My name is Dr. Miryam Sivan and I am a fiction writer and lecturer in literature at the University of Haifa in Israel. I am originally from New York City and it was growing up on the ‘tough’ city streets that caused my feminist consciousness and inevitable recognition of male predation to be formed. For decades I was involved in Holocaust stories and the silence around sexual violence inflicted on Jewish women during the war always seemed ‘off’ to me. I am not a historian so I did not research primary archival sources to unearth the violence that did occur, but as a literary critic I focused on the threads of this violence as seen in testimonial literature and fiction. My article on the Polish-Israeli writer, Yehiel Dinur, whose early novels were concerned with sexual predation in the concentration camps, was included in Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. Published in 2010, decades after the war ended! it was the first scholarly volume that dealt with the topic. For many years I have been an Advisory Board member of Remember the Women Institute, dedicated to “including women in history since 1997,” including the exposure and dissection of gender based violence. In 2014 I published a short story collection, SNAFU and Other Stories in which one story, “Traffic,” deals explicitly with this kind of violence. In 14 short vignettes I ‘expose’ scenarios in the various religious and ethnic communities of Israel where women’s bodies are violated not in exceptional ways but in socially ‘common’ ways. In Israel where there is no separation of religion and state, outdated and misogynistic religious laws still govern women’s lives to a frightening degree.
How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?
I think the Shiloh Project is engaged in important and wonderful work. I think your range of articles is extensive and highly informative.
In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?
In April 2019 my novel, Make it Concrete, will be published in New York. It is a story about a woman who ghostwrites Holocaust memoirs while her own mother, a Holocaust survivor, will not talk about her war time experiences. To avoid ‘spoilers’ I won’t give any more details, but I can say that sexual violence and its repercussions play a critical role in the unfolding narrative drama.
I will continue to include in my curriculum, particularly in my Literature of the Holocaust course, literary texts that deal openly with sexual violence. In my Israel Stories course (both these courses are in the International School of the University of Haifa – with students from many countries) we read texts and watch films that directly show how religious Jewish law blatantly and unapologetically discriminates against women.
In addition, I am working on a screenplay about a sexual predator and the atmosphere of male privilege which is part and parcel of patriarchal religions and the societies they are a part of will be highlighted and critiqued.
Today’s post is by Simon Phillips. Simon is a Community Engagement Officer for West Yorkshire Police and the Director of Interfaith for the Leeds Jewish Representative Council.
Much of the public discourse of ‘violence’ on the one hand and ‘Jews’ or ‘Judaism’ on the other, focuses on anti-Semitic violence. The gender-based forms of anti-Semitic violence have featured previously in a Shiloh post by Miryam Sivan (see here).
This post, however, looks instead at domestic violence within Jewish communities and at how men and boys can be and are engaged in resisting and bringing an end to gender-based violence.
Simon is actively involved in the White Ribbon Campaign. Please read and get your ribbons ready for 25 November.
The White Ribbon Campaign is an increasingly popular campaign to encourage men and boys to take a stand against domestic violence. The Campaign was founded in 2007 and works with men and boys to challenge those male cultures that lead to harassment, abuse and violence.
Some of these cultures incorporate elements of religion and belief, because understandings of domestic violence – including physical, sexual, financial and emotional violence – are influenced, too, by biblical and other scriptural sources. Some examples from Judaism are cited below.
Volunteer ‘ambassadors’ of the Campaign engage with other men and boys towards eliminating domestic violence and to promote, instead, a culture of equality and respect. Men and boys wear white ribbons as a symbol of engagement in the endeavour to end violence against women and girls. This is particularly visible on 25th November, the UN Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Interesting, including from a faith perspective, is that the white ribbon was since its foundation in 1873, the badge of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The white ribbon was initially selected to symbolize purity. But in this Campaign the white ribbon is a symbol for anti-violence against women, as well as for safe motherhood, and related causes.
We know that whilst anyone can be at risk of domestic violence, irrespective of cultural or religious background, some forms of violence against women and girls are very much rooted in culture or religion. This includes Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Forced Marriage and Honour-Based Abuse (for a Shiloh post on forced marriage and honour-based violence, see here).
An estimated 66,000 women living in England and Wales have been subject to FGM. Meanwhile, in 2017 alone, the Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage in 1,196 cases. 73% involved female victims. The oldest victim was 100 and the youngest a mere 2 years old.
In my capacity as White Ribbon Ambassador, I am currently co-ordinating a project with the Leeds Jewish community. This project is funded by the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Safer Communities Fund and is aimed at raising awareness of the Campaign, through engaging with a range of community organisations across the Jewish religious spectrum.
The project is entitled Shalom Bayit, which is Hebrew and means ‘Peaceful Home’ or ‘Peace in the Home’. The project aims to empower Jewish men and boys to stand up against domestic violence. The term sh’lom beto (Hebrew for ‘peace of his home’) is found in the Talmud and refers to domestic peace in general. Nowadays, it is mostly used with reference to matrimonial peace. Shalom bayit signifies completeness, wholeness, and fulfillment. Hence, traditionally, the ideal Jewish marriage is characterized by peace, nurturing, respect, and chesed (roughly meaning ‘kindness’, or ‘loving-kindness’), through which a married couple becomes complete. It is believed that God’s presence dwells in a pure and loving home. I return to Jewish perspectives on violence in due course.
There are various reasons why abuse might be prevalent in faith communities and these reasons coexist with wider societal beliefs, perceptions and stereotypes about male roles and character traits – such as the stereotype of the man as head of the family who is strong, powerful, a leader, competitive and authoritarian.
