Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 5 March 2024


The New Rape Denialism

Two women stand in front of a field filled with photos and Israeli flags.
Credit... Leo Correa/Associated Press

Opinion Columnist

On Oct. 7, Hamas invaded Israel and filmed itself committing scores of human-rights atrocities. Some of the footage was later captured by the Israeli military and screened to hundreds of journalists, including me. The “pure, predatory sadism,” as Atlantic writer Graeme Wood described it, is bottomless.

Yet Hamas denies that its men sexually assaulted Israelis, calling the charges “lies and slanders against the Palestinians and their resistance.” And Hamas’s fellow travelers and useful idiots in the West, most of them self-described progressives, parrot that denialism in the face of powerful and deeply investigated evidence of widespread rapes, documented most recently in a United Nations report released on Monday.

The interesting question is, why? Why the refusal to believe that Hamas, which butchered children in their beds, took elderly women as hostages and incinerated families in their homes, would be capable of that?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first it’s worth looking at the forms this denialism takes. One method is to acknowledge, as one recent article put it, that “sexual assault may have occurred on Oct. 7,” but nobody has really proved that it was part of an organized pattern. Another is to raise questions about various details in stories to suggest that if there’s even a single error, or a witness whose testimony is at all inconsistent, the entire account must also be false and dishonest. A third is to treat anything an Israeli says as inherently suspect.

And finally, there is the point that there are barely any witnesses to the assaults. Where are the women who were allegedly raped? Why aren’t they speaking out?

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The answer to that final question is the grimmest: Overwhelmingly, the women who could have spoken out are dead, for the simple reason that any Israeli who got close enough to a terrorist to be raped was close enough to be murdered. As for the credibility of Israeli witnesses, who else — other than the early responders who encountered the victims at first hand — should be interviewed and quoted by anyone investigating this? In the misogynistic courtrooms of Iran, the legal testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man. In the Israel-hating corners of the left, the worth of Israeli witnesses seems to be even lower.

But it’s the first two types of denialism that are in some ways the most shocking, because they are also the most hypocritical.

Wasn’t it progressives who, during the Brett Kavanaugh saga, stressed that occasional discrepancies in the memory of traumatic events are absolutely normal? And since when have progressives insisted that the burden of proof for demonstrating a pattern of sexual assault lies with the victims, most of whose voices have, in this case, been silenced forever?

How quickly the far left pivots from “believe women” to “believe Hamas” when the identity of the victim changes. If, God forbid, a gang of Proud Boys were to descend on Los Angeles to carry out the kinds of atrocities Hamas carried out in Israeli communities, I’m pretty sure no one on the left would devote any energy trying to poke holes in who got raped, much less how or when.

It’s in this ideological climate that we get the U.N. report. In some ways it’s a landmark, if only because the U.N. is never sympathetic to the Jewish state and was outrageously slow even to notice the early evidence of sexual assaults. For anyone who maintains a reasonably open mind but is still in doubt, the report notes, among other details, “at least two incidents of rape of corpses of women,” “bodies found naked and/or tied, and in one case gagged,” and “clear and convincing information that sexual violence, including rape, sexualized torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment occurred against some women and children” during their time as hostages.

That should be more than enough. It won’t be. A large and expanding corner of the West refuses to accept that Israel’s war in Gaza is a response to evil, or that Israelis might be victims in any way. It disturbs the narrative of the war in Gaza as a case of strong against weak, the settler-colonialist Israelis against righteous and indigenous victims.

Honest critics of Israel’s policies can raise serious objections while also candidly acknowledging the horrific circumstances that set those policies in motion. What we are seeing instead are dishonest critics, dishonestly disputing those circumstances so they can take aim at the existence of Israel itself.

Serious people should know what an older version of antisemitic denialism was all about: a steady stream of factual nitpicks, logical inversions and rhetorical legerdemain meant to obfuscate and deny the greatest crime in history. They should also understand the aim: that by denying past atrocities, they paved the way for the next ones. Today’s rape deniers are no better than their forebears.

More on sexual violence on Oct. 7

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