By Mike Wagenheim, JNS.org
Speaking with JNS just outside the lines of U.N.-member state flags at Flag Hall in December, the technology entrepreneur, philanthropist and author Sheryl Sandberg said there was nowhere else she’d rather be than there, standing up for the Israeli women who were killed, raped, abused and kidnapped by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7.
“It’s the only thing I would want to do today,” said Sandberg, who is Jewish and who founded the nonprofit group Lean In.
The former chief operating officer of Meta, which owns Facebook, and former vice president at Google said that men run most of the countries whose flags fly nearby in the U.N. hall.
“That means that women had to fight hard—and much too hard—to establish that rape is a crime against humanity,” she said. “The current moment, with the current silence, threatens to undo that progress. That’s unacceptable.”
Silence in the face of violence against Israeli women is unacceptable for those women and, “what everyone needs to understand is that’s unacceptable for all,” she said.
Sandberg was on hand to keynote “Hear Our Voices: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Oct. 7 Hamas Attack,” sponsored by the Israeli mission to the United Nations.
Coordinating the Dec. 4 event were the National Council of Jewish Women; World Zionist Organization; Shazur, Women’s International Zionist Organization; Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation; and Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
It took place against a backdrop of what U.N. critics called a “shameful silence” amid mounting proof, including videos, eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence, of sexual violence that Hamas terrorists carried out for hours on Oct. 7.
Just last month, U.N. Women—the body’s entity charged with advocating for women’s empowerment—issued a statement on reports of Hamas’s sexual-based atrocities that occurred on Oct. 7, calling for an investigation.
The United Nations assigned that investigation to the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel, which has long included members with long histories of blatantly antisemitic and anti-Israel comments, even drawing criticism from U.N. member states that don’t typically align with Israel.
An overflow audience gathered in a U.N. conference room on Monday to hear from Sandberg, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and others.
Several speakers paused, choking back tears; their condemnations of U.N. inaction and a lack of empathy, coupled with accusations of anti-Israel and antisemitic undertones, drew rousing ovations that are rarely seen in the protocol-driven U.N. halls.
“When I saw the list of women’s rights organizations who have said nothing, I nearly choked,” Gillibrand said.
The senator described what she saw during a Senate viewing of raw footage of the Hamas terror attacks on Oct. 7 as “haunting and unacceptable.”
“Where is the solidarity for women in this country and in this world to stand up for our mothers, our sisters and our daughters?” she asked.
Gillibrand demanded that the United Nations denounce Hamas as a terrorist organization, drawing thunderous applause that drowned out the last sentences of her statement.
Simchat Greyman, a volunteer for ZAKA Search and Rescue, told attendees that he saw a dead woman with “nails and different objects in her female organs.” Struggling to speak at times, he recounted a body that was so disfigured that rescuers “couldn’t even identify if it was a man or woman.”
Shari Mendes, an Israel Defense Forces reservist tasked with preparing female soldiers’ bodies for burial, told attendees that “many young women arrived in bloody, shredded rags or just in underwear, and their underwear was often very bloody.”
She added that “our team commander saw several female soldiers who were shot in the crotch, intimate parts, vagina or shot in the breast.”
Sandberg said that she had not heard direct evidence of Hamas’s sexual crimes before Monday’s event.
“I had read about it, but I had not met these first responders. That woman who talked about handling the bodies and trying to do so with respect; that man who couldn’t speak because of what he’s seen … I think the world needs to hear those stories,” she said.
“I’m grateful to them for their work—for traveling all the way here to share their stories in this building that has the responsibility and the obligation of making sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
When asked if she had met with any U.N. officials during her Monday visit, Sandberg demurred uncomfortably. Pressed again, she declined to comment on the record.
She said that it is imperative that officials and member states look past the political implications of Oct. 7 and its aftermath when dealing with the issue of sexual violence.
“No matter what your views are, it is absolutely, unequivocally clear that we stand against rape, always, every time—for Israeli women, for all women,” Sandberg said.
Some 150 protesters demonstrated in front of U.N. headquarters before the start of Monday’s event. “When the institutions that are globally mandated to protect women stay silent, not only does international law lose meaning, humanity’s shared values lose meaning,” Cochav Elkayam-Levy said at the rally.
Head of Israel’s Civil Commission on Oct. 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children, Elkayam-Levy said that the silence by the United Nations “directly contributes to a rise in global antisemitism.”
“Are Israeli women even considered human by you?” she rhetorically asked the United Nations.
At the U.S. State Department’s press briefing on Monday in Washington, Matthew Miller, the department’s spokesman, suggested that Hamas didn’t return women hostages to Israel, fearing that they would talk about what happened to them while they were held captive in Gaza.
When pressed, Miller acknowledged that he had no evidence of such a claim.
“I don’t have the information, but it sounds reasonable,” Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan said.
“If you look at Hamas’s standards, and they now realize some of the atrocities are turning against them, so yes, it might be possible, but I don’t have the information,” he said.
Former first lady and U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who has vigorously denounced Hamas and defended Israel’s military response to Oct. 7, addressed attendees of Monday’s event via pre-recorded message.
“As a global community, we must respond to weaponized sexual violence wherever it happens with absolute condemnation,” she said. “There can be no justifications and no excuses. Rape as a weapon of war is a crime against humanity.”
Sandberg said that Michal Mentch-Gerstler, chief-of-staff to Erdan, and mission counselor Avital Mimran-Rosenberg invited her to the event. “These women worked tirelessly through the last … just very short period with the ambassador to pull off this event,” she said.
Sandberg’s daughter, nieces, mother and mother-in-law joined her at the United Nations. JNS asked if she typically brings family members with her when she speaks.
“This is a special event. This is for all of us,” she said. “This is for my daughters, so they live in a different world.”