Eilat Gang Rape: Israelis Protest Against Sexual Violence and Call for Change

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After the horrifying news of the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Eilat and the shock and demonstrations in Israel that followed, we felt it was important to cover this difficult story. I asked my colleague Sara Himeles to introduce this topic and write this piece. Here’s Sara:

When I first heard the news that a 16-year-old girl had been gang raped in Eilat, I was horrified. The initial reports of up to 30 men standing in line outside the girl’s hotel room were too depraved to imagine. While this would have upset me no matter where it occurred, the fact that it happened in Israel, the Jewish State, a place I love deeply, made it particularly troubling. What act could be more opposed to Jewish values than this? Of all places, how could this happen here?

Then I thought about what the girl is going through now and what lies ahead for her. Is she now being inundated with the kinds of questions that Chanel Miller was asked after being sexually assaulted? “How old are you? How much do you weigh? What did you eat that day? Well, what did you have for dinner? Who made dinner? Did you drink with dinner? No, not even water? When did you drink? How much did you drink? What container did you drink out of?”

We should all care about the events in Eilat. First, we should care because of the sheer horror of this incident and the dignity of every girl and every human being. Second, we should care because sexual violence affects everyone, not only women and girls or any single demographic. 

While according to the World Health Organization, the vast majority of victims of sexual violence are female, this crisis affects people of all genders. It also transcends race, religion, sexual orientation, and nationality. 

Finally, we all have a stake in this because evidence suggests the best predictor of a state’s security is how well its women are treated

Notwithstanding how painful this incident is, we wanted to break the silence that so often surrounds this issue. It is only by talking about it and having the difficult conversations — in our classrooms, around our dinner tables, and with our friends — that we will ultimately hold each other accountable and make our communities safer and better.

As always, we’re here to uncover, excavate, and explore the news coming out of Israel: the good, the bad, and the utterly bizarre. We take our responsibility seriously to make sure you are informed and have food for thought going into the week.

What did you think of our coverage of this difficult topic? Let us know by replying to this email.

Best,

Sara

We’re Curious…

Last week, thousands of Israelis protested nationwide after news broke that a 16-year-old girl was raped by up to 30 men in the southern resort town of Eilat. Testimony from several of the suspects indicated that a large group of men had lined up outside the hotel room of the girl, waiting their turn to rape her; bystanders failed to intervene.

Each of the suspects deny that they participated in the rape, as some claimed they were at the scene only to try to stop the assault. Fourteen people have been arrested in connection with the case, including the two primary suspects, both men in their late 20s from the northern Israeli town of Hadera. The rest of the suspects are under the age of 18. Security footage of public spaces of the Red Sea Hotel, where the incident took place, shows widespread underage drinking.

The Israel Police said, “the victim’s testimony was found to be reliable and has been strengthened by the evidence,” and indictments against the suspects could be filed this week.

According to Shani Moran, the girl’s attorney, the figure of “30 men” was provided by other suspects, not the girl herself. The girl said she was unable to count the men involved or see what was happening in the hallway. Moran has also said that “there’s a sick desire in the public” to see videos of the incident that were filmed by some of the suspects, and the girl is terrified that this footage will leak online.

The news sent shockwaves across Israel. In the demonstrations that followed, hundreds gathered in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, and in over 30 other locations across the country, including Haifa, Kiryat Ono, and Beersheba. Organizing under the banner “We won’t be silent anymore,” the protesters expressed their support for the girl and called for the government to take action to combat violence against women and girls. 

In a letter he addressed to Israel’s “youth” in response to the incident, President Reuven Rivlin said that instances of sexual violence are “destroying us as a society,” and urged young people to take a strong stance against sexual crimes.

The incident also drew a response from the private sector and organizations, including Microsoft in Israel and the Jewish Agency, which announced a brief work strike to call attention to sexual violence and demand government reforms. According to the women’s group Building an Alternative, the hour-long strike was held “to protest the growing violence against women and girls in Israel, and lack of sufficient punishment.”

To be sure, while this disturbing incident follows other high-profile rape cases in Israel over the past year, it is part of a worldwide problem of sexual violence and violence against women and girls. 

Why did this particular incident lead thousands of Israelis to protest? And what do activists, politicians, and others say it will take for the violence against women and girls to stop?

Reactions from President Rivlin and Other Leaders in Israel

Politicians and other leaders in Israel expressed outrage at the news and condemned the attack. 

One of the most significant responses came from President Reuven Rivlin, who published a letter addressed to young men and women on his Facebook page.

“These days are days of madness and a loss of routine,” he wrote. “Sexual assault, rape, sexual exploitation, and sexual violence are stains that cannot be erased. These are instances of an unforgivable loss of boundaries and are destroying us as a society.” He concluded with the message: “Do not stand aside. Do not take part in the silence.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it “is not only a crime against the girl, it is a crime against humanity itself,” and Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli asserted: “It is our duty as a society and a state to viciously fight the culture which allows for such horrid incidents to occur.”

