“You’re no feminist. You’re a white supremacist!”
This is the statement a protester directed at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday at a Columbia University-hosted conference on conflict-related sexual violence, where dozens of demonstrators, including feminist scholars, appeared to criticize what they perceived as an attempt to justify the US’s backing of Israel’s conflict in Gaza. They accused the event’s organizers of utilizing reports of sexual assault by Hamas against Israeli women as a part of that strategy.
The event, which drew prominent figures such as UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, occurs amid an inquiry into the reports of sexual violence during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. The UN launched the examination in late January, responding to criticisms that the international body had been overlooking the issue. Meanwhile, critics of Israel’s actions in Gaza—which have claimed the lives of over 27,000 individuals, a significant number of whom were children, as per the most recent UN statistics—argue that Israel and its supporters have employed the narrative of rape to justify an excessive response.
Clinton has voiced opposition to appeals for a Gaza ceasefire, stating in the Atlantic in November that a ceasefire “would provide Hamas with an opportunity to re-arm and perpetuate the cycle of violence” and “would leave the people of Gaza living in a besieged enclave under the domination of terrorists and leave Israelis vulnerable to continued attacks.” However, in an appearance on MSNBC this week, Clinton called for Netanyahu’s removal, and said American officials “wish there was a ceasefire. If Hamas would agree to a ceasefire, there would be a ceasefire,” in accordance with the Times of Israel.
During the event on Friday, Clinton attempted to pacify the protesters. “Yelling doesn’t resolve anything,” she informed one of the first disruptors. “Hillary, you should be ashamed for exploiting sexual violence for your own political gain!” another protester exclaimed.
“Alright, we’re gonna stop, we’re gonna stop a minute,” Clinton responded, as organizers approached the protester.
“You’ve done this before…You exploited sexual violence in Libya so you could justify US militarization,” the protester persisted. “If you were enraged about sexual violence, you’d be discussing the sexual violence in Palestine and the daily sexual violence they endure.”
“You know what,” Clinton interjected, cutting the protester off, “Why don’t you all of you just interrupt me so you won’t be interrupting our panelists so we don’t have this kind of disruption when we have people who are real experts in this area.”
“People are free to protest, but they’re not free to disrupt events or classes,” she added.
I’m at a conference on sexual violence in conflict at Columbia University for @MotherJones, where @HillaryClinton has so far been interrupted by 3 protesters alleging she’s “exploiting sexual violence” to justify the war in Gaza pic.com/beZayPrPgY
— Julianne McShane (@JulianneMcShane) February 9, 2024
When Thomas-Greenfield spoke next, protesters also interrupted her—and called for attendees to depart. Approximately a quarter did, chanting, “Free, free Palestine” as they moved to block the entrance before ultimately leaving.
Thomas-Greenfield attempted to alleviate the criticism: “Please be assured that there is no issue that is related to sexual violence—violence anywhere in the world—that we’re not concerned about and not working on every single day,” she expressed to applause.
Sandberg—who was seated in the second row, behind Clinton, and said she had just returned from Israel to film a documentary on alleged sexual violence on Oct. 7—turned to stare at the departing protesters, looking shaken. Later, while moderating a panel, she said, “I feel so strongly that no matter the politics of the situation, rape can never be overlooked, because that would establish such a dangerous precedent for people all over the world.”
The Columbia event took place about two weeks after the UN publicized that the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramilla Patten, had a visitaccepted the Israeli government’s offer to “gather information” regarding the allegations of sexual violence by Hamas on Oct. 7. Patten will also tour the occupied West Bank and hold discussions with Palestinian authorities, as stated by the UN. The spokesperson informed Politics that the briefing might not take place until the end of this month.
Around a month before the event, the New York Times released an examination of the sexual violence allegations, reportedly based on over 150 interviews. The publication received backlash internally from the Times as well as from readers who pointed out inconsistencies in certain accounts the article relied on, according to the Intercept. The Times writers addressed some of the criticisms in a recent follow-up piece. In a statement, a Times spokesperson mentioned that since the conflict began in October, their journalists have reported on the events with sensitivity, independence, and thoroughness, sparking strong reactions.
Jeffrey Gettleman, the lead author of the Times investigation, also participated in the event, being part of a panel with Sandberg. At one point, he attempted to respond to criticisms of his team’s reporting, expressing that his aim was not to pass judgment or intervene in a very entangled, challenging, long-standing conflict, as “that’s not my job.” His goal was to document the events of Oct. 7 involving women and girls, and that was their story.
The demonstrations started before the commencement of the event. Outside, a group of protesters displayed signs reading, “Real feminists don’t massacre Palestinian women!!” and “Stop funding genocide.” (Reportedly, pregnant Palestinians have been experiencing miscarriages and struggling to obtain care during Israeli airstrikes, as confirmed by my colleagues’ reports. Palestinians in general are facing a severe humanitarian crisis with limited access to food, fuel, and medical care.)
An organizer handed me a pamphlet portraying the Columbia event as “an example of colonial feminism” that reinforces stereotypes about Palestinian men as rapists while disregarding sexual violence against Palestinians. Scholars and journalists have recorded the experiences of sexual violence by Palestinian men and women while detained by Israeli forces, and sexual harassment of Palestinian women at Israeli checkpoints. A UN Women report in 2017 also found that about 15 percent of married Gazan women reported sexual abuse by their husbands in the previous year—often repeatedly, in over half of the cases.
By the entrance of the building, a couple of demonstrators were distributing copies of what they referred to as “The New York War Times,” which critiqued Gettleman’s story. A law enforcement officer directed me toward two women near the elevators who, he stated, could assist with my check-in at the event. It turned out they were part of a collective of feminist academics, including some faculty members from Columbia and Barnard, who were present to protest. Rebecca Jordan-Young, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Barnard, handed me a letter signed by dozens of fellow scholars and authors—such as Angela Davis, Beverly Sheftall, and Chandra Talpede Mohanty—objecting to “the Israeli and US governments and others weaponizing the issue of rape.”
The letter, in addition to condemning rape, endorsed the UN’s investigation into the allegations of sexual violence by both sides and called for a ceasefire, stating it would ultimately be delivered to Israeli and American officials.
Jordan-Young, one of the signatories, referred to the “framing and timing” of the event as “opportunistic” given the US government’s support for Israel in the war. “Every rape is an outrage, as is the carpet-bombing of civilians,” she conveyed. “As a feminist scholar, I’m all too aware that both rape and charges of rape have been and continue to be used in the service of racism.” She added that examining sexual or gender violence in isolation “can’t generate a sound analysis or sound politics.”