Some of these attitudes and behaviours are reinforced by religious doctrines and have sometimes had devastating consequences, particularly for women and girls. This has led some police forces to consider the introduction of misogyny as a separate strand of hate crime. Faith communities (and I am not confining myself here to Jewish communities) are sometimes characterized by:
Let me focus again on Judaism. Ironically, Judaism’s emphasis on family life and family values can be the very thing that makes it difficult for women suffering domestic abuse to come forward and ask for help. All too often, Jewish women may remain silent in the face of abuse on account of shame, embarrassment, a feeling of guilt, or of fear that they will not be believed. They may feel alone, that no-one else has experienced what they have and that, somehow, the abuse must be their fault.
Research undertaken and information disseminated in the last ten years by the dedicated service Jewish Women’s Aid, highlights the scale of the problem and the need for a cross-communal response in dealing with this complex issue.
The 2011 research, ‘You know a Jewish woman experiencing domestic abuse: Domestic abuse in the British Jewish Community’, reveals the following:
Looking back at Jewish Scriptures, acts of sexual assault and abuse against women are regularly viewed in terms of violating male property rights (e.g. Deuteronomy 22:29). The husband is sometimes termed ba’al (‘master’), implying ownership and lordship. If a wife is physically harmed by someone, compensation is paid to her husband (e.g. Exodus 21:22). In the Mishnah and Talmud, too, there is no discussion of wife-beating as a distinct category of violence. Yet there is discussion around immodest behaviour considered worthy of punishment, which includes ‘going out with uncovered head, spinning wool with uncovered arms in the street, [and] conversing with every man’.
Responsa literature, which includes rabbinic rulings, including on domestic abuse (7th-10th century C.E.), sees some declaring wife-beating unlawful, while others justify it under certain circumstances. Striking a wife without a reason is forbidden by all. However, violence against ‘bad wives’ is justified if it is for ‘educational’ purposes, or if a wife is not performing the duties required of her by Jewish law, or if she behaves immodestly, or curses her parents, husband, or in-laws.
Moving next to Jewish medieval attitudes in the Muslim World, Rabbi Yehudai b. Nahman (Yehudai Gaon, 757–761) writes that: ‘…when her husband enters the house, [a wife] must rise and cannot sit down until he sits, and she should never raise her voice against her husband. Even if he hits her she has to remain silent, because that is how chaste women behave’ (Otzar ha-Ge’onim, Ketubbot 169–170). Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) recommends beating a ‘bad wife’ as an acceptable form of discipline: ‘A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod’ (Ishut 21:10).
In medieval Europe, attitudes in Jewish writings tend to reflect a Jewish society in which women held comparatively high social and economic status and many writings reject wife-beating without any qualification. Rabbi Peretz b. Elijah, for instance, writes: ‘one who beats his wife is in the same category as one who beats a stranger’. Some Rabbis considered violence as grounds for forcing a man to give a get (that is, a divorce agreement). Rabbi Simhah argued that like Eve, ‘the mother of all living’ (Genesis 3:20), a wife is given to a man for living, not for suffering.
Sixteenth century views acknowledge that wife-beating is wrong, yet tend to avoid releasing a woman from a bad marriage and Halakhah (Jewish law) is based on husbands’ dominant position in marriage. In more modern times, too, domestic abuse is not automatic grounds for Jewish divorce. An abused woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce is considered an agunah, a chained or anchored woman.
The depiction of domestic abuse in Jewish sources through time is, therefore, mixed and sometimes ambiguous.
The stimulus for my current community project is the partnership between, on the one hand, the Leeds City Council’s Domestic Violence Unit and, on the other, a range of Leeds faith communities. This partnership encourages religious and lay leaders, as well as other members of faith communities, to engage with the White Ribbon Campaign. One way to do this is through posting ‘selfies’ to make participants’ support visible and public.
Last year in November I organised a roadshow at the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Community Centre in Leeds to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Along with members of Jewish and other faiths, I sourced quotations from many sacred scriptures to demonstrate that in accordance with portions of sacred text abuse against women and girls isn’t justified or legitimate. Acknowledging, as illustrated above, that in Judaism certainly, scope for ambiguity exists, it is these passages the Campaign seeks to highlight.
Here are some examples:
The project seeks to demonstrate that a community-wide response can publicize and challenge domestic violence, alongside informing and empowering those who stand up to it. Shalom Bayit, maintaining peace and harmony in the home, is often seen as primarily a female responsibility, when it needs to be everyone’s responsibility.
Jewish Women’s Aid does a fantastic job in helping hundreds of women locally and nationally whose lives have been blighted by domestic abuse. But more needs to be done in terms of preventative (rather than just reactive) measures if we are to break the vicious cycle. One way of doing that, I believe, is to engage with men and boys inside the community.
The project is aligned with wider campaigns on domestic abuse led by both Jewish Women’s Aid and the West Yorkshire Police. The funding we’ve secured from the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Safer Communities Fund will go some way towards enabling us to deliver the next phase of the project to a much wider audience over an extended period of time, and in doing so, we will have a much greater impact on both preventing and addressing the key issues surrounding domestic abuse against women and girls.
I would welcome your participation and involvement.
On Wednesday 10th October members of our White Rose Collaboration Fund Project met for an update.
The White Rose Collaboration Fund is designed to support emerging collaborative activities across the three White Rose universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Our project focuses on using religious imagery in popular culture to explore and challenge everyday sexism, sexual harassment and abuse together with secondary school students.
In consultation with secondary schools from all three White Rose regions and Fearless Futures, a third-sector organization offering gender equality training for school-age girls, the network will conduct three pilot workshops with secondary school students (girls and boys) to investigate interactions with religious imagery in popular culture and the ways in which these representations shape understandings of gender, sex and sexualities.
