I was sexually assaulted by a left-wing activist last summer.
The perpetrator was – and still is – a guy with all the right credentials: post-colonialist, post-Zionist, anti-capitalist, and so on. Most significantly, he considers himself a feminist. Until he assaulted me, we were friends. I had met him through my involvement in radical leftist organizations.
After the assault, it took me three full days to fully comprehend what had happened and give it a name. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened to me, particularly because I couldn’t fathom how someone who could speak to me in the language of anti-oppression could breach the barriers of my consent.
When Solidarity unrolled its new campaign about the settlement Migron, showing violent images likening the Migron settlement to rape, I was deeply angered [UPDATE: See this clarification]. In the name of opposing the government’s settler policies, the images showed a woman being brutally choked, and a container of vaseline inviting the viewer to infer anal rape – alongside text that read: “Shut up, get on your knees and swallow. You know you want it.” The ad conjured the most disturbing tropes of sexual violence. I was livid, but unfortunately I cannot say I was surprised. Because, when it comes down to it, the political left is not nearly as gender equal as it believes itself to be.
On the left we like to think of ourselves as enlightened. To a certain extent, we are. We are a community aiming to fulfill the vision of universal human rights, striving to build a world where race, class, gender, and other divisions between haves and have-nots cease to matter. We incorporate this mental world into the very core of our identity. But just because we believe things can and should be different, it doesn’t mean that we are immune to replicating the degrading power structures and norms of the society around us. And, sadly, the society around us is a deeply gendered one, where the militaristic, ultra-macho Muscle Jew mentality doesn’t just stop at the edge of the recruitment base, but informs every aspect of our lives.
True feminism is not just about a title, or a lingo, or translating protest slogans to female tenses. Feminism is about fundamentally changing and correcting operative assumptions and practices. But in reality, these are assumptions that, even among the left, remain unchallenged.
I’m talking about much more than the indefatigable question of whether it’s acceptable for us to wear tank tops in Palestinian villages. There are the examples that make the news, like the director of a prominent left-wing organization being sued for sexual harassment, or the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) trying to cover up the sexual assault of one of their activists. But there are also the everyday examples that don’t make the news, but that we all feel and experience.
These include the activist our community reveres, turning a blind eye as he treats women like objects. Or the progressive NGOs where we log thousands of hours of overtime, finding it impossible to balance work and home life and fearing the “mommy-track” just as much as if we worked in hi-tech. There are our fellow activists and colleagues who receive the credit and visibility for our ideas and drown out our voices, and who make sexist jokes but think it is ok because we know they are the “good guys,” that it’s “just a joke,” and that they mean it ironically. It is that deep, uncomfortable knowledge that when we are assaulted or harassed – and, inevitably, we are – we will be no less slut-shamed or victim-blamed among our so-called leftist comrades than we will be by the mainstream society we so enthusiastically love to hate.
The right to sovereignty over our bodies, to live lives and occupy public spaces without the threat of violence constantly looming over our heads, to be considered equal partners in the decision-making processes that govern our lives, and to enjoy the fruits of political, economic and social equality – these are all essential human rights that, for women, are threatened daily. But somehow, when we are talking about ourselves, women, as an oppressed group, our struggle takes second place to other “more important” battles.
Solidarity should not have published those images not because they are degrading and disgusting and legitimize a culture of violence against women – which they are, and they do. (They understood this on their own after a swift Facebook backlash, and removed the images, albeit with an outrageously impotent and defensive apology). Solidarity should not have published those images because, as an organization promoting human and civil rights, no one should have to tell them that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.
Ultimately, we women face a unique bind – how are we supposed to speak out about sexism, harassment and even assault within a community that considers itself to be gender equal already? How can we stand up for ourselves as women when we are made to believe that prioritizing our own rights will detract from the struggle at hand, or even worse, that our criticism will be seized upon by the rightist extremists eager to delegitimize us?
Solidarity failed us as women. So did the guy who assaulted me. They weren’t the first. And, unfortunately, until the left-wing community realizes the values it claims to hold dear, they won’t be the last.
The author is a political activist. This article was also published in Hebrew, on Ha’okets.