecked. As this current conflict continues to inflict undue harm on women, we must not ignore these atrocities, and we cannot look away. 

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