Members of the White Rose universities involved in the project include Professor Vanita Sundaram (University of York), Professor Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds), Dr Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), Dr Meredith Warren (University of Sheffield), Dr Valerie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), Dr Jasjit Singh (Unversity of Leeds), Dr Caroline Starkey (University of Leeds), Sofia Rehman (University of Leeds), Dr Sarah Olive (University of York) an Emma Piercy (University of York).
As usual, the meeting buzzed with energy, ideas and enthusiasm. We’re very much looking forward to working with our partners Fearless Futures and the local schools. We’ll update again after our training!
Today’s post is by Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris, Principal of Leo Baeck College in London, where she also lectures in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), with a particular interest in the Megillot (the Scrolls, which comprise the books of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther). The book of Ruth is the second of the Megillot and widely celebrated as a women’s book and pastoral idyll. But how apt is this characterisation?
What does the book of Ruth have to do with rape culture? Surely the book of Ruth is little more than a rural idyll, a romantic novella, the slightest of short stories. Everyone in the story seems so kind to each other. It’s the stuff of rather old fashioned Hollywood films. [At least ones from 1961. You can watch the whole film, The Story of Ruth here.]
What could any of that have to do with rape?
Yet Wil Gafney writes about the book of Ruth precisely in the context of rape, where she points to the use of the Hebrew root n.ś.’ in Ruth 1:4. Reading this root in relation to its usage in Judges 21:23, Gafney writes that n.ś.’ should be translated in both of these situations as ‘rape marriage’. She also argues that Ruth’s relationship with Naomi amounts to ‘sexploitation’. Naomi, as a now childless and older widow, exploits Ruth’s youthful, fertile body alongside sexual stereotypes about foreign (Moabite) women in order to ensure fertility for Naomi’s clan and secure Naomi’s own wellbeing. Ruth is suffering from a version of Stockholm Syndrome, so enamored of her mother-in-law and without anywhere else to turn, that she is easy prey for Naomi. Ruth is a sexually exploited, trafficked woman, whose story has been dressed up as a romance by the majority (Israelite) culture, who benefit from her treatment.
The first time I read Gafney’s article, I was stunned. How could this charming little story, which I’ve read for years both as part of my sacred scriptures and of the annual observance of the Jewish festival of Shavuot, be the same story that Gafney was describing? How had I missed these undertones to the story? Like Molly Ringwald recently commenting on watching The Breakfast Club with her daughter, I wondered how I could ever read this text alongside my own nearly teenage daughter again. What messages would I be imparting to her, let alone my students?
For years, I have taught the book of Ruth both as a message about hesed, the traditional way in which the story has been read in Jewish communities, and more excitingly, I thought, as a straight ally to the LGBTQi community, as a story that celebrates a positive role model of love between women in the Hebrew Bible. For years I have given out Rebecca Alpert’s and Celena Duncan’s work on lesbian and bisexual readings (respectively) of Ruth as required reading for my students training for the progressive rabbinate alongside an article by Hugh Pyper, which posits a homosexual Boaz. All three have become firm favourites among my generally liberal-leaning trainee rabbis.
These articles, the stories they uncover in the text, were the ones I wanted to tell, to pass on to my children, my students, and my community. We are not the first humans in history to have found models of family life that fall outside the bounds of the nuclear family; why couldn’t Ruth’s story be one about a polyamorous family or a lesbian couple and their close gay male friend building a family together? In a time when liberal religious communities are working hard to be inclusive, that’s the story I’ve wanted to share.
But Gafney’s article unsettled me and, not only me, but my students as well. One student went so far as to suggest that Gafney should be ashamed of herself for writing her article. Largely my students have been highly resistant to Gafney’s reading, refusing to believe that n.ś.’ might actually mean ‘rape marriage’.
Yet not one of my students has ever turned up for class having done the philological work required to refute Gafney’s argument (which they are all more than capable of doing). They have returned time and again to Ruth’s declaration of commitment to Naomi in Ruth 1:16-17 as proof that the story depicts a relationship of mutual love, without ever asking themselves whether this passage is a dialogue or a monologue. They simply have not wanted to believe the possibilities that Gafney’s reading opens up.
Much of Gafney’s argument centres on questions of consent, beginning with her translation of the root n.ś.’, which has many meanings. But it’s only rarely used in relation to marriage. Aside from Ruth, the only other examples of n.ś.’ relating to marriage in the Hebrew Bible are in Judges, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 & 2 Chronicles.
The passage in Judges describes an act of abduction – the unmarried men of the tribe of Benjamin are instructed to go to a festival in Shiloh and when the women come out dancing, they are told to capture a woman and forcibly carry her off to marry. Rape-marriage seems like an accurate description of what is happening here. In Ezra and Nehemiah the root refers disparagingly to foreign women exclusively, but says nothing about whether the women were forced into marriage. Ezra and Nehemiah use the root pejoratively, but that doesn’t necessarily equal rape marriage. In Chronicles the root neither indicates rape nor does it seem pejorative. The linguistic evidence, therefore, for defining n.ś.’ as ‘rape marriage’ is mixed.
From a narrative perspective, Ruth 1: 4 is such a slight verse that there’s little to glean from it. In v. 3 Naomi’s husband dies and she is left with her two sons. In v. 4 the sons are married to Moabite women and remain in Moab for some ten years. In v. 6 both sons die and we learn only that Naomi is left without either sons or husband. The matter of whether Ruth or, indeed, Orpah consents to marriage with Machlon or Chilion is of no interest whatsoever in the Bible.
So does n.ś.’ mean rape marriage in Ruth 1:4 or not? Can we meaningfully judge whether Ruth is coerced into her marriage with Machlon? From the linguistic and narratalogical viewpoint, I think that at best we can say maybe, but the evidence is slight.
