Feminists vs Israeli Disinformation: the New York Times’ False Rape Narrative

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Big ol’ content warning before I start today, friends: I’m going to be talking about atrocities, including murder and sexual assault and war and genocide and, I mean, just name a terrible thing. I’m probably gonna talk about it right now.

Back in December, feminists came under attack from the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, former chief operating officer of Facebook and famed proponent of solving sexism by adjusting the tilt of your upper body. Sandberg spoke in front of the United Nations to condemn “Hamas’ use of sexual violence as a war tactic,” as CNN reported at the time.

The previous month, the New York Times reported that “Israeli police officials shared more evidence on Tuesday of atrocities committed during the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks, saying they had collected testimonies from more than a thousand witnesses and survivors about sexual violence and other abuses.

“At a news briefing, Kobi Shabtai, Israel’s police chief, showed videos taken from the body cameras of slain terrorists, surveillance footage, crime-scene photographs and a video of an Israeli woman who said she had seen Hamas terrorists gang-raping a young woman whom they captured during a music festival in the desert.”

This was truly horrific news, of course, so why weren’t feminists rushing to condemn Hamas’s actions?

“Silence is complicity,” Sandberg said on stage in December. “And in the face of terror, we cannot be quiet. That is why we are all here today to speak about unspeakable acts.”

She invited New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to the stage, who admonished feminists for their silence: “When I saw the list of women’s rights organizations who have said nothing, I nearly choked,” Gillibrand said. “Where is the solidarity for women in this country and in this world to stand up for our mothers, our sisters and our daughters?”

Hilary Clinton joined in, “calling on the global community to respond to “weaponized sexual violence where ever it happens with absolute condemnation.”

“There can be no justifications and no excuses,” Clinton said. “Rape as a weapon of war is a crime against humanity.”

“Organizations, governments and individuals who are committed to a better future for women and girls have a responsibility to condemn all violence against women,” Clinton implored. “It is outrageous that some who claim to stand for justice are closing their eyes and in their hearts to the victims of Hamas.”

Hamas denied these allegations, but they did murder or kidnap hundreds of Israeli civilians so no one really took them seriously. Israel claimed to have “thousands of statements, photographs and video clips, including evidence of “girls whose pelvises were broken they had been raped so much.”” Must be true, then, right?

Speaking as one of those feminists who has been deafeningly silent on this topic for several months now, it turns out no, it does not appear to be true.

Later that month, the New York Times published their investigation into Hamas’s use of sexual assault as a war tactic in a piece titled, “‘Screams Without Words’: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7,” written by three people: the Pulitizer Prize winning reporter Jeffrey Gettleman, a food writer new to journalism named Adam Sella, and Sella’s aunt by marriage who had never done any journalistic investigation, Anat Schwartz.

The piece was immediately criticized, both by experts at other institutions and by journalists within the New York Times. Unlike the previous New York Times piece claiming that Israel had vast amounts of forensic data, the new piece said there was none–only eyewitness testimony. The “Screams Without Words” headline of the piece came from one such witness; it was a quote from a man who said he witnessed a woman being raped at the Nova music festival–a man who was very clear and insistent that the rapists were just ordinary men and NOT Hamas militants at all.

Making matters much worse, the family of one supposed Israeli rape victim at the center of the New York Times story came forward to say that she was definitively not raped, with her sister stating, “At 6:51, Gal sent us a message on WhatsApp saying ‘we are at the border, and you can’t imagine sounds of explosions around us.’ At 7 o’clock, my brother-in-law called his brother and said they shot Gal and she’s dying. It doesn’t make any sense that in four minutes, they raped her, slaughtered her, and burned her?”

At the New York Times, they’ll often turn their biggest stories into podcast episodes for The Daily, but The Intercept discovered in January that the episode was put on ice due to an inability to get past basic fact-checking.

Finally, just last week The Intercept published a lengthy, detailed investigation that exposes the New York Times article, and the previous statements from Israel, as blatant propaganda. Anat Schwartz, who prior to this investigation had liked posts on social media suggesting Gaza be turned into a “slaughterhouse,” admitted that she was unable to find a single case of sexual assault reported to any hospitals, rape crisis centers, trauma recovery facilities, or sex assault hotlines, leading to her basing the entire story on testimony from people with a tenuous relationship with the truth, like a man who claimed to have seen “Arabic sentences that were written on entrances to houses … with the blood of the people that were living in the houses,” a thing that absolutely never happened. That man also claimed to have seen two sisters who had been raped and murdered, but investigators were unable to find anyone who matched the description of those girls in that kibbutz. In later interviews he changed it to a different kibbutz, which also had no girls fitting his description.