Joint List party member Aida Touma-Suleiman, who formerly served as the chair of the government’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, said the girl “deserves a support system, which will back her claims with the required sensitivity, and quickly collect forensic evidence.”

The Israel Women’s Network, an organization dedicated to promoting gender equality in Israel, said in a statement: “The life of a young woman was shattered into pieces. Our heart is with her.”

Finally, in an opinion piece published last week, the Jerusalem Post Editorial Board wrote: “Rivlin is right. This does ruin us.” They argued that Israel’s schools should teach students “values, what is right and wrong, [and] how to treat the other” and “hold discussions on what is happening among our youth. Eilat and Aiya Napa cannot be allowed to become the new norm.”

Sexual Violence: A Worldwide Problem

In the Ayia Napa case, which took place in the summer of 2019, 12 Israeli men and teens were arrested in Cyprus after a British tourist said they gang raped her at the Ayia Napa tourist resort. 

The group was released after Cyprus police said the woman retracted the allegations. While the charges against the suspects were dropped, many Israelis were appalled when they were met with scenes of celebration upon their return to Israel at Ben Gurion Airport. 

In June, two top Israeli soccer players were suspected of committing statutory rape with two girls. The girls received threats on social media when their claims were made public.

Organizers of the protests in the wake of the Eilat incident said, “This case does not stand alone and is a direct continuation of the way in which the ‘youths’ from Ayia Napa were received, and a direct continuation of the public discourse surrounding the soccer players’ affair.”

Israelis demonstrate in Tel Aviv against sexual assault on August 23, 2020.

These incidents are part of concerning statistics related to sexual violence in Israel and around the world. According to an annual survey released by the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI) last year, nine out of 10 rape cases in Israel are closed by prosecutors without charge. The report also found that in 2018, the number of rapes that were reported to the police increased by 12 percent compared to 2017 and by 40 percent compared to 2013.

According to the Jerusalem Post, “not all rapes are reported to the police because of the trauma involved or the difficulty in getting rape kits, which are available at only five hospitals in Israel. Only about 10% of the victims who call ARCCI also file police reports.”

This problem is a worldwide issue. According to the World Health Organization, one in three women will experience either physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.

In the diagram below, which shows data from the organization’s 2013 report, “high income countries” include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Israel. It should be noted that this category of countries had the lowest prevalence of these cases worldwide, and Israel’s rate was significantly lower compared to other countries in the Middle East.

Women and girls are not the only victims; research indicates that at least one in six men has experienced sexual abuse or assault. Overall, the LGBTQ community is at similar or greater risk of sexual violence.

In Israel, the calls for government action by demonstrators include: educational initiatives related to gender equality and sexual violence; changes to the justice system, including stiffer punishments for individuals convicted of sexual crimes; better medical support for victims; and making the issue of sexual violence a priority in the Israeli government.

Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of ARCCI, said she hoped this case would lead to reforms, adding, “This case is so severe that it touched the heart of so many people in Israel.”

The Tragedy of Pilegesh B’Givah (The Concubine of Givah)

For us, the gang rape of the girl in Eilat brings to mind one of the most horrifying stories in the entire Torah: the tragedy of Pilegesh B’Givah, the concubine of Givah. The story is found in the final chapters of the Book of Judges (Shoftim 19 – 21). In the Tanakh, the term “concubine” can refer to a marital companion of secondary status who can still enjoy the same rights as the legitimate wife in the household.

To summarize this story: A Levite man and his concubine are traveling from Beit Lehem to their house in Ephraim. They stop in the Benjaminite city of Givah along the way. A local man takes them in for the night, but soon a mob of “depraved men” from the city surround the house and pound at the door. The Levite man pushes his concubine outside the door to appease the men. The men rape and abuse her all through the night until the morning, leaving her to die. The Levite man cuts up the woman into 12 pieces and sends them to each of the tribes of Israel. Ultimately, this act leads to a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the other 11 tribes. This story concludes with the verse (which is repeated throughout the Book of Judges): “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did as he pleased” (literally, “what was right in his own eyes”).

Many Bible scholars have argued that the horrifying story of the concubine of Givah is connected to broader moral issues in society at the time.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Sinensky has argued in Lehrhaus: “The moral depravity of some members of Shevet Binyamin is a mere extreme manifestation of the larger breakdown in Israelite society during the period of the Judges.”