What about other issues of consent in the book of Ruth? Does Ruth have a meaningful choice about staying with Naomi when she returns to Bethlehem? Ruth’s speech in Ruth 1: 16-17 is evocative for many readers, but does it reflect an actual choice on Ruth’s part? For instance, does Ruth actually have a ‘mother’s home’ Ruth 1:8 to which to return? Does Ruth love Naomi and, if so, is that love reciprocated?
Each year I ask my students if the book of Ruth passes the Bechdel Test (originally for films). The rules of the Bechdel Test are as follows: ‘(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.’ This test helps frame our discussion of Ruth and Naomi’s relationship with each other, particularly around the matter of reciprocity.
Looking at Ruth 1: 8-19, in Ruth 1:8-9 Naomi addresses both Ruth and Orpah. In v.10 Ruth and Orpah reply, followed by Naomi’s response in vv.11-13. But Naomi speaks of husbands, sons, and marriage (all in a strictly patriarchal, heteronormative fashion), thus failing to pass the Bechdel test. In v.15 Naomi, experiencing that Ruth continues to cling to her, simply encourages Ruth to return home. In vv.16-17 Ruth commits herself very vocally to remaining with Naomi. In vv.15-17 we find no mention of husbands, sons, or marriage, but can these verses really be seen outside the context of vv.8-14?
More tellingly, we also find no verbal reply from Naomi to Ruth’s speech. Verse 19 simply states that Ruth and Naomi went to Bethlehem together. Naomi’s silence following Ruth’s speech seems to imply that she consents to Ruth accompanying her, but it tells us nothing about whether she reciprocates Ruth’s feelings. The Bechdel Test was designed to assess whether female film characters have an independent life outside of their relationship to male characters. In asking whether Ruth loves Naomi and whether Naomi reciprocates, part of what we are asking is whether Ruth and Naomi are capable of having a relationship of any sort outside of the patriarchal and heteronormative society in which the story is set. Naomi’s silence in v. 19 is a yawning gap in the text, but we must at least consider that Naomi does not reciprocate Ruth’s feelings.
If that is the case, what are Naomi’s motivations in acquiescing to Ruth’s desire to return with her? Does Naomi prey on Ruth’s vulnerabilities to gain access to fertility, and hence, status for herself? Is Naomi trapped, too, by the constraints of a patriarchal society? Can she both genuinely care for Ruth and at the same time be guilty of exploiting Ruth’s fertility? What would that mean for Ruth’s consent? How much of Naomi’s motivations would Ruth know or fully understand? What could consent mean for either Ruth or Naomi in a situation where they are both so potentially restricted in their choices that choice has little meaning?
The text of the book of Ruth is concise. The questions I have asked are not easily answered, because the text provides us precious few clues to determine the motivation of the characters. We must infer much and what we infer will undoubtedly at least in part stem from the perspectives we bring with us as readers.
I have wanted Ruth to be a role model for the acceptance of difference in Jewish communities, because that is a cause close to my heart and my theology. Equally, I have no personal or direct experience of sex trafficking. I am conscious, therefore, that my reading of Ruth has been shaped by my own theological imperatives.
My discomfort with the idea of Ruth being a story of sexploitation and human trafficking is not because these themes are absent from Ruth, but because they do not fit the story that I have wanted to tell. Equally, these themes are not such an obvious or straightforward read from the text. They are present in the questions I have been asking and rely on the answers we give, which depend to some large extent on our own imaginations.
The meaning of n.ś.’ is not as clear cut as Gafney would have us believe, but nor is her reading impossible. The exact nature of the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is not easy to pin down, but instead multi-layered, intersectional, and ambiguous. Rather than either/or, it may and/and – both affection and abuse and both limited by the nature of biblical circumstances.
 Gafney, Wil 2009 ‘Mother Knows Best: Messianic Surrogacy and Sexploitation in Ruth’, in Mother Goose, Mother Jones, Mommie Dearest, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan and Tina Pippin (eds), Atlanta: SBL, pp. 23-36.
 Alpert, Rebecca 1996 ‘Finding our Past: A Lesbian Interpretation of the Book of Ruth’, in Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story, Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (eds), New York: Ballantine Books, pp. 91-96.
Ducan, Celena M. 2000 ‘The Book of Ruth: On Boundaries, Love, and Truth’, in Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, Robert E. Goss and Mona West (eds), Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, pp. 92-102.
Pyper, Hugh 2013 ‘Boaz Reawakened: Modelling Masculinity in the Book of Ruth’, in Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J. A. Clines, James K. Aitken, Jeremy M. S. Clines, and Christl M. Maier (eds), Atlanta: SBL, pp. 445-458.
Abstract: When American Jewish writers write about sexual violence against Jewish women in the Holocaust, they talk around the subject. Rape is implied. Sexual slavery described in broad strokes. Euphemisms abound to explain scenes in which women use sex in an attempt to bargain their way to survival. By contrast, when Israeli Jewish women write about sexual victimization during World War Two, there is a direct attention to detail; in fact, the sexual sadism experienced by the female characters is often a central point of the text. My talk will explore how the literary treatment of rape can act as a litmus test for a community’s sense of vulnerability or, its opposite, self-assurance, while keeping in mind that obfuscation and euphemism are linguistic acts of denial seeded in the Biblical story of Abraham and Sara’s first sojourn into Egypt.
This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.
Her short fiction has appeared in Lilith, Arts and Letters, Wasafiri, Jewish Quarterly, and other publications. A collection of short stories, SNAFU and Other Stories was published in 2015. Her novel, Make it Concrete, will be published in the fall of 2018 by Cuidono Press in NYC.
