Sheryl Sandberg’s Inherited Jewish Activism
Most people know Sheryl Sandberg as one of the first prominent female tech executives. Until last year, she was the longtime chief operating officer of Meta and its former incarnation, Facebook. She is also the author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, a best-selling manifesto about women’s professional empowerment and the namesake of her organization, Lean In.
Less well-known is that Sandberg was born into a family of Jewish activists for Israel. Among the many Hadassah leaders at her childhood seders were her grandmother, Syd Sandberg, a local chapter president in New York City, and her great aunt, Frieda Sandberg Lewis, who served as Hadassah national president in the early 1980s.
As the keynote speaker at a December 4 special session at the United Nations on sexual and gender-based violence during the October 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel, the 54-year-old Sandberg was joined by one of her daughters and by her father, Dr. Joel Sandberg, a longtime board member of United Hatzalah, Israel’s volunteer emergency medical organization. She spoke of how championing Israeli abuse victims is part of her commitment to global human rights—a commitment established by earlier generations of Sandbergs who, decades ago, were leading advocates for Soviet Jewry.
“Today, a new generation gathers in these halls to reclaim our communal voice,” Sandberg told the several hundred Jewish activists, politicians, rape survivors and witnesses at the United Nations. “I call on all women’s organizations, every single one. I especially call upon local political leaders to step up. We need to hear your voices saying loudly and clearly: Rape is unacceptable. And then we need those words to back up action.”
This interview, which took place in the United Nations’ Hall of Flags, has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What motivated you to take on this issue?
You know, in this building, we fought hard in past generations to make rape unacceptable. You think back to recent conflicts in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mass sexualized violence was used. There were massive steps forward taken—and I didn’t want to be part of a generation that went back on that progress.
I also don’t want to be part of a generation that goes back on the promise of #MeToo. We taught everyone to believe women—that means all women.
What do you hope to see come out of the United Nations special session?
Full condemnation of Hamas. Full understanding that systematic sexualized violence was used—that we’ve more than proven this—and holding the perpetrators accountable.
We’re here to reclaim our communal voice that stands against violence for women, always, in all situations, perpetrated against anyone. I have stood against this my whole career, and I will continue to stand against this in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Sudan, wherever it happens. It’s unacceptable.
Read more: Bearing Witness for Rape Victims of Hamas
The vast majority of voices calling for attention to this issue are Jewish. How do you hope to expand this campaign?
This campaign is to help people unite. I mean, this is not a religious issue. This should not be a political issue. You can march for Palestine, and you should if you want to, and you can march against rape. You can march for Israel and march against rape.
As a mother of daughters, what kind of example do you hope to set for the next generation?
I have three daughters; one is here with me today. I want to leave a better world for my daughters. And this is part of that.
Look at these flags [the United Nations Hall of Flags displays the banners of its 193 member countries]. Almost all these countries are run by men. I would love half of these flags or more to be represented by countries that were run by women. But that is not going to happen in my lifetime. I hope it happens in my daughters’. Until then, that disparity makes our communal voice for the gains we have fought for that much more important. We can’t backslide.
Hilary Danailova writes about travel, culture, politics and lifestyle for numerous publications.