Noting that the story of Lot and his daughters in Bereishit 19 parallels that of the concubine of Givah, Dr. Noam Weissman suggested that when the prophet Samuel wrote this story, he used the terms of Sodom to show what a Jewish town that lacked leadership and guidance had turned into. He argued “that a perversion of justice and creating a society that takes advantage of the other is something each and every community needs to be cautious about, regardless of religious affiliation or political denomination.”

Creating a More Just Society

The gang rape in Eilat reminds us that the Jewish State — and humanity — has work to do. Following President Rivlin’s guidance, we need to take this issue seriously. What will it take to prevent incidents like this from happening?

The refrain from Judges, “There was no king in Israel: every man did what was right in his own eyes” suggests that leadership and moral guidance are key to creating healthy societies. As Israeli commentators have pointed out, this leadership and guidance not only is needed in the government, but also in our schools, homes, synagogues and communities.

This incident also serves as a powerful reminder that Israel and the Jewish people — like every other community — are fallible. Too often, we assume that kids born to Jewish parents are incapable of committing the worst crimes simply because they were born to Jewish parents. Or we arrogantly think being Jewish means we automatically stand on a higher ethical ground.

But our morality as individuals and a community can never be assured. The Jewish philosopher Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz has said: “The uniqueness attributed to the Jews is not a gift granted to the people as their everlasting property. Instead, it is a demand, a mission and a task imposed on the people, a goal to which they must aspire eternally, with no guarantee they ever will be.”

Or as Noam Weissman has put it, “Educationally, the way to think about it is that the Jews are not the Chosen People per se. The Jews are commanded to be the Chosen People. We are not called on because we are better, but to be better.”

This idea has deep theological roots. In Bereshit 19:18, the verse states that God chose Abraham knowing he would “command his children and posterity to…do what is just and right.” The verse does not say the Jewish people are inherently just or righteous, but rather, that we have a responsibility to behave this way in every generation.

If we don’t take our Torah and our religious values seriously, then a Jewish town can easily become like any other town. By the same token, when we commit to those values and guide our young people, we perpetuate a culture of justice and decency. Which path will we choose?

The Bottom Line

The shocking nature of the recent gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Eilat, following other high-profile cases of rape involving Israelis, led thousands to protest against sexual violence and demand change. Activists are calling for educational programs, changes to the justice system and better medical support for victims. The story of Pilegesh B’Givah suggests that addressing the larger moral breakdowns in society — particularly attitudes toward women and sexual violence — is critical to confronting the culture in which rape occurs and ensuring a world that is safe for everyone.

A Few (Virtual) Classroom Tips:

  1. Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion famously said, “When Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we’ll be a state just like any other.” On the one hand, Ben-Gurion’s vision of Zionism was for Israel to become a “normal” state. On the other hand, Ben-Gurion also said, “By these will the State be judged: By the moral character it imparts to its citizens; by the human values determining its inner and outward relations; and by its fidelity, in thought and act, to the supreme behest: ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” This suggests that the purpose of the Jewish State is not just to be another state, but to be exceptional. In what ways do you think the Jewish State should be a “normal” state? In what ways should it be exceptional? When Ben-Gurion said “when Israel has prostitutes and thieves,” do you think he meant this literally, or do you think this was just to make a broader point?
  2. Depending on your students’ Hebrew skills, ask your students to read President Rivlin’s letter addressed to young Israelis, or read and translate it with them. Rivlin writes that “Some of our biggest difficulties as human beings begin when we lose a boundary.” Rivlin talks about the importance of setting boundaries for you and those around you. What do you think he means by this? Can you think of any examples of social or societal boundaries? 
  3. Share this video of recent protests against sexual violence in Israel in the aftermath of the Eilat assualt. What was your experience like watching this video? Does the fact that this happened in Israel as opposed to somewhere else change your response in any way?
  4. In the aftermath of the Eilat assault, Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli said: “It is our duty as a society and a state to viciously fight the culture which allows for such horrid incidents to occur, and support the victims as much as possible.” While he did not use this term, some feminists and scholars discuss the idea of “rape culture.” This suggests we should look to larger conditions of culture rather than focus on single events. What do you think of this approach? Do you relate to the idea that problems in our society reflect bigger issues in our culture?
  5. The concept of “chosenness” has long challenged the Jewish people. The controversial Jewish philosopher Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz has said: “The uniqueness attributed to the Jews is not a gift granted to the people as their everlasting property. Instead, it is a demand, a mission and a task imposed on the people, a goal to which they must aspire eternally, with no guarantee they ever will be.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, in agreement with this idea: “A prophet is not an oracle: a prophecy is not a prediction.” On the other hand, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, rejected this interpretation, arguing that “by no kind of dialectics is it possible to remove the odium of comparison from any reinterpretation of an idea which makes invidious distinctions between one people and another.” Which of these perspectives do you agree with more? How do you relate to the idea of the Jews being “chosen”?

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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