Header image: Taken from the cover of “And the Rat Laughed” by Nava Semel
Negotiating the Silence: Sexual Violence in Israeli Holocaust Fiction
Dr Miryam Sivan
Miryam Sivan lectures at the University of Haifa. Her research interests include contemporary American and Israeli literature and literature of the Shoah, and she has written about authors such as Cynthia Ozick and James Baldwin. She is also a creative writer and has authored a number of short stories, a novel, Make it Concrete (to be published in April 2019, with another, Love Match, undergoing revisions), and a collection of short fiction, SNAFU and other Stories. The essay below is based on Miryam’s presentation at the Religion and Rape Culture Conference organized by the Shiloh Project in July 2018.
‘Do you remember the three girls that were taken out one night for an orgy? The Germans were drunker than ever. At dawn two of them crawled back, their bodies bruised all over. The third girl had been rolled up in a carpet, her long hair hanging out of one end, dragged into the garden, and set on fire. The drunken Germans stood and watched the hair, flaring up readily, and the smell of burnt flesh filled the rooms until the wind blew. One of the girls told us, before she was taken to the doctor and never returned, that the Germans had strangled her friend while violating her body. In the morning the other girl began to spew blood. She came to my room for shelter and showed me the fist marks on her lower abdomen.’
Savyon Liebrecht, ‘Morning in the Park among the Nannies,’ Apples from the Desert: Selected Stories
To write about the Holocaust is to enter into dialogue with an extreme epoch of Jewish vulnerability and helplessness. Writing about sexual violence committed against Jewish women during the Holocaust highlights this. In fiction by Israeli writers Savyon Liebrecht and Nava Semel few details of these atrocities are spared. The sadism and perverse violence to which some Jewish women were subjected is exposed in their stories, making readers inadvertent ‘witnesses’ to this significant Holocaust accounting.
Israeli writers came to the Holocaust as a subject for their work in the 1980s. This rather late entrance reflects a predilection in Israeli society for creating psychological distance. There are a number of reasons for this: the depth of Holocaust trauma caused some degree of collective repression; there was a great need for post-war Jews, both survivors and those already living in pre-State Israel, to ‘normalize’; the heroic narrative of the New Jew returned to the historical homeland actively rejects the image of the diaspora Jew going passively to the slaughter; survivors were judged for having made it through the war ‘by any means necessary’. Today we recognize the injustice and immorality of this kind of victim blaming. But back then, in the first decades after the war, energies in the Jewish world were dedicated to rebuilding – and trauma was repressed, suspended.
There were exceptions, both in terms of individuals talking about their experiences and writers writing about them. A handful of Hebrew language novels published prior to the mid-1980s deal with the Holocaust – but these were small glimmers of light in what was otherwise a virtual black hole in Modern Hebrew literature about the Holocaust.
The forty year time-span may not be a coincidence. In the Bible, when the children of Israel leave Egypt, God understands that the impact of hundreds of years of slavery can not be washed away in one sea-crossing, no matter how miraculous. The generation born in Egypt has to die out and only their children and grandchildren, raised in freedom, can enter and take possession of the Promised Land. Hazal, Judaism’s traditional scholars, called the Egyptian-born Israelites Dor Hamidbar, ‘the Desert Generation’. Forty years of wandering in the liminality of Sinai constructed a new identity for their progeny.
A similar weaning away from diasporic exilic mentality occurred in 20th century Israel. The first generation raised in Israel, many children of survivors among them, lifted the veil of silence around the Holocaust. In 1985, exactly forty years after the war ended, Nava Semel’s collection of short stories, A Hat of Glass, was the first book of contemporary Hebrew fiction that deals with second-generation trauma. Its title story, ‘A Hat of Glass’, was also about sexual violence against women during the war. This story, this book, was too loaded for Israeli society to embrace it and Semel’s book received little attention.
A year later, in 1986, David Grossman’s post-modern novel See: Under Love was published. This book also deals with the Holocaust and with first- and second-generation trauma, but its highly intellectual language and structure create emotional distance. Naturally, Grossman being a man helped his brilliant novel receive the attention it duly deserves. And naturally, Semel being a woman and dealing with sexual violence against women in the camps and frontlines, helped bury its publication under the habitual blanket of silence and denial.
Rape. Why is the literary treatment of this subject a litmus test for a community’s sense of vulnerability or, of its opposite, self-confidence? In Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking academic study of rape published in 1975, Brownmiller describes how ‘[m]en of a conquered nation traditionally view the rape of “their women” as the ultimate humiliation, a sexual coup de grace. In fact, by tradition, men appropriate rape of “their women” as part of their own male anguish of defeat’ (31).
Added to the already heavy burden of shame that tragically haunts the crime of rape, within the context of war this common weapon proves to an already defeated nation that the frontline moves into homes sparing no one. Rape has come to represent literally, literarily, and allegorically the depths of an individual’s and a nation’s defenselessness.
For Jews this climactic powerlessness is seeded in the Bible. When Abraham takes his entourage down to Egypt (Genesis 12), he instructs his beautiful wife Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she is his sister (not his wife). For if she were to please Pharaoh he would have Abraham killed. Taking a man’s wife sexually was abhorrent. Taking his life to obtain a desirable woman was justifiable. Murder is, by implication, more acceptable than adultery.
And indeed, Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s palace but, as midrash Bereshit Rabbah 41:2 explains, Pharaoh was struck with impotence and his lust for Sarah is never consummated. Ketubot 7:9 says leprosy or venereal disease prevented sex. And Tanhuma Lech Lecha 8 recounts that an angel struck Pharaoh every time he tried to touch Sarah. Of course the rabbis and scholars writing midrash would make all these ‘convenient’ claims. The obfuscation of rape is no modern invention.
