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As pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups of demonstrators waved flags and vied for support from passing motorists at a busy Los Angeles intersection on Wednesday night, an audience of around 200 people filed through a security checkpoint into the city’s Museum of Tolerance.
Attendees, the protesters chanting outside, and scores of police officers had shown up because of a video collage titled Bearing Witness, compiled by a unit of the Israel Defense Forces from raw footage of the deadly attack by Hamas militants against Israel on Oct. 7, in which 1,400 people were killed and around 240 people taken hostage. The assault triggered a series of bombings from Israel in Gaza that has killed more than 10,000 Palestinians so far, according to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza. The Museum of Tolerance, an arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights center with a focus on Holocaust education, hosted a screening of the approximately 47-minute video on the eve of the anniversary of the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht in order to demonstrate to viewers that Israel faces an existential threat from Hamas.
“This whole thing, placed in the Museum of Tolerance, that’s a whole built-in excuse, a trap,” a protester with the Free Palestine group assembled across the street, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Rolling Stone. He accused the museum of playing “propaganda” and said he had no issue with the institution itself, but that the film’s backers had chosen to bring it to this location “on purpose to make it look like we’re antisemitic.”
“We’re not antisemitic, we’re anti-Zionist. We don’t appreciate what they’ve been doing to the Palestinian people for the seventy-five-plus-year occupation,” he said, as a man driving by in a car leaned out of his passenger window to call the group “selfish.”
Those in attendance at the heavily guarded screening of the largely uncensored footage of murders and dead bodies, who had to surrender their phones and sign a non-disclosure agreement to indicate that they would not record anything they heard or saw in the museum’s Peltz Theater, included a number of Hollywood producers and agents, as well as the Israeli-American CEO of Mattel, Ynon Kreiz, and Israeli real estate developer Jaron Varsano, husband of Israeli actress Gal Gadot. The Wonder Woman star had helped arrange screenings of the film in New York and L.A. along with Israeli director Guy Nattiv, but was not herself in attendance.
Entering the theater from the buzzing lobby, attendees — one of whom wore a “Free Our Hostages” hoodie — preferred to sit toward the back or on the aisles, and several sat on the stairs of the aisles instead of the center of the audience, where a fair amount of seats remained empty. Others debated their best options. “It’s not a joyous occasion,” said one man heading toward the rear. “Not sitting in the front seat of this shit,” remarked a woman who moved in the same direction.
A number of speakers preceded the screening, including Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, who invoked the survivor’s spirit of the Jewish people and called Hamas “the Nazis of the 21st century,” predicting that they “will become the dust of history.” Melissa Zukerman, an organizer of the event and co-founder of the strategic PR company Principal Communications Group, also gave remarks, followed by another organizer Sara Greenberg, a former Israeli intelligence officer, who said that “other cities have not shown up” like Los Angeles in support of the Israeli cause and that “there are those attempting to deny” the reality of the Hamas attacks. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, then took the podium to say: “This video will change the way you view the Middle East,” calling Hamas “sheer evil” and drawing applause when he called for “eradicating” the “genocidal” group. He also claimed that the war in Gaza had “nothing to do” with the broader issue of Palestinian freedom and warned that “the West is next” to face jihadist terror. “That’s right, man!” shouted an audience member in reply.
Finally, Greenberg’s husband, IDF Lt. Colonel Amnon Sheffler, introduced Bearing Witness by noting that it shows “less than 10 percent of the murders” committed on Oct. 7, and no rape, sexual assault or the murder of babies or children. Nevertheless, he said, it demonstrated the “barbarity of Hamas,” and, as the sound of the protests on the street escalated, remarked that the audience was “hearing some of it outside.”
Bearing Witness is indeed graphic and disturbing, a chaotic assemblage of clips purportedly assembled from Hamas bodycams and mobile phones, as well as Israeli victims’ dashcams and phones, along with CCTV and home security footage, and material recorded by emergency responders. The film concludes with especially horrific video of the aftermath of the massacre at the Israeli music festival Supernova — where Hamas executed at least 260 people — with shot after shot of bloodied corpses, others burnt to a crisp. And, despite the warning that Bearing Witness would not show the deaths of children, their dead bodies are shown in a montage, with faces blurred.
Throughout the screening, the audience at the Peltz Theater could be heard gasping, moaning, and exclaiming, “Oh my god.” Before long, the sound of sobbing filled the space. Yet, at the conclusion, as some rushed to the exits, describing their horror at the images they witnessed on screen, at least one attendee was unsatisfied. “Show the rape, show the beheading of babies, the world needs to see it!” he bellowed while leaving. “Shut up, go outside!” a woman answered. Another woman angrily replied, “He’s right!”
Throughout the screening, the audience at the Peltz Theater could be heard gasping, moaning, and exclaiming, “Oh my god.” Before long, the sound of sobbing filled the space.
This argument transpired as Lt. Colonel Sheffler tried to bring the event to a close, stating that the IDF is striving to “minimize civilian harm” in its bombardment of Gaza, but that Hamas is “hiding” behind the people of Gaza and its hospitals. He named Iran, along with Hamas, as part of an “axis of evil” before introducing a video from Broadway stars, including Debra Messing and Jeremy Jordan, singing the Les Misérables song “Bring Him Home” on behalf of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.
Outside the Museum of Tolerance following the screening, the dueling protests continued. On the Palestine side, a “Free Palestine” chant went up, led by a demonstrator with a megaphone, and was met by a cry of “Fuck Palestine!” from a driver. Other cars with Israel flags drove through the intersection, honking.
Two women waving Israel flags at a driveway as viewers left the museum, who did not give their names, told Rolling Stone they had been on the scene since an hour before the screening was to begin, and live nearby in the Beverlywood neighborhood. Neither attended the screening. “We don’t want to be traumatized for the rest of our lives,” one said.
Both women said they had tried to talk to the pro-Palestine group across the street but had gotten nowhere. “It’s like talking to a wall,” one said. “There’s so much hate there,” the other woman added. “No convincing.” The first protester claimed that Israel is trying to free Palestine from Hamas. The pair also agreed that it was important to show Bearing Witness “if you don’t want it to happen here.”
“And you know what’s sad?” she asked. “I’ll tell you what’s sad. People, we need to fight for our rights. When 9/11 happened, nobody asked America to [pause]. America went and did the job and did what she needs to do. But if you fight terrorism… ” she trailed off. “It’s more antisemitism, because no one likes the Jews all of a sudden.”
UPDATE: Hours after the screening concluded, pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters clashed outside of the Museum of Tolerance, reported ABC7 Eyewitness News.