Jewish women have stood on the front lines for human rights. ‘Now, we need you to fight for us, too.’



March 11, 2024

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times on March 8, 2024.

My great-grandmother, Manci, was the only one of her six siblings to survive the Holocaust. My granny, Florence, spent her adult years marching for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, seeking to eradicate racial and gender biases in pursuit of equality for all women.

Jewish women embody a longstanding tradition of resilience. Not only have they persevered through every exile, persecution and massacre in Jewish history, but they have advanced social causes and created new generations of Jews in the face of attacks on our very existence.

I grew up haunted by stories of the unimaginable horrors suffered by relatives I would never get to meet — because they were Jewish. I grew up with “Never Again” tattooed on my conscience, assuming everyone in the world had internalized it, too. I grew up inspired by advocacy for causes that were interconnected, which is central to the fight for women’s rights.

Unfortunately, those interconnections seem to draw the line at Jews. 

On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists killed at least 1,200 Jews (including some other foreign nationals), taking another 240 hostage. Since then, a wave of virulent propaganda against Jews has seeped into some parts of the mainstream worldwide.

As a woman, as a defender of women’s rights and as a proud Jew, I am most horrified by the denial and willful ignorance of Hamas’ sexual violence against Israeli women on Oct. 7 and in captivity. Earlier this week, United Nations experts said they found credible evidence sexual violence was committed during the Oct. 7 attacks and against hostages as well.

Women’s organizations, from UN Women to The Women’s Center on my own campus, have completely abandoned their values of equality and security, refusing to show outrage over this injustice.

Defending all women

On International Women’s Day (March 8), I want to celebrate an international community of women who stand in solidarity with one another in the face of gender-based violence. I want to thank every prominent feminist speaker, organization and movement for using their platforms and followings to defend all women. I want to confidently say feminists worldwide value Jewish and Israeli women’s lives. Unfortunately, I cannot.

The sad truth is that while my grandmother marched for women’s equality, I’ve spent my college years fighting off antisemitism from my classmates and lobbying university administrators to protect their Jewish students. And many students and staff members alike are unable to recognize their words and actions as antisemitic.

As Jews, we have long been expected to censor our Judaism, making it more palatable for those around us.

For the past few years, we’ve been expected to reject Zionism, the belief in Jewish self-determination in our ancestral homeland. Yet, now, even that isn’t enough. It’s not enough to reject Zionism if we still believe the unspeakable atrocities committed against Israeli women on Oct. 7; if we still expect our peers to condemn Hamas; if we still insist that Jewish and Israeli women deserve the same humanity, dignity and respect as everyone else. We’re now not only expected to disavow a piece of our identity but to be OK with those trying to eliminate it — and us.

But we’re not going anywhere. Judaism calls us to pursue justice, and Jewish women continue to answer the call. Carol Ruth Silver was the only woman on her interracial freedom-riding bus. The National Council of Jewish Women lobbied against lynching and poll taxes during the Civil Rights Movement. Vanessa Wruble was one of the earliest organizers of the Women’s March before being pushed out by antisemitic rhetoric from her co-chairs.

Jewish and Israeli women are leading on two fronts — defending Jewish lives on Israel’s borders, and defending the idea of the Jewish state and Jewish peoplehood on our college campuses.

On International Women’s Day, I call on every women’s organization in every country, on every campus to ask itself: Who do we stand for? What do we value? I implore you to ensure the safety of Jewish and Israeli women is on that list. Prove that gender-based violence anywhere is a threat to women everywhere and the power of women united transcends the persistence of hate. Jewish women have long been with you in this fight. Now, we need you to fight for us, too.

Lily Cohen is a senior at Northwestern University majoring in political science.