The litmus test of vulnerability resides here, in this story (Genesis 12:10-20). The first precondition is exile. Once there, the woman is defenseless and her husband has no means to protect her, only deception – which may in the end save his life but does not necessarily spare her the trauma of abduction and rape. A similar story is repeated in Genesis 26: 7-11 when Isaac and Rebecca also leave Canaan and go south in search of water and food. They tell King Avimelech that they are brother and sister – again, so Isaac won’t be killed. These deceptions are, according to Arnold Eisen, a ‘lesson directed particularly at partisans of the diaspora – the sexual politics of homelessness are always demanding and at times devastating. The rape or near-rape of the matriarchs and their daughter Dinah are emblematic of the large set of compromises and violations to which the Jewish people stands exposed to as a stranger in strange lands’ (183).
By contrast, the language used to describe acts of rape in Canaan is usually plainspoken and direct. A strong example of this is when Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13:14:
וַיֶּחֱזַק מִמֶּנָּה וַיְעַנֶּהָ, וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ ולא אבה, לשמוע בקולה.
‘But he would not heed her and being stronger tortured her, and lay with her.’
Gone are the euphemisms and obfuscations of exile.
Nava Semel and Savyon Liebrecht, daughters of mothers who lived through European labor and concentration camps, take on the sexual politics of exile. They begin filling in the silence plaguing their mothers’ lives, telling tales of women’s sexual abuse. These are traumas that their mothers witnessed and/or experienced. These are stories that reach back to Genesis and create a link with the disavowed suffering of Sarah in Egypt. For these 20th century women writers, the denial that smothered the subject of the Holocaust in their childhoods is compounded by the shame, guilt, and denial that haunts victims of sexual crimes.
In Semel’s ‘A Hat of Glass’, sexual violence is not explicitly described. One reason is that the story’s narrator is not actually present when Clarissa, a former Feld-Hure, is summoned to the room of the ‘golden-haired officer, Brunhilde of the Black Forest’ (190), as the camp inmates jokingly refer to the German officer in charge of them. At only one point in the story is ‘the Brunhilde’ seen touching Clarissa in public and this is done in anger, because Clarissa has shared forest berries with the women on the factory floor. But what actually enrages ‘the Brunhilde’ is the concern and nurturing sympathy Clarissa reserves exclusively for her fellow inmates. The German officer may be able to use Clarissa’s body as she likes, but she has no control over her mind or heart: ‘She went over to Clarissa, took her by the shoulders and shook her with one power jolt. “Das ist meine Clarissa,” she said in a stiff voice. “Sie ist Mein.” “Mine, mine”’ (196). To remain alive Clarissa accepts being this woman’s sex slave, but she also uses her position to help her sister inmates.
One night the narrator asks Clarissa what the officer does to her and she recalls how suddenly Clarissa’s face contorted with a pain so intense that she recoiled. Then Clarissa reassures the younger woman that she was not being hurt. Yet the narrator knows better and says how other women used as sex slaves ‘had already thrown themselves against the fence to sever the frenzied memories. Others had turned into wild dogs, directing their humiliation and disgrace at women as yet unafflicted’ (191).
Savyon Liebrecht, too, creates a narrator who is only witness to, and not herself a victim of, sexual abuse. In ‘Morning in the Park among the Nannies’, the unnamed narrator sits among a group of women minding babies in a Tel Aviv park. She spent part of the war working as a seamstress in a house of sexual slavery. One morning, years after the war, she sees a new nanny with a small child in the park and recognizes her immediately as one of the more exquisite women from the so-called brothel. Watching her care for the young child, the narrator is transported back to those scenes of hell and addresses her in her mind: ‘How did you guard your soul in that place?’ (183). Like Clarissa in Semel’s story, this beautiful woman did not allow the torment to take hold of her. At least not in any externally visible way.
Liebrecht’s prose is graphic and direct. She does not airbrush away the particulars of the torture and literary close-ups are key to understanding women’s suffering. For Liebrecht ‘that creature, the Shoah survivor, has always been a sort of asexual. There was a reduction of gender subject […]. Specifically, I am talking about women, the experiences of women at that period. And it’s not only that, but – of women who were used, who were used for the pleasure of the Germans. I mean, a woman’s most feminine element, a woman’s eroticism’ was deliberately ignored for so long in the writing of the history of that period.
Liebrecht and Semel courageously take on the painful subject of sexual abuse of Jewish women during the war. They do so by describing it directly and unsparingly, without euphemism or indirect references. But it is not until Semel publishes The Rat Laughs (2001) that a first-person habitation of violent experience of sexual abuse during the Holocaust era occurs in Hebrew Israeli literature. This novel recounts the abuse of a five-year-old Jewish girl at the hands of the peasant family paid to hide her. In the first section of this mixed-genre work, the narrator, middle-aged now, like the narrators in ‘Hat of Glass’ and ‘Morning in the Park among the Nannies’, recalls her war time experiences. When her granddaughter prods her to tell her story she omits much more than she tells. In her mind though, she recalls a great deal and so once again readers become inadvertent witnesses to the horrors of the lightless potato pit where the child lives.
The use of euphemisms here for the continual rapes the five-year-old child suffers at the hands of ‘the Stephan’ as she calls the teenage son of the household, is understood as an expression of (grand)-maternal protection and do not constitute repression, or any deliberate white-washing of sexual torture. She simply cannot endure having her own granddaughter, herself still a child, think about the nightmare of her grandmother’s serial pedophilic rape. The child is spared; the reader is not.
In a later section of the novel, composed of small poems written in a child’s voice, in a verse entitled ‘Cradle Song’, the effect of the rapes is tangible and acutely painful:
There once was
a small Jewish girl
and she had
small Jewish hands
and small Jewish eyes
and a small Jewish mouth
and a small Jewish body
and a big hole (134).
