Seed the Dream, Jewish Women International looks to build coalition that ‘believes Israeli women’

Organizers say recent delegation of 25 women to Israel is only the start of a movement to combat denial of Oct. 7 sexual violence

On the eve of the final day of the “I Believe Israeli Women” delegation’s trip to Israel, the families of five female Israeli soldiers released the footage of their capture by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, which included one gunman telling a soldier she is “beautiful” in broken English and another using an Arabic term similar to “sex slave” to describe the hostages. 

“This morning, we started this session with a lot of weeping about the video,” Marcy Gringlas, the president of the Seed the Dream Foundation, which sponsored the trip, told eJewishPhilanthropy at the time. “We are here supporting each other. This is a group of women who believe, who understand and who want to do something, who want to work and want to act. But we all need to be supported because there is an outside world that is not believing, not understanding, and it’s unacceptable.”

In the weeks following the Oct. 7 terror attacks, as survivor testimony surfaced indicating widespread sexual violence against Israeli women, many international women’s organizations refrained from issuing statements condemning it for weeks or months — notably including UN Women, which only commented on the matter two months later and referred to “accounts” of sexual violence — and in some cases not at all. For instance, while the National Organization for Women denounced the Oct. 7 attacks on the same day, it made no mention of sexual violence. On Nov. 30, 2023, it condemned rape as a weapon of war in general, without referring to Israel or Hamas.

Politicians, journalists and activists have expressed shock and dismay at the denial of the sexual violence perpetrated against Israeli women on and after Oct. 7 by Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists.

Seed the Dream and Jewish Women International co-organized the delegation, which took place last month, focused on the sexual violence that was committed on Oct. 7 and efforts to deny it and downplay it. The organizations brought 25 women — most but not all of them Jewish — to Israel for a three-day trip, which included meetings with survivors of Oct. 7, Israeli officials, journalists and activists. 

Gringlas and JWI’s CEO, Meredith Jacobs, described the delegation as having two goals: one, for American women to express solidarity with their Israeli counterparts; and two, to build a coalition dedicated to combating efforts to deny and diminish the rape and sexual assaults that took place on Oct. 7.

“I think what’s really unique is that this is all created to build responses and action. This isn’t women coming over in hopes that they’ll donate,” Jacobs told eJP. “We’re going to be looking at: How do we build out responses, specifically in the legal policy arena, in the media arena and in supporting the advocates who are serving the women of Israel? And that’s really looking at building a global coalition.”

Jacobs said this included connecting Israeli groups and activists with counterparts in the United States with relevant expertise.

Gringlas told eJP that the “seeds of the trip” came from hearing an Israeli activist describe the lack of support from other women’s organizations around the world and being forced to provide evidence of sexual violence that no other country would be asked to produce.

“So I said, ‘Let’s do a trip.’ And originally it was going to be just lawyers, and then I thought, there’s a lot of people that need to understand and who are feeling what I was feeling, what can we do?” Gringlas said. “I contacted Meredith, and I said, I have a dream of what I want to do. I want to organize a trip and support a trip. And she said, ‘I’m in.’”

In the end, the delegation included attorneys, as well as policy experts, journalists and public relations professionals. 

“We pretty much handpicked 25 women from across varied spheres, circles and professions,” Gringlas said. “So there are judges, lawyers, physicians, social workers, media executives.”

Jacobs added that in addition to their “extraordinary expertise,” the participants also said they considered themselves to be taking part in the trip “as mothers.”

“The first day [was about] bearing witness,” Gringlas said. “So we went [to the southern Israeli communities hardest hit by the Oct. 7 attacks]. We spoke to first responders. We spoke to eyewitnesses and we spoke to survivors.”

As it happens, the first day of the trip also coincided with a meeting in the Knesset of the “Global Coalition of Women Against Gender-Based Violence as a Weapon of War,” an international alliance of groups and activists that was organized by Israeli parliamentarian Shelly Tal Meron of the Yesh Atid party, with assistance from ELNET, an organization that builds ties between Israel and Europe.

“It was an amazing launch for our delegation to start off in this arena, that we are a part of this

and everybody wanted to hear about what we were doing and to have a voice for the American women who are standing [by Israel],” Gringlas said.

Jacobs said there was immediate appreciation for their delegation at the Knesset session. “When Marcy spoke at the Knesset, when she said the name of our delegation is ‘I believe Israeli women,’ I watched as the women around the room smiled,” she said. “And we’re 25 [women], but we represent thousands. People have been signing on to join our movement from around the world. Two nights ago, I received an email from a woman in Barcelona saying, ‘I’ve been following you. What can I do to bring this here?’”

The second day, Gringlas said, focused on “understanding the needs of this country right now,” which included meetings with Israeli activists and survivors of the attacks.

“As we met [released hostage] Maya Regev yesterday, she said right now she feels like she’s screaming for those who no longer have a voice. And our screams are amplifying her screams,” Jacobs said.

“And the third day was about rolling up our sleeves and our call to action,” Gringlas said.

Gringlas and Jacobs stressed that this aspect of the trip is critical. 

“[The trip] has to be a launch for something bigger, and I think that if there’s not, then I failed in this, and there’s no room for me to fail here,” Gringlas said.

She added that her family’s Seed the Dream Foundation is still firmly committed to funding and supporting other initiatives in Israel and the U.S. as well, related to education, Israel-Diaspora ties, gender equality, Holocaust survivors and more. 

Speaking to eJP after the participants returned to the U.S., Gringlas said they were all still “processing” the experience as they begin to formulate what comes next for their coalition

“We’re solidifying this as a movement. We’re building this idea that more and more people and not just women [can be involved],” she said. 

Gringlas added that even as the coalition is still coming together, there have already been tangible effects of the trip: in one case, a participant reached out on the trip’s WhatsApp group ahead of a public appearance asking for informational resources, which other members provided. The trip members were also all tasked with organizing screenings of Sheryl Sandberg’s documentary, “Screams Before Silence,” about the sexual violence on Oct. 7. (The group met the film’s director during the trip.)

Jacobs said the Seed the Dream Foundation’s support for JWI represented both a “tremendous gift” and a weighty responsibility.

“We have to take what’s started here and make sure it leads to something. It has to move the needle. It has to make a difference. I will not allow it to not make a difference,” Jacobs said. “And I’ve said this is what’s giving me hope in a time of great sadness. I’m placing all of my hope in how this [initiative] will let us move forward.”