Bearing a double burden from October 7

Bearing a double burden from October 7

Women’s Spirit CEO to speak in Teaneck and the U.N. about attack’s effects on domestic violence victims

Tamar Shwartz is the CEO of Women’s Spirit.
Tamar Shwartz is the CEO of Women’s Spirit.

At this point, many of the gruesome details of the horrific October 7 attack on southern Israel are well known. But some of the aftereffects, the impact on Israelis who were not direct victims of the assault, are not. And as is often the case, the attack and resulting war are affecting some groups of Israelis more than others.

“Of course, everybody was very shocked, and very sad, and very worried,” Tamar Shwartz said. Ms. Shwartz, who lives in Israel, is the CEO of Women’s Spirit, an Israeli organization, created in 2007, that provides economic rehabilitation for survivors of domestic violence. “But the entire population is not suffering equally. Women who have been victims of violence are suffering a lot.”

When normal life is put on hold, women often are the first to be out of work, Ms. Shwartz said, as was evident during the covid lockdowns. Many women lost their jobs after October 7, and many others were forced to take temporary leaves. Schools in Israel were closed for much of October and November, so even women who still had jobs often were unable to work because they did not have childcare.

That means that many women stopped receiving salaries, and that led to financial strain.

There was yet another stress for survivors of domestic abuse. “Women who have been victims of violence are often post-traumatic,” Ms. Shwartz said. “So if you hear all day on television about all the violent things the terrorists did, all your personal trauma, which is not connected to the attack, will rise again. All the triggers are working.”

Ms. Shwartz described the work that Women’s Spirit does as unique and crucial in helping survivors of abuse break free from the cycle of violence. “Most women who leave an abusive relationship eventually go back to the violent husband because they are economically dependent on the violent husband,” she said. “So we provide mentors, and we work with survivors over the course of a 2½-year program designed to ensure that they will have a profession, that they will have work, that they will know how to manage their bank account, so they will not need to go back to the violent husband.

“We help each woman focus on her strengths, on what she’s good at, on what interests her, and we teach skills like how to look for a job, how to write a CV, and how to go to an interview.”

In addition to working with individual women, Women’s Spirit advocates for laws and procedures that will make it easier for women who have been victims of violence to become economically independent. One area in which the organization has been able to affect significant change is national security allowances. These allowances are benefits that the government pays under certain circumstances. The system includes payments to people with disabilities and to people who have lost jobs, as well as other situations.

In Israel, you are not allowed to collect two allowances, Ms. Shwartz explained. “For example, if you are disabled and get one allowance, and then you lose your job, you don’t receive an unemployment allowance because you can get only one allowance,” she said. “You can choose the highest one, but you can collect only one.”

There were many instances when that policy made life very difficult for divorced women, Ms. Shwartz continued. When a woman has trouble collecting alimony or child support, “national security operates like a lawyer for her and sues the husband and gets the money from him,” she said. “But in the meantime, the children have to eat. So in the meantime, national security gives her an allowance.” Under this structure, if a woman who was not able to collect alimony directly from her former husband, and receives an allowance from national security instead were to lose her job, she would not be able to collect both alimony and unemployment benefits.

“During the covid pandemic, a lot of women were fired from their jobs,” Ms. Shwartz said. “They got unemployment, which is the higher allowance, but had to give up their alimony.

We fought hard against this. It was horrible — the children don’t stop eating. Now, if a woman who gets alimony from national security is out of work, she gets both allowances.”

The organization advocates for other laws, including one that would recognize economic violence within a marriage.

“If you and I open a business together, and you work very hard in the business and I don’t work, I gamble and take out loans and incur debts, if you discover this, you can complain to the police,” Ms. Shwartz said. “And you can sue me in civil court and argue that you are not responsible for the debts and the loans, that you should not be required to pay anything, because it all happened because of my behavior.”

But if that happens in a marriage, even after a divorce, both spouses still will be liable for the debts. “Even if your husband comes to court and says that you didn’t know anything about them, that he incurred all these debts alone, you will still have to pay, because in Israel, a husband and wife are considered to be one legal entity according to the law,” she said. “So if one is incurring debts, it’s also the responsibility of the other one.

