'It's #MeToo -- unless you're a Jew'

Women’s plight takes center stage at weekly demonstration for hostages’ return

Citing accounts of sexual abuse by Hamas, leading Israeli feminists demand action from the prime minister, his wife and international rights groups

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Shira Albag speaks about her daughter Liri at a rally for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 20, 2024 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Shira Albag speaks about her daughter Liri at a rally for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 20, 2024 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The plight of women emerged as a main theme and focus of Saturday’s protest rally in Tel Aviv for the release of more than 130 people – including 14 women — who are believed to be held hostage by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza.

The rally, the 15th consecutive event of its kind at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, featured the usual calls for the government to prioritize getting the hostages released over crushing the Hamas terror group.

The Israeli government has vowed to both release the hostages and disarm Hamas, which is demanding a ceasefire as a precondition to any prisoner swap.

The rally, however, also highlighted the suffering of 14 women presumed to be held hostage by a terror group whose men are responsible for raping multiple Israeli women on October 7, and perhaps also sexually abusing some hostages – women and perhaps also men — after that.

Hagit Pe’er, the head of the Na’amat women’s rights group, said what was on the minds of many at the rally on Saturday night. She asked her listeners, thousands of whom were at the square, to imagine the feelings of a mother whose daughter has been in Hamas’s hands for 106 days, “during which time she is repeatedly conquered and invaded by filthy hands of the scum of the Earth,” Pe’er said.

Last month, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, the group that organizes the rallies, published a report based on the testimonies of more than 100 released hostages, most of them women and children, who had returned from captivity as part of a prisoner exchange with Hamas that ended that month. It said men and women alike had suffered “violent sexual assaults” in captivity.

Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza on Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 20, 2024 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Multiple testimonies and forensic evidence gathered at scenes of atrocities perpetrated by Hamas terrorists in Israel on October 7 show that at least some of the about 3,000 terrorists who invaded Israel raped women, sometimes before killing them.

The onslaught, in which some 1,200 were killed and 253 were taken hostage, triggered a massive ground maneuver by the Israel Defense Forces, which has resulted in the deaths of over 9,000 terrorists, according to the IDF, in addition to 1,000 killed in Israel in the aftermath of the mass invasion. Gaza authorities say that some 24,000 people have died as a result of the maneuver. Their statistics, which are unverified, do not say how many of the dead were terrorists and are believed to include victims of hundreds of misfired Palestinian rockets.

Pe’er reiterated the message that the organizers of the weekly rallies have been driving home, claiming that “any price is worth” retrieving the hostages. Some 136 hostages are believed to still be in Gaza following the release of more than 100 others in the swap that ended in December.

Screen capture from video of Hagit Pe’er, head of the Na’amat women’s advocacy group. (YouTube)

But Pe’er also made demands of international women’s groups, which she charged had largely abandoned the Israeli victims and their own mission statements as far as it relates to those victims and their abusers.

“International women’s groups that speak of ‘Me Too’ at every occasion are adopting a thunderous silence. Maybe because it’s ‘Me too, unless you’re a Jew.’”

The following speaker, feminist activist Moran Zer Katzenstein, took to task UN Women, the United Nation’s group dealing with women’s rights. UN Women and the UN in general, she said, “refuse to believe and acknowledge the horrific crimes and atrocities that Hamas perpetrated.”

UN Women in a December 1 statement said it was “alarmed by the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence” and called for an investigation and “accountability” in connection with those accounts. But UN Women stopped short of acknowledging that such crimes had indeed occurred.

Protestors gather outside the UN headquarters in New York City on December 4, 2023, to protest the international community’s perceived silence on sexual violence committed by Hamas terrorists against Israeli women during the October 7 massacre. (Carli Fogel)

One of the most moving moments of Saturday’s rally was the speech by Shira Albag, who recalled how she initially didn’t recognize her 18-year-old daughter, Liri, when the first images emerged of Liri in captivity in Gaza.

“It took me a while to recognize her, to understand that that girl in the blue sweatshirt is my daughter,” Shira Albag said of Liri. The photo in question, which emerged earlier this month, shows a seated Liri Albag looking blankly at the camera, her mouth slightly open and her black hair tangled and disheveled, while wearing a stained sweatshirt.

Shira Albag, second from left, and her daughter Shai hold up a picture of Liri Albag on Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 20, 2024 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Life feels like death for Shira Albag, she told the thousands of people on Tel Aviv Hostages Square.

“I wake up alive and I go to sleep feeling dead,” Shira said. “If I’m having it tough, how tough is she having it? She cries out to me, I can hear her calling for help, with no one to protect her and hug her. But there are those who can save her, and we can make it happen,” said Shira Albag, referencing the government and pressure for it to make a deal for the release of the hostages.

US politician Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the representative for Florida’s 25th congressional district, addressed women who’d been abused by Hamas terrorists in her filmed message to the rally.

“To the women who were subjected to unimaginable violation on October 7: I stand with you, believe you, and will fight for you,” said Wasserman Schultz, a Jewish Democrat. “Am Israel Chai,” she added, Hebrew for “the People of Israel lives.”

US Rep. Josh Gottheimer, left, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, along with other members of Congress, have moment of silence as they host a candlelight vigil for Israel at the Capitol in Washington, October 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Angela Warnick Buchdahl, the senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City and the first woman to lead Central’s Reform congregation in its 180-year history, said in her filmed message to the rally: “Until they [the hostages] are free, we cannot be free.”

Actress Yael Abecassis addressed Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with a plea for intervention. “They scream to you from the dark tunnels,” Abecassis shouted, “you have the power to help them.”

Sara Netanyahu visits the site of the Nova music festival massacre, in Re’im, near the Israeli-Gaza border on November 30, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The audience reacted with loud jeers when Abecassis named Sara Netanyahu, who is reviled passionately by many of her husband’s detractors.

Saturday’s rally coincided with another rally near the Netanyahus’ private residence in Caesarea. Thousands of people, including relatives of hostages, demonstrated there, too. Another protest rally with an anti-government theme took place at Tel Aviv’s Habimah Square, near the Hostages Square, and outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.

Demonstrators rally near the residence of Prime Minister in Jerusalem on January 20, 2024, to call for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. (MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

A host of the Hostages Square rally kicked off the program by reminding participants not to shout “shame,” which is a staple chant at anti-government rallies.

“We don’t do politics here,” the host said. “There are other squares for that. Here we shout ‘Now’ because we want them all back right now.”

Most Popular
read more: