Lisa Stadelbauer, the Canadian ambassador to Israel, says she’s ‘deeply ashamed’ she didn’t speak sooner about Hamas’s rapes on Oct. 7—but now she’s offering Canada’s help to Israeli investigators

Canada’s Ambassador to Israel has made it her personal mission to speak up in support of the Israeli women and girls who were victims of systematic rape, torture and murder by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7.

Lisa Stadelbauer, a veteran Canadian diplomat appointed to her current posting in March 2021, reveals that the issue hadn’t been on her radar for the first month after the attack, because she was busy coping with the flood of Canadian citizens trying to get emergency military evacuation flights out of Israel. Embassy staff was also helping the families of at least eight Canadians executed by Hamas, or taken hostage into Gaza.

But in November, as Canadian embassies around the world were preparing to mark the start of a 16-day UN awareness campaign about gender-based violence, Stadelbauer became aware of the denials by Hamas and their supporters that its fighters carried out any such atrocities on Oct. 7.

“I hadn’t realized it and I regret that, and I wish I had been paying more attention,” Stadelbauer told The CJN Daily in an interview. “But once I began to understand that there was this global denial campaign that there had been all of this sexual violence, on that day, I knew that this was a place where Canada had to raise a voice.”

On Nov. 24, Stadelbauer issued a statement on her personal social media account, nearly a full two weeks before a similar statement from her boss, Foreign Affairs Mnister Mélanie Joly.

Joly’s statement came on Dec. 8. She had been under pressure after not making such a statement for two months.

Getting an education

Stadelbauer, who took up her posting in Tel Aviv just after the last Israel-Hamas war in the summer of 2021, made it her business to learn in agonizing detail some of the accounts by Israeli morgue workers, search and rescue technicians, and from eyewitnesses who recounted the assaults on music festival attendees in southern Israel.

“One of the Zaka volunteers was there telling us about what he personally saw and I certainly believed him as he was in tears telling the stories of what he saw,” Stadelbauer recalled, describing a hearing at the Knesset in Jerusalem held by Israeli cabinet minister Pnina Tamano Shata.

The ambassador also reached out to an Israeli professor who co-founded the country’s civil commission on the Oct. 7 sexual crimes committed by Hamas against women and girls, Cochav Elkayam-Levy, a specialist in gender-based violence and international human rights.

That commission has collected over 100,000 pieces of evidence to date, including video clips from the Hamas terrorists’ own body cameras, as well as survivors’ personal accounts of atrocities they witnessed, and in some cases, DNA. The commission is now collaborating with the Israeli national police, which opened a formal investigation in mid-November with an aim to bring the perpetrators to account.

While it is ultimately up to the Israeli authorities to officially ask for international help in their inquiry, should they need it, Stadelbauer confirmed she has already offered Canada’s assistance to the Israeli police.

“I have told the police that if there’s a particular need or a gap that they have, that they’re missing, that we can help fill in the gap, that we would explore that,” she said. “I don’t have an answer on that yet, but I think the offer was very, very much appreciated.”

Can’t unsee the videos

As the Israeli government and the civil commission have held screenings of videos and testimony showing the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on kibbutzim and moshavim in southern Israel, some diplomats and journalists who have watched the footage have remained stunned by what the images contained: including video of burned bodies, blood-smeared floors, and decapitated corpses.

Even when given a chance to look away, Stadelbauer said she felt a duty to watch and listen carefully. It was so she could refute deniers.

“Part of it was because I expected to get these kinds of questions, right? ‘What makes you think you can believe this, Lisa? Who are you? You weren’t there? What do you know?’

“And now I believe I can say with some confidence because I’ve heard the firsthand testimonies and I’ve seen the videos, I think I can say with some confidence that I believe Israeli women.”

Canada has offered financial support to the civil commission collecting testimonies. She’s also promised to help women’s groups in Israel, who Stadelbauer maintains feel “betrayed” by how some Western feminists remained silent for too long on the crimes committed against Israeli women.

Stadelbauer was Canada’s High Commissioner in several war-torn African countries, including Rwanda, where the use of rape as a form of genocide was formally recognized by a UN criminal court after the 1994 civil war saw Hutu forces massacre 800,000 people, mostly the minority Tutsis.

When Boko Haram Islamic militants kidnapped over 270 mainly Christian schoolgirls in Nigeria in 2014, high-profile world leaders including former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama led an international campaign calling for their release. About 100 are still missing.

But after Oct. 7, many progressive women’s rights groups and organizations, including the body known as UN Women, either echoed Hamas’s denials, or said nothing, until just recently.

 UN Women released its statement on Dec. 1, saying that the UN’s Geneva-based Commission of Inquiry on Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Israel, has opened its own investigation.

Stadelbauer describes the UN Commission of Inquiry as “unacceptable” not only because Israel views it as biased against the Jewish state, but because Canada also considers it “deeply flawed”.

“So there needs to be a different sort of mechanism or a different sort of body looking at this and that’s not quite clear yet, in terms of what Canada can do to help,” she said.

On Dec. 4, the former U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and Sheryl Sandberg, the founder of Meta and LeanIn, joined Israeli diplomats at the United Nations in New York to showcase examples of Hamas’s atrocities against women, and to call for more “outrage” about what happened.