“We wrote a suggested law that says if you can prove that you really didn’t know about the debts, or that your husband forced you to sign onto the debts, or that he took your credit card, or engaged in other behaviors that fell within the definition of economic violence, then only the husband will have to pay the debt,” Ms. Shwartz continued. “This law is important because if you don’t have the help of the courts and the law, you can be very vulnerable.”

Ms. Shwartz is a social worker and has become well acquainted with the population that Women’s Spirit serves and with the challenges the group faces under normal circumstances. But she has found that the regular challenges have been magnified since the Hamas attack.

After October 7, “we saw that our clients were in a very, very bad emotional state,” Ms. Shwartz said. “So we started to help in other ways; we provided very intensive emotional support, and concrete help — we really brought boxes of food to some clients’ homes because they were in such a bad state.” The goal was to help participants regain their footing, to help them “discover their strength and continue in the rehabilitation process.”

Ms. Shwartz will visit the area this month to speak on a panel at the United Nations. She will discuss the impact the Hamas attack is having on women who have been victims of violence. She also will speak about the work Women’s Spirit does, as well as the impact of the attack, for the National Council of Jewish Women’s Bergen County Section on March 18 at Temple Emeth in Teaneck. (See box.)

It’s important for the world to know what happened in Israel and to understand the effects those events had, and continue to have, Ms. Shwartz said. She finds much of the world’s reaction to the horrific acts of violence that Hamas terrorists perpetrated against women on October 7 very concerning. “Now, after a period when people say you have to believe every woman who alleges abuse, now they don’t believe the women who talk about what happened on the 7th of October,” she said. “The world is saying, ‘me too unless you’re a Jew.’

“I’m shocked by the atmosphere and by the U.N.’s reaction to the attacks,” she continued. “And I will be more specific, by the reaction from U.N. Women, the U.N. organization whose aim is to take care of all women — not only the women in Gaza. Of course, I don’t think the women in Gaza have a good life now. I believe they are suffering a lot.

“But what about the Israeli women? And the Israeli women who have been victims of violence? I’m shocked how the world is saying ‘there are two sides of the coin.’ Yes, but who started it? If Hamas had not attacked, we wouldn’t suffer and they wouldn’t suffer.”

She feels that many people around the world do not have a clear picture of what Hamas is. “When I see demonstrations in the United States, in Europe, and people say they want to build Palestine ‘from the river to the sea’ I wonder if they understand what they are saying,” Ms. Shwartz said. “If Hamas is the ruler, everybody will be hurt, and people who identify as LGBTQ will be dead. This is a terror organization. The world needs to know this.”

Ms. Shwartz will focus on how the violence Hamas perpetrated on October 7, and the resulting war, is affecting victims of domestic violence in Israel. “I’m looking at the larger picture,” she said. “Because what Hamas did, it’s horrible, but it was one day. And everybody’s talking about this one day. But this war isn’t only one day. It’s still going on. And in the news, on television in Israel, you are always hearing about it.

“So if you are a woman with post trauma, your triggers are every day, every minute they are being evoked. It’s a very complicated situation.

“I want the world to know what I see in my professional capacity. I see these women every day. I’m not talking about theories, I’m talking about the people that I see. I want the world to understand the larger ramifications of the Hamas atrocities.

“I’m speaking about this at the U.N. because I’m expecting understanding,” Ms. Shwartz concluded. “The media all over the world are saying that people in Gaza are suffering a lot. But what about the Israeli population? I want the world to understand that what Hamas did didn’t end on the 7th of October. And it will not end even when the war is finished.

“We will bleed for a long, long time here in Israel. Everybody here is post-traumatic. The atmosphere is horrible. And for people who were post-traumatic before the war, the situation is horrible, horrible, horrible.”

Who: Tamar Shwartz of Women’s Spirit

What: Will speak for the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women about the organization’s work helping Israeli women survivors of abuse achieve financial independence and about the impact of the October 7 attack on Israeli women who have been victims of abuse.

When: March 18 at 12:30 p.m.

Where: Temple Emeth in Teaneck

Register at: The program is free and open to the public.


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