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bearing witness

Harvard first university to screen IDF film showing Hamas brutalities of Oct. 7

Israeli officials say that screening the footage is meant to serve as a corrective to those who deny the scale and savagery of the attacks

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Gate at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As people streamed into a bright lecture hall in the Harvard Art Museum on Monday evening, attendees turned to the people seated next to them and said hello. A lot of schmoozing can happen when no one has a cell phone. 

Everyone had checked their phones — and their computers, tablets and any other devices that could take photos or record audio — at the door. 

They were gathered not for a discussion of the world-class art on display at the museum or for a presentation by a Harvard professor. What brought nearly 200 people to this auditorium on a cold, rainy evening in the middle of Harvard’s final exam period was a commitment to bear witness to the atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7. 

The assembled crowd, which included a diverse mix of students, faculty, Harvard administrative employees and community members affiliated with the university, marked the first campus audience to see the 46-minute film, which was compiled by the Israel Defense Forces as a record of the brutality carried out by Hamas against Israeli civilians. 

The first group to see the footage were foreign journalists, who watched it at a military base near Tel Aviv in late October. Since then, it has slowly reached other groups of influencers outside Israel, including lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate; leaders of American Jewish organizations; and researchers at prominent think tanks. Israeli officials have said that screening the footage is meant to serve as a corrective to those who deny the scale and savagery of the attacks.

“Too many people began to doubt that something like this ever happened,” Meron Reuben, Israel’s consul general to New England, said at the event. “Bearing witness is never easy,” Reuben continued, but “it is incredibly important.”

That this compilation of unspeakably violent footage has now also been shown at one of America’s most prestigious universities demonstrates how seriously Israel’s leaders take the crisis of antisemitism on American campuses. The footage can only be shown in tightly controlled settings; attendees must sign a waiver pledging not to record or share any of the footage beyond notes they might jot down with a pen and paper. A physical copy of the film was brought to Harvard by an Israeli military official.    

“​​Harvard is considered one of the most important campuses in the world, and we are truly concerned from what we see, that instead of growing and educating the next leaders of the United States or the world, it has become the hotbed of terrorist supporters,” Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, who introduced the footage, told Jewish Insider on Monday. 

The screening was organized by Harvard Chabad at the urging of Erdan and Bill Ackman, a billionaire investor and Harvard alumnus who has attacked the university for its slow, fumbling response to the Oct. 7 massacre and for its handling of campus antisemitism, which has exploded over the past two months.

“I resisted the opportunity to host tonight’s screening from the IDF,” Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, the founder and president of Harvard Chabad, said before the footage was shown. He described a “moral quandary” in deciding whether to show the film. 

“Judaism is a faith that honors the sanctity of all human life,” said Zarchi. Video footage of murder and bloodshed would ordinarily be a “desecration of the dead,” he continued. “The only basis for an exception is if it will help us preserve life.” He concluded that it was important to show the footage to counteract denial of the events of Oct. 7, which he compared to Holocaust denial.

A series of speakers who introduced and framed the screening did not gloss over the violence that attendees would see. Three mental health professionals were in the audience to assist anyone who needed counseling after viewing the footage. 

“It’s very hard to listen to children who are crying because their father was murdered in front of their eyes. You see the savagery. Yes, I am concerned,” Erdan told JI. “But I am more concerned for the future of civilization if such a terrorist organization can get a free pass also in Ivy League universities.” A spokesperson for Erdan said screenings are in the works at other Ivy League campuses, but declined to share more information. 

The footage was compiled from cell phones, dashboard cameras, law enforcement officers and first responders and CCTV. Much of it also came from body cameras and GoPro cameras used by the Hamas terrorists as they whooped and hollered in joy while committing heinous acts of violence. 

Alex Friedman, a first-year student at Harvard Law School, called the videos “among the most gruesome I have seen in my life.” He described a conversation with a classmate who has been a vocal pro-Palestinian activist in recent weeks, and whom he invited to join him at Monday’s screening.

“He refused, not due to reservations over watching something so gruesome, but over seeing what they called only one side of the truth,” Friedman said of the classmate. “What I saw tonight was not one side of the truth, but the whole truth, the truth that Hamas themselves wanted people to see, as evidenced by their own video recordings.”

The Department of Education recently opened a civil rights investigation into Harvard amid allegations that the university failed to respond to antisemitic harassment of Jewish students. Last week, Harvard Hillel released a statement calling on the university to intervene after classes were interrupted by students shouting “globalize the intifada” on bullhorns. “Protests of this nature have become increasingly normalized on our campus, causing Jewish and Israeli students to avoid class, university events and dining halls,” the statement said.

Friedman has spent his first semester of law school focused on Israel and the growing crisis at Harvard, where Jewish students accuse the university administration of not doing enough to respond to antisemitism.

“Over the past two months, it’s been a tragedy for Jewish students on campus that they can’t openly be who they are, that they can’t focus on their classes,” said Friedman. “We wish the administration would actually see what we’re going through and what we’re dealing with and even meet with us, because they’ve been very hesitant to even meet with us in the first place.” 

Harvard President Claudine Gay is set to testify on Tuesday at a congressional hearing about campus antisemitism. 

One of the mental health professionals in the room on Monday, Kiran Lang, watched about half the footage before she stepped out of the room. 

“The violation of human bodies was nothing I have ever experienced,” said Lang, a Newton-based therapist who graduated from Harvard College in 1993. “This is an ongoing trauma. It’s alive,” she noted.

By the end of the screening, the easy conversation and camaraderie present at the start of the event had vanished. In its place was silence, interspersed with an occasional sob.

When people began to leave the event, many were startled to see protestors outside shouting loudly in their direction. But then they saw Israeli flags, and made out the words that the small group of demonstrators were chanting: “Hamas is ISIS.” These were allies.

Still, there wasn’t time to linger. Final exams beckoned. Those who had witnessed the indescribable held their heads high and walked away. “Thank you,” they said to the protestors and the dozens of police officers stationed at the doors of the museum.

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