In this novel, Israeli Hebrew literature redeems the lost experience of lived nightmare and treachery and violence. In these scenes any standard of moral security is rendered unstable. Here a first-person female narrator, reflecting on herself as a child, a complete innocent who does not even know enough to name the act of rape being perpetrated against her, inhabits the hell of sexual violence. Here the constraints of fear and insecurity fall away. Meaning lies in the power of deconstructing the biblical paradigm of obfuscation and telling directly and explicitly what occurred and how – to the best of the narrator’s ability. This draws and derives in no small measure from the process of normalized confidence and security: a people, a land, a language. It is no longer now from the position of exile that Liebrecht and Semel confront us. These tales are a reckoning, a filling in of the gaps, a determination to give voice to an important frontier in the ongoing study of the Holocaust – namely, women’s experiences in general, and women’s suffering at the hands of sexual predators in particular.
The fact that the language of composition of these narratives is Hebrew gives these tales of brutality and grief an added poignancy. Within the cadences and images of their sentences, in direct and unapologetic language for the sexual abuse endured, a sense of time compressed resonates. And the resilient thread that stretches from Sarah, Rebecca, Dinah, Tamar, and Esther, to countless unnamed Jewish women in Egypt, in Spain, in Morocco, Poland and Germany is pulled taut. Their voices are not part of the biblical canon. Their female progeny suffered silently in concentration and labor camps, ghettos, forests, and hidden shelters. Semel and Liebrecht, Israeli writers, are finally able to write the stories of this anguish, negotiating the silence, expanding the discourse, and insistently setting new terms.
The first Religion and Rape Culture conference was a huge success. We welcomed over 50 delegates from 6 countries and were treated to 14 fantastic research papers from a range of academics, research students, practitioners, artists, activists, and members of religious groups. The aim of the day was to explore the many intersections between religion and rape culture, and how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.
Click here to see videos of our research talks
The conference opened with a powerful keynote address entitled “Rape by any other name: Cross-examining biblical evidence“ from Professor Cheryl Exum (Emeritus Professor, University of Sheffield). Professor Exum presented delegates with a survey of rapes in the bible, and demonstrated in her talk the ways in which commentators often work overtime to elide this violence. Professor Exum ended her address with a challenge to biblical scholars to make rape a visible issue in the discipline. Professor Exum continues to be an inspiration to staff and students in Biblical Studies, and is responsible for carving out a space for Sheffield as a leading place for feminist biblical interpretation.
It is more than 20 years since I last heard Prof Cheryl Exum and she is as incisive and perspicacious today as she was then. She’s giving keynote address on rape in the Bible at #ShilohConf18
— Katie Harrison (@harrisonkt_) July 6, 2018
“Modern standards are the only ethical standards I have – am I supposed to forget them when I read the Bible?” – Cheryl Exum re: narratives of rape in the Hebrew Bible at #ShilohConf18
— Dr. Jayme R. Reaves (@jaymereaves) July 6, 2018
After a short break, our first panel convened who explored “Biblical Perspectives” of rape culture discourses. This panel, chaired by Dr Johanna Stiebert, was well received, with thought-provoking papers from a variety of disciplines:
Lily Clifford (Inclusive Arts MA, University of Brighton) & Emma Nagouse (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): How to make a ghost: A collaborative approach to finding Dinah
Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar (PhD Candidate, Drew University): For such a time as this? #UsToo: Representations of sexual trafficking, collective trauma, and horror in the book of Esther
Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris (Principal, Leo Baeck College): This may not be a love story: Ruth, rape, and the limits of readings strategies
As well as presenting on this panel, we were thrilled to welcome Lily Clifford from the University of Brighton as an artist in residence for the conference, who crafted creative responses to each of the presentations as they unfolded. We were delighted that this was received so warmly by delegates and our presenters – who were each able to keep their artwork.
Our next panel, “Theology and Thought” was chaired by Dr Valerie Hobbs and included papers which explored some of the ways in which Christian discourses and ideologies have engaged with rape culture, both historically and in contemporary contexts. These were fantastic papers, and while some of this content was challenging to listen to, they served to bring focus to how important and timely this research is.
Natalie Collins (Gender Justice Specialist, SPARK): The Evil Sirens: Evangelical Christian culture, pornography and the perpetuation of rape culture
Claire Cunnington (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): “My prayers weren’t being answered”: The intersection of religion and recovery from childhood sexual abuse
Rhian Elinor Keyse (PhD Candidate, University of Exeter): “A man cannot in law be convicted of rape upon his own wife”: Custom, Christianity, colonialism, and sexual consent in forced marriage cases, British colonial Africa, 1932–1945
After (a delicious) lunch, we picked things up again with our “Method, Critique and Discourse” panel chaired by Dr Meredith Warren. This was an interdisciplinary panel which explored the various ways rape culture is expressed politically by both oppressors, and those who seek to resist it. This was a fascinating session that inspired a lively panel discussion.
Kathryn Barber (PhD Candidate, University of Cardiff): “Rape is a liberal disease”: An analysis of alternative rape culture perpetuated by far-right extremists online
Dr Rachel Starr (Director of Studies: UG programmes, The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Research): Research as resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence
Professor Daphne Hampson (Associate of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford): Religion as gender politics
Our final panel, “Media and Culture” was chaired by Dr Naomi Hetherington and included papers which explored how rape and rape culture discourses are presented in literature and artistic contexts. We couldn’t have hoped for more engaging talks to round off the day’s panel discussions.
