This is Terror
Bearing Witness to the October 7th Massacre
After signing the nondisclosure agreement, after the bag check and the trip through the double-glass door security corridor; after the elevator ride to the 8th floor of the American Jewish Committee building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, three dozen of us wait. No one seems sure how to break the ice. Jamie Metzl shows me the watch he is wearing, the one his grandfather bought in 1945 in Schaffhausen, Switzerland; how he’d managed to get over the border from Austria; that he and his wife had not been in the camps but were Holocaust survivors nonetheless.
“If someone with my background cannot bear witness,” Metzl asks, “how can we expect anyone else to?”
He had invited others to the private screening of “Bearing Witness To the October 7th Massacre,” 44-minutes of graphic footage documenting the carnage committed by Hamas. None had yet to arrive. Gabrielle Schonder says producing partner does not want to see it. I tell her, neither do two of my closest friends, we are all journalists who’ve covered atrocities, and yet…
“Hand over your phones, please,” says a woman from AJC. There will be no picture taking, no recording. We enter the theater quietly. I recognize several people, one a household name, the other a dear friend with whom I share a triple-long hug but say nothing.
Ted Deutch, the CEO of AJC tells us to leave the theater if we need to; that there are tissues and water right outside the door and also, “a professional trauma counselor,” should we need her.
Amnon Shefler, international spokesman for the IDF and in uniform, tells us about waking up in Tel Aviv on the morning of October 7; how his 3- and 1-year old daughters were in their beds; how “the sounds of incoming rockets from Gaza, from Hamas, is not new” but that this day - one month ago today - was new; the firing did not cease, the bulwarks did not hold, and when the day was done, the world knew the worst mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust had been committed on Israeli soil.
Or maybe the world did not know that, which is one of the reasons we were here.
“Bearing witness is the only way to counteract claims we are already starting to see,” says Shefler, and that what we are about to see - the slaughter of 138 human beings - represents less than 10% of those killed that day. We are warned: it will be graphic, that the uncensored footage was captured by cellphone and traffic cam and security tape, much of it by the murderers themselves, some from Hamas, others who simply poured through the fences and joined in.
“They were proud of the depravity and wanted the world to know what they did,” he says, and the theater goes dark.
If I can be thankful for anything watching this footage, it is for the slivers of black screen between the clips, a second to catch one’s breath between the slaughterings at Sdedot, at kibbutz Be’eri, at the Nova music festival, between the dismemberments and the burnings, between the gouts of blood, long enough for you to ponder whether it was one dragged body or many that left that thick a blood trail from living room to kitchen; to get inside the head of the young man playing dead, long enough to hope, when not one but two gunmen shouting, “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!” have passed him by that there will not be a third. There is a third. Long enough that you can appreciate the care with which the girls dressed for the rave, the spangled tube top now hiked over two bullet wounds, the Tupac shirt smeared with dirt and blood, and I am sorry now to tell you of the toddler in Mickey Mouse pajamas; he’s gone, as are the others, some turned to cinder.
I cried typing that for you just now but only once during the screening. A home security camera showed a young father trying to get his two sons, maybe 9 and 11, to the bomb shelter. It’s early in the morning, they each wear only pajama pants, but they make it to the shelter, and then from the left side of the screen, a hand tosses a bomb. The father’s body tumbles into view. I could feel the audience panic; what will happen to those boys? Then we see; they are led out of the shelter by one of the terrorists; he brings them back into the house. One boy keens. He little brother has had an eye blown out in the explosion that killed their father. A terrorist returns, he drinks soda from their fridge and leads the boys out of the house. We do not see them again. The next shot is of Israeli security forces accompanying their mother, she had not been at the kibbutz during the attack, she is looking for her children when instead she sees her husband’s crumpled body. There is no sound, only the mother’s body shaking, it’s as if her bones have all broken at once and she slides down, the soldiers trying to hold her up as she falls in on herself.
Each horror is intimate: you are there with the kindergarten teacher trying to make a hideout of a dozen small cushions; you watch her knowing, it will never work. It does not work. You watch the hundreds of young people at the concert start to flee; you look at their shoes and think, oh my god let them have worn shoes they can run in. You watch the hundreds running, looking almost like a stampede, the dust obscuring them, if not enough.
“Is anyone alive?” the Israeli security force asks, walking past four, then ten, then dozens of bloodied young bodies nestled together. “Anyone please?”
We see young men, some blown apart but still living, loaded like meat into the back of a pick-up, as men their age, the ones with the guns, appear jubilant, 19- and 20-olds who seem not frenzied, simply happy, they are having a victorious day, or, as we hear one son tell his parents on tape, “Turn on your WhatsApp! I killed 10 Jews with my hands! Mom your son is a hero! Kill! Kill! Kill!” His mother can be heard sobbing in the background.
The camera takes us down the ghost road, the cars people tried to escape in abandoned at bad angles. Then, ten minutes of bodies, incinerated bodies, decapitated bodies, bodies shredded, burned, bloodied, pulverized, and a girl nude from the waist down in death looking like a mannequin, one perfectly manicured hand held before her bone-white face, as if to say, “Hold on, hold on!”
The film ends. We sit silent. After several minutes, Tsach Saar, deputy counsel general from the Israel Consulate in New York, says the dehumanization of the film takes us back to WWII, back to the Shoah.
“When we hear chants ‘From the river to the sea,’ this is what it means. This is from the river to the sea,” he says. “It feels like we are fighting for our lives now, because we are.”
An audience member recalls as a child seeing film of corpses being bulldozed at Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen; that the images stayed with him and scarred him. Why not release “Bearing Witness To the October 7th Massacre” to a wider audience, to prove to them the atrocities are real?
“For those who do not believe it, this will not convince them,” says Shefler of the IDF, who emphasizes that the massacre was very organized; that they had GoPros and everything mapped out and were very methodical. “And they put it on social media to create terror.”
Another audience member asks how we parse culpability, Hamas from Lebanon from Iran? Shefler says, this is the wrong question.
“It’s terror that did this,” he says. “This is terror.”