A critical look at The New York Times' weaponisation of rape in service of Israeli propaganda

A critical look at The New York Times' weaponisation of rape in service of Israeli propaganda
Randa Abdel-Fattah unpacks how allegations of mass rape have been deployed to justify genocide in Gaza, a phenomenon race-critical feminists have seen before.
10 min read
30 Jan, 2024
Since the report was published, sources have accused NYT of manipulating the story, while journalists and MENA feminist organisations have discredited many of its claims. [Getty]

This article was first published in Palestine Square, the blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies. It is republished with permission. 

On Dec. 28, 2023, The New York Times published the now infamous “‘Screams Without Words': How Hamas Weaponised Sexual Violence on Oct. 7” by Jeffrey Gettleman, Anna Schwartz, and Adam Sella. The ‘report' purported to “uncover[s] new details showing a pattern of rape, mutilation and extreme brutality against women in the attacks on Israel.” It went viral globally.

However, in the case of Israeli claims of mass rape on Oct. 7,  all standards of evidence and accountability have been suspended by institutionally powerful players, including Human Rights Watch. Indeed, those who demand that Israel be held to the same standards as everyone else are accused of antisemitism. 

And so here we are. Even though Israeli police admit that they still have no victims or eyewitnesses; even though the sister of the report's primary victim, Gal Abdush, has publicly denied that her sister was raped, accusing The New York Times of manipulating her family for the story; and even though there is no forensic evidence, and there are questions to be answered about the reliability and independence of the supposed witnesses and their testimonies put forward so far, the mass rape claims are still actively being circulated and given credence by elites in the media and those with institutional power. 

What does it, therefore, say about the level of anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia that the reflexive position of so many ‘progressives' is to dismiss demands for an anti-racist, anti-rape discourse as ‘whataboutism'?

"Does sexual violence against a particular group of women ever justify the systematic annihilation of another group to whom the alleged perpetrators belong?"

To even pose a question about why there are double standards in the case of Israel or why normative investigative practice is being suspended, ‘liberal feminists' resort to accusing those who take a critical intersectional approach of being ‘rape apologists' or ‘not believing Jewish women,' or ‘undermining the #MeToo movement,' or all of the above.

Israeli and U.S. government claims of mass sexual assault are not the ‘believe women' or #MeToo flex that they think it is.

#MeToo was a grassroots campaign originally started by community worker Tarana Burke to reach sexual assault survivors in marginalised communities, and, according to Burke, “a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”

It was about empowering women to speak up about their experiences and to expose cultures of rape and unwanted sexual advances. Especially in workplaces and industries, to raise awareness about consent, gaslighting victims, and exploitation.

‘Believe women' was a rallying cry borne in the specific context of the #MeToo movement. It was a slogan that drew attention to the underreporting of rape, its prevalence, and the histories of women's testimonies of sexual assault being dismissed, questioned and attacked because of a presumption that women lie about sexual assault or must have ‘acted or dressed' in such a way as to ‘invite' rape. ‘Believe women' was a statement mobilised in the context of foregrounding imbalances of power in he-said-she-said cases: how power is central to understanding the stakes for women who have everything to lose when accusing powerful men who have nothing to lose because of the protection afforded by structures and societies that privilege men.

At the centre of the ‘believe women' movement were women's voices. Voices that are often silenced, discredited, ridiculed, and treated with hostility and contempt. However, when a critical race lens is applied to the absolutism of ‘believe women,' particularly in settler colonial contexts that are highly racialised with histories of lynching and vigilante settler violence, pernicious claims put Black and Brown men and their communities at great risk.

To be clear, the allegations of mass rape have come from the Israeli regime, not women. This is where accountability is crucial. The compelling question here is if, indeed, women do come forward, and there is evidence to make a case for systematic rape, does this then justify genocide? To put it more clearly, does sexual violence against a particular group of women ever justify the systematic annihilation of another group to whom the alleged perpetrators belong?

It seems no one is willing to countenance that question being asked out loud, let alone be answered.

We are thus compelled to intervene assertively as race-critical feminists. We are confronted with the political reality that sexual assault against Israeli women is being weaponised in the service of manufacturing consent for genocide against Palestinian men, women, and children in Gaza.

Or, as many have stated, the allegation of mass rape is being deliberately deployed to justify the mass slaughter of Palestinian people in Gaza, to justify domicide — the mass destruction of civic infrastructure and homes in Gaza, and to justify the forcible transfer of Palestinian people from Gaza.

In anyone's language, this is an abomination and must be called out regardless of white liberal feminist aggression, regardless of false accusations of antisemitism, and institutional attempts to silence Arab feminists, critics of Zionist atrocities, and those simply calling for a ceasefire.

This is the truth we land on. It is emphatically not anti-woman, anti-feminist, or antisemitic to name the political context in which the systematic rape allegations are being made. It is urgent that we call out rape atrocity propaganda and remind that this stratagem has historically been one of the most potent weapons used by White power to discredit, demonise, diabolise, and destroy Black and Brown men and to deflect sympathy from those resisting oppression to the actual oppressors, and finally to justify lethal responses.

Race-critical feminists have filled libraries with books and writings on the historical and contemporary iterations of rape atrocity propaganda in the service of war, imperialism, and maintaining racial hierarchies.

In the violent settler colony of Australia from where I write, Indigenous scholars such as Larissa Behrendt and Judy Atkinson have written about systematic sexual abuse of and assaults against Aboriginal women by White Australian colonialists as a function of conquest. Angela Davis' seminal text, “Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist” (1981), showed how the racist trope of the African American rapist was mobilised after the Civil War to justify lynching and race hierarchies. Chicana scholar Antonia Castaneda has written about sexual violence waged against Amerindian Women in service of the Spanish conquest of Alta California.