Mary Going (PhD Candiate, University of Sheffield): Mother Zion, Daughter Zion, Witch Zion: An exploration of Scott’s Rebecca
Dr Miryam Sivan (Lecturer, University of Haifa): Negotiating the silence: Sexual violence in Israeli Holocaust fiction
Dr Zanne Domoney-Lyttle (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Glasgow): The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing sexual assault and rape narratives in biblical comics
Dr Miryam Sivan (Uni of Haifa) now presenting now on sexual violence in Israeli Holocaust fiction (esp. work of Savyon Liebrecht and Nava Semel). Sivan contrasts pre + post conquest biblical accounts of rape to analyze its direct depiction in this modern fiction. #ShilohConf18
— reallyquitetired (@rllyquitetired) July 6, 2018
To round out this amazing day of panels is Zanne Domoney-Lyttle speaking on The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing Sexual Assault and Rape Narratives in biblical comics #ShilohConf18 #visualizingthepast pic.twitter.com/5rM6kRFqc8
— Dr. Jenny Barry (@jennisifire) July 6, 2018
The Religion and Rape Culture Conference was closed by a fantastic keynote address from Associate Professor Rhiannon Graybill (Rhodes College) entitled “Fuzzy, messy, icky: The edges of consent in biblical rape narratives and rape culture”. Graybill’s research brought feminist literature problematising the notion of consent to bear on biblical stories of sexual violence and rape, as well as the ways in which we as feminists read and respond to those stories. Graybill asked what a serious critique of consent means to a feminist biblical hermeneutic of sexual violence, and in response, explored how feminists might engage with these texts beyond the position of mourning or recovering. We were thrilled to host Professor Graybill, and her insightful research has continued to be a point of discussion since the conference. We’re so excited to continue to work with Professor Graybill through The Shiloh Project.
“Fuzzy, Messy, Icky: The Edges of Consent in Biblical Rape Narratives and Rape Culture” is the closing keynote of the #ShilohConf18 Organiser @ejnagouse introduces speaker, Assoc Prof @rgraybill1 pic.twitter.com/W9NkKzmKb9
— Dr Meredith Warren (@DrMJCWarren) July 6, 2018
After a break, there was a drinks reception where everyone was invited to view our research posters. Authors who were in attendance were invited to speak for one minute about their poster. Topics included: Consenting Adults? Faith formation’s less-than-immaculate conception of consent (Catherine Kennedy, University of Sheffield); Preaching Texts of Horror: How Christian Pastors teach about Dinah, the Levite’s Concubine, Tamar, and Potiphar’s Wife (Dr Valerie Hobbs, University of Sheffield); A Climate of Taboo: Trauma and the graphic novel Blankets (Hugo Ljungbäck, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee); Veils and ventriloquists: How do creative interpretations depict narratives of trauma for those who remain voiceless? (Lily Clifford, University of Brighton); “Life made no sense without a beating”: Religion and rape culture in US Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited (Liam Ball, University of Sheffield), and The girl needs some monster in her man: Rape Culture, cis-male allyship and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Ashley Darrow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Emma Nagouse, University of Sheffield).
What kept coming up in discussion was pedagogical questions on how these challenging topics should be taught in educational settings such as universities and colleges, but also in religious settings. It became clear that academics, teachers, practitioners, and activists alike all craved more tools when it comes to how to teach, research, and facilitate discussions around these urgent and important issues. Perhaps a topic for a future conference…? You can see some of the online interaction from the conference by searching for #ShilohConf18 on Twitter.
It was a powerful, energising and galvanising day – and, on a personal note, I was thrilled with the huge amount of interest we received from a cross-section of people from a wide variety of sectors and community groups, and the level of extremely positive and encouraging feedback we received from participants.
Thank you @ProjShiloh – so encouraged (& slightly exhausted!) by the insights & challenges from the awesome all-female line up today.. this is an exciting time for #womeninacademia #ShilohConf18 #watchoutworld
— Imogen Ball (@ImogenAdderley) July 6, 2018
Great day of papers full of incisive perspectives and staggering content at #ShilohConf18. Important research into #VAW and #rapeculture abounds. Now buzzing with #feminist indignation. Thanks to the organisers! Happy Friday! 🎉
— Mairi Hamilton (@MairiAntoinette) July 6, 2018
— Jo Grady (@DrJoGrady) July 6, 2018
We would like to take this opportunity to extend our warmest thanks to WRoCAH for funding this much-needed conference. We look forward to continuing this important work and making the most of the inspiration, networks, and new friends which were made at our first conference.
Many of our members (including our conference organising team) have been on strike over the last month as part of the UCU (University and College Union) industrial action over USS pensions. Over 60 universities in the UK are involved. Members of UCU continue to be on action short of a strike.
We are extending the call for papers deadline for our Religion and Rape Culture conference to 5pm March 29th.
See updated call for papers:
The Shiloh Project is a joint initiative set up by staff from the Universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Auckland (NZ) researching religion and rape culture. We are proud to announce a one day interdisciplinary conference exploring and showcasing research into the phenomenon of rape culture, both throughout history and within contemporary societies across the globe. In particular, we aim to investigate the complex and at times contentious relationships that exist between rape culture and religion, considering the various ways religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.
We are also interested in the multiple social identities that invariably intersect with rape culture, including gender, disabilities, sexuality, race and class. The Shiloh Project specialises in the field of Biblical Studies, but we also strongly encourage proposals relating to rape culture alongside other religious traditions, and issues relating to rape culture more broadly.
This conference is open to researchers at any level of study, and from any discipline. We invite submissions of abstracts no more than 300 words long and a short bio no later than 5pm March 29th. Please indicate whether your submission is for a poster or a presentation. We particularly welcome abstracts on the following topics:
Gender violence and the Bible
Gender, class and rape culture
Visual representations of biblical gender violence
Representations of rape culture in the media and popular culture
Teaching traumatic texts
Methods of reading for resistance and/or liberation
Sexual violence in schools and Higher Education
Religion, rape culture and the gothic/horror genre
Spiritualities and transphobia
Familial relations and the Bible
For more information, or to submit an abstract, email email@example.com