I encourage you to read The Intercept’s investigation in full because it is very, very important. There is absolutely no evidence for the idea that Hamas used rape as a weapon of war. Did Hamas militants commit any sexual assaults? Anyone who has ever studied any war in the history of humanity knows the answer is probably yes, just like it’s equally likely that IDF soldiers have sexually assaulted Palestinians, as documented in this report from experts at the UN who say there’s evidence for “Palestinian women and girls in detention (being) subjected to multiple forms of sexual assault, such as being stripped naked and searched by male Israeli army officers. At least two female Palestinian detainees were reportedly raped while others were reportedly threatened with rape and sexual violence,” the experts said. They also noted that photos of female detainees in degrading circumstances were also reportedly taken by the Israeli army and uploaded online.”

Sexual violence against women will always be an aspect of war. But the New York Times, along with Sheryl Sandberg, Kirsten Gillebrand, Hillary Clinton, and many others have spread blatant propaganda that Hamas planned to specifically rape and sexually assault women as a tactic of war. That apparent lie directly enabled Israel to continue a massacre that as of this recording has resulted in more than 30,000 dead Palestinians, 70% of whom are women and children, with thousands more missing and thousands more at risk of dying of starvation. These numbers are, according to researchers who published a study in December in the Lancet, extremely accurate.

And that’s why, when I first heard the terrible news about Hamas using rape as a war tactic, despite accepting that it was possible, I said exactly NOTHING. Because yes, I’m a feminist who has serious concerns about violence against women, but I’m also a critical thinker who understands that war, like natural catastrophes, by default comes with misinformation. And unlike earthquakes and hurricanes and floods, war also includes propaganda, purposeful disinformation, as a major component.

A few months back during my monthly Patreon livestream, someone asked how to go about fighting disinformation in this conflict, and the bad news is that the very best thing most of us can do is to do nothing. Do not hit that retweet button, or whatever cringey thing Elon Musk calls it now. Because there is simply no way for the average person to combat misinformation when the misinformation is something like “terrorists just beheaded 40 babies in one Israeli community.” I had friends sending me that, and all I could do was sound like an unsympathetic monster and say “well maybe we should just wait to be sure that’s confirmed.”

A friend expressed sadness that such a horrific crime had happened and that people seemed to care more about Israel’s immediate response than at this barbaric action, and sent me this strident Wonkette article published on October 11. “Raping people to death and chopping babies’ heads off is not “resisting,”” wrote Rebecca Schoenkopf, excoriating commenters who pointed out Israel’s complicity in the horror. “It amazes me that this needs to be said. And in no universe do I want to hear your acerbic asides about what Israel’s done to deserve it. Listen to your fucking self.

“I will ban the fuck out of you if you even look at me funny, if you manage to sneak in some pro-Hamas comments in a post on which I didn’t already disallow comments.”

Today we know with near certainty that the “40 beheaded babies” never existed, with no journalists ever being able to find a single scrap of evidence that it happened and the IDF never bothering to offer any, but even the day she published that piece, more serious people than me had already raised serious concerns about the validity of the IDF’s claim. It was very wholly in the “unconfirmed” bin. But here, Schoenkopf used it to stoke anger against not just Hamas, and not just against all Palestinians, but pointedly against people who quite rightly worried about Israel using the October 7th attack as an excuse to massacre Palestinians. 

By the time this claim was thoroughly investigated and debunked, it had already served its purpose: disgusting the average American into supporting the BILLIONS of tax dollars we give to Israel to rain bombs down upon houses and hospitals and refugee camps. When confronted with the truth the following day, instead of deleting her post, Shoenkopf merely edited in a note saying, well, her point still stands.

But as we cried over 40 babies who never existed, within that week Israel had murdered 724 Palestinian children. By the end of November, Israel had murdered an estimated 5,500 Palestinian children. And while the IDF still refused to share video or other evidence of the 40 decapitated babies, video WAS readily available to show five premature Palestinian babies who were left to die and decompose in Al-Nasr Hospital after the IDF, according to a nurse with Doctors Without Borders, forced doctors to abandon the hospital but assured the medical staff that they would take care of the patients. Despite a whole lot of evidence for this act, including the videos and the reports from the medical staff, confirmation from forensic pathologists, and additional reporting from a journalist who visited the hospital to confirm that the corpses were still there, the IDF ironically had this to say: “these allegations are not only false but also a perverse exploitation of innocent lives, used as tools to spread dangerous misinformation.”

Every accusation, a confession it seems.

Of course, this is also the first time I’m publicly discussing THAT story. Why? Because while there is far more evidence that it happened than for the 40 decapitated babies or the systemic use of rape, there is still uncertainty. Looking at the evidence, it seems to me that the only wiggle room is whether the babies did in fact die after the IDF forced doctors to evacuate or whether they died earlier due to the IDF bombing the area into a blackout and rendering the ventilators useless, but I don’t know what I don’t know. Any specific act of brutality might be clouded by the chaos that always accompanies war. All I can state without caveat is the broader picture: that Israel is massacring vast numbers of innocent Palestinians using guns and tanks and bombs paid for with my tax dollars and there should be a ceasefire and hostage negotiation right now.
Oh, and by the way, if you’ve lost faith in the New York Times, fear not! They’ve launched a full investigation…to find out which staffers leaked the newsroom debates to the Intercept.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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