In 2007, Lebanese-Australian feminist and scholar Paula Abood analyzed media representations of group sexual assaults that took place in south-west Sydney and interrogated how racial ideologies were mobilised within media texts to “present rape as a manifestation of Arab male bestiality” to “reassert racialised subject positions.”

"It is urgent that we call out rape atrocity propaganda and remind that this stratagem has historically been one of the most potent weapons used by White power to discredit, demonise, diabolise, and destroy Black and Brown men"

In the context of the mass rape claims allegations against Palestinians, invoking these histories of scholarship and activism is critical. It is telling that when the accused is Palestinian/Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim — always treated as interchangeable, stripped of their individual complexities and diverse identities — liberal and colonial feminists and many prominent progressives of colour have ended up on the same side of the argument as Israel's right-wing genocide-cheerleaders.

They have ended up on the same side as pro-Israel propagandists who are deliberately invested in whipping up genocide fervor and distracting attention from Israel's atrocities on Palestinians.

Israel's propagandists comprehend all too well that the racist trope of the predatory Palestinian/Muslim/Arab man is the legitimising monster that White feminists, liberals, and many progressives of colour — those who are the institutionalised experts on diversity and inclusion — feed on.

Thus, have we seen how the ‘rapist' has become a metonym that easily slides between words — ‘Hamas terrorist,' Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Gaza — because sustained global media and political narratives and moral panics have long stigmatised and maligned Palestinian/Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern men as deviant, violent, criminal, hypersexualised, misogynistic, barbaric, woman-hating.

Understanding this ideological and representational context means recognising that allegations by a colonising entity like Israel are made in specific racially charged and politically primed environments. Zionist propagandists understand that the racist constructs and Orientalist imaginings about Palestinian/Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern men are so deeply embedded and known that it is able to proffer hyper-inflammatory, gruesome stories and claims, produce no credible evidence, then refuse to participate in a UN commission tasked to investigate the allegations.

Zionists cry rape, and the world is shocked. Meanwhile, the Israeli Occupation Forces have committed grave and systematic sexual assault against Palestinian men, women, and children taken as hostages, human rights violations that the world doesn't want to know about. Where is the outrage? Where are the tweets, Instagram posts, TikTok videos, tears, and emotions for the routine violence Israel subjects Palestinians to?

The disproportionate investment and attention on phantom settler victims versus Palestinian women, girls, boys, and men whose sexual violence cases are supported by verified evidence and credited human rights reports says everything. Asking why unverified, sensationalised claims of rape against Israeli women went viral, whereas verified cases of rape against Palestinians have not exposes whose life and dignity are prioritised and whose are not.

This is not a ‘what about?' manoeuvre. No regime in the world has perfected whataboutism more than Israel: raise seventy-five years of settler colonial violence and apartheid, and Israel responds with ‘what about Oct. 7?' Raise over 30,000 civilians bombed to pieces by Israel in 93 days, starved and forcibly displaced, and Israel responds with ‘what about the Holocaust?' 

Whataboutism is a rhetorical shield; a disingenuous flex used by the guilty, by perpetrators, by those with blood — so much blood — on their hands. And it behoves us to hold people to account for those they speak up for and those they ignore. Because what we are witnessing is the specter of Jewish Zionist victimhood hinged on the mass rape claims when it is Palestinians who are the ones being subjected to a campaign of targeted, systematic slaughter.

The genocide in Gaza has exposed the performativity and selective compassion of so-called progressives. Mainstream liberal feminists, academics sitting in gender studies departments, women's advocacy groups, and gender-based violence campaigners who have accepted and shared Israel's mass rape claims, or remained silent, or who have not spoken out against the cynical use of rape atrocity propaganda to justify Israel's genocidal campaign have not only completely abandoned Palestinians in Gaza to the forces of militarised violence, they have exposed their own deep-seated racism and double standards.

I have absolutely no doubt that such ‘feminists' who have dog-eared pages of To Kill a Mockingbird would have sat in the courtrooms of America's Jim Crow-era southern states and silently watched on as Black men were accused of raping white women and duly sentenced to death.

Today, history offers liberals and feminists temporal distance to safely posture on Black Lives Matter as a disembodied performance via posting a temporary tile on social media. They don't have to care more than that because their lives are never affected by the racist violence of settler colonial forces. They are not emotionally invested in racial justice because race does not follow them home like an Israeli missile. The genocide in Gaza has exposed the pretense.

"The genocide in Gaza has exposed the performativity and selective compassion of so-called progressives"

And so, I ask: what is your human rights advocacy and feminism worth if you dismiss the critical insights and statements from Palestinian and MENA human rights and feminist organisations that have rejected The New York Times report and, crucially, declared that the weaponisation of rape and exploitation of women's bodies and experiences in the service of propaganda harms victims and undermines global efforts to address sexual violence? What is your human rights advocacy and feminism worth if you lend credence to war atrocity propaganda as genocide is unfolding on our screens?

The fact is that Israeli mass rape claims are so emblematic of wartime atrocity propaganda that you have to be deeply committed to and affirmed by the racist tropes of Palestinian men to suspend all critical thinking and, in doing so, consent to the genocide of Palestinian people in Gaza.

This is the sobering reality Palestinians face. The racism that animates hyper-attention over crimes imagined to have been committed against Israelis is the same racism that desensitises people to crimes actually committed against Palestinians.

Randa Abdel-Fattah is a Future Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University researching Arab/Muslim Australian radical social movements from the 1970s to date. She is also the award winning author of over 12 novels. 

Follow her on Twitter: @RandaAFattah 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.