Stadelbauer wasn’t present, but has harsh criticism for the UN body which is supposed to look out for women’s rights. Some of the countries on this year’s executive council of UN Women themselves have dubious records when it comes to equal rights for women, including Afghanistan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

“From my own personal perspective, I tell you that I am deeply ashamed that I didn’t speak up sooner, that I didn’t realize that silence was out there,” Stadelbauer said. “And that doesn’t excuse UN Women who [are] supposed to be precisely looking at these issues. I think their silence was terrible. I don’t know any excuse for it.”

Some critics have written about a movement represented by the hashtag #MeTooUnlessUrAJew. It refers to social justice advocates who would quickly speak out against offences committed against marginalized and oppressed women, but won’t stand up when similar injustices affect Israeli Jewish women. 

Stadelbauer couldn’t say whether antisemitism had anything to do with this, although she acknowledges she has heard that explanation from various people inside Israel.

“I can’t speak to why other people are being silent. I just know that I believe Israeli women, Canada believes Israeli women,” Stadelbauer repeated.

Which is why she is hoping to find partners for Israeli women’s groups amongst similar-minded organizations back in Canada. She made that commitment while attending hearings at the Knesset last month.

“People feel very betrayed by the lack of support from feminists around the world,” the ambassador said. “So I want to see if I can find the Canadians who are prepared to stand up and believe Israeli women.”

Canadians who denied atrocities

Several high-profile Canadian women have drawn fire in recent weeks for signing a letter critical of any Canadian political leaders who support Israel’s military retaliation, calling it genocide. The letter also denied that the rapes of Israeli women even occurred.

The signatories included city councillor Susan Kim, in Victoria, B.C., and Ontario MPP Sara Jama, who was ousted from the provincial NDP caucus for her antisemitic views and posts. The director of the University of Alberta’s sexual assault clinic, also a signatory, was fired.

Stadelbauer herself has drawn flak in the past few days for a Dec. 7 posting to her embassy’s social media account. In it, the author said both Israeli and Palestinian women and men, and girls and boys, have been victims of sexual violence.

Critics in both Israel and Canada felt the embassy was implying Israel is using sexual violence in this conflict.

When asked to clarify what the posting meant, Stadelbaeur told The CJN Daily that it wasn’t designed to cast aspersions on anyone else but Hamas.

“Unfortunately, we can see that many people read something into the first tweet that was never intended. It is important to read our two tweets together, along with Minister Joly’s clear tweet, indicating that we see Hamas as the party using sexual violence as a tactic of war,” she said, in a written message on Dec. 8.

While no one at the Tel Aviv embassy pointed it out, the same confusing tweet was posted on the social media account belonging to Canada’s diplomatic representative to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, in the West Bank.

During the 16 Days of Activism awareness campaign, the Ramallah mission focused its social media efforts mainly on how the Israel-Hamas conflict is impacting Palestinian women and girls.

But references to Israel itself were limited.

Canada’s funding for UNRWA examined

Stadelbauer declined to answer when asked how her embassy is able to maintain strict oversight of Canadian relief funding to Palestinian projects to ensure that it is not being diverted to Hamas. The Global Affairs Canada website notes that Canada has committed $60 million to the region, in response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. Of that money, $20 million, is destined for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

While the website states “Canada will ensure that no money goes into the hands of Hamas,” Israeli military sources have discovered since Oct. 7 that UNRWA employees and equipment have been linked to the terrorist attack and subsequent hostage taking of 240 Israeli residents.

An UNRWA employee was helping to hold one of the hostages in their home, according to accounts from Israel. Meanwhile Israeli soldiers discovered a Hamas tunnel built adjacent to a school administered by UNRWA. There have also been discoveries of a sniper rifle hidden inside a teddy bear at an UNRWA school.

In the past, other investigations including by the human rights group UN Watch, have found teachers and UNRWA school employees promoting hatred against Jews and Israel, while educational materials at UNRWA schools were discovered to contain antisemitic phrases and slogans urging terrorist attacks against Israelis.

While the previous Conservative government of former prime minister Stephen Harper cut funding to UNRWA, the money began flowing again after 2015 when the Liberals under Justin Trudeau took power.

Trudeau to visit Israel?

Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and leaders of nine European countries have visited Israel, but Justin Trudeau has not yet made the trip since the Oct. 7 conflict began—although his foreign affairs minister went in October.

Despite Canada’s early forceful condemnation of the Hamas attack, and continued support for Israel’s right to defend itself, relations between Israel and Canada became briefly strained after the prime minister urged Israel on Nov. 15 to use “maximum restraint” in its military operations inside Gaza. The Canadian leader was worried about “the killing of babies” and said “it must stop.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of Israel’s wartime national unity government rebuked the Canadian leader via social media for his comments. Trudeau later spoke with Benny Gantz, a member of the wartime cabinet and reaffirmed Canada’s support.

In the intervening few weeks, Stadelbauer said she has since personally met with Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog and has also spoken with other government officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The relationship with the [Israeli] government is fine,” she said.

The meeting with Herzog took place while Stadelbauer was accompanying her predecessor, Deborah Lyons, who is now Canada’s new Special Envoy on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. Lyons served as Canada’s Ambassador to Israel from 2015 to 2020.

“She was here for a short visit and we went to see President Herzog together and talk through some issues and he certainly expressed very serious concerns about antisemitism in Canada,” Stadelbauer disclosed.