The effort to document the events of Oct. 7 for posterity — and against the deniers

Historians and librarians collect documents, artifacts and even WhatsApp messages to preserve the historic events

If journalists are writing, as Washington Post publisher Philip Graham once put it, “the first rough draft of history” about Oct. 7, the foundations for the later drafts are being prepared by historians, archivists, librarians and others — many of whom attended a conference at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem on Sunday, the six-month anniversary of Hamas’ invasion of southwestern Israel.

The topic of “Telling War: The conference for documenting Oct. 7 and the war that broke out in its wake” focused on initiatives to collect testimony and preserve artifacts. But the topic of authenticating the massive collection amassed by the library’s staff and representatives of over 180 documentation initiatives loomed large amid the wave of atrocity denial that has grown online and in some corners of the news media.

Former IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis, who was involved in creating and screening a compilation of footage of Oct. 7 atrocities, lamented onstage that “there were Israeli spokespeople who spoke about events for which we do not have documentation, and that hurt our legitimacy. That created difficulties.”

As of this week, over 15,000 people have seen the footage in 650 screenings in 60 countries. Some people who see the 47-minute film that the IDF and Israeli embassies abroad have screened for limited, influential audiences such as members of Congress and figures in Hollywood, ask why specific crimes or situations are not shown, Manelis said. 

“When it comes to sexual violence, we have more stories than solid proof, and that is part of the difficulty,” he said.

The lack of proof does not necessarily mean they didn’t happen, he pointed out: “Not everything can be documented, which should be understandable in light of the circumstances, but it bothers some people, and that is one of the challenges.”

Cochav Elkayam-Levy, the founder of the Civil Commission on Oct. 7 Crimes by Hamas against Women and Children and recipient of this year’s Israel Prize for Solidarity, has been dogged by accusations made by those who deny Hamas’ sexual violence.

Speaking at the conference, she said that from the outset, she “warned to reach the highest standards of documentation. At the time, I didn’t know what it meant, but I’m glad I aimed for that standard.”

Elkayam-Levy said that in addition to attacks on her credibility, anti-Israel elements abroad have tried to cyberattack the Civil Commission, and she is working with former Shin Bet officers on securing her systems.

Raquel Ukeles, the National Library’s head of collections who is spearheading its Oct. 7 documentation collection efforts, lamented to Jewish Insider that “libraries don’t traditionally authenticate material, but this has come up again and again.”

Ukeles suggested that one way to demonstrate the authenticity of a story is to use “not one video but 20 sources” describing the same event.

In addition, the library is in talks with potential partners in the tech sector who could check the authenticity of videos, the medium that Ukeles said is most vulnerable to tampering.

Or Rappel-Kroyzer, a historian working on Tel Aviv University’s Oct. 7 archive, also said that he is working on a technological response to the question, “The materials you collected are nice, but how do we know that it’s not AI?”

”Part of what we do is use a system that uses blockchain to put a time stamp on materials and document them,” he said.

Israeli photojournalist Ziv Koren lamented during a panel the ability for “anyone, without any supervision, [to] upload any content they want. We can’t trust what we see.”

At the same time, Koren posited that if there was one iconic, powerful photo of Oct. 7, such an image would stay in people’s minds and be harder to deny — and blamed Israelis for being too squeamish to publish gruesome images.

”The other side doesn’t cover the bodies until there was a photographer, and on our side, they don’t bring a photographer until the bodies are covered,” Koren said. “We hurt ourselves with our outsize care for the dignity of the dead. The media became very conservative…We have no photo that is powerful enough…No one had the balls to put a photo on the front page that stops your breath.”

”If there is no visual that is powerful enough, it’s easier to deny, because there are such difficult photos from Gaza,” he added.

Ziv Koren speaks at conference at Israel National Library in Jerusalem, April 7th, 2024

Much of the conference focused on the myriad initiatives and organizations that the National Library is coordinating into one database of information and documentation of the events of Oct. 7 and beyond.

Participants included kibbutz archivists and historians who normally centered their role around telling the story of their agricultural communes’ establishment or managing the “nostalgia bungalow” in Be’eri with artifacts of how the kibbutzniks lived decades ago, and since oct. 7 found themselves documenting a massacre and an arson attack. Experts in visual history, collecting and cataloging objects from decades, centuries and even millennia ago, began doing that for some of the over 3,000 artifacts gathered from the attack that took place six months ago. Government employees tasked with declaring sites around the country to be of historic value considered what sites to dedicate to the memory of what recently happened, and where to let life in the western Negev move on. 

As National Library Director-General Oren Weinberg put it: “Unlike everything we dealt with in this library to this day, we aren’t looking at history from a distance. This impacts our lives every day.” 

The library’s documentation efforts began on Oct. 9, when its staff “knew that one of the main things that needed to be done is to document, preserve and make accessible…and ensure sustainability” of the evidence of what happened in the previous days, Weinberg said.

Ukeles, who spearheaded the effort, told JI that she viewed the collection and preservation of documentation from Oct. 7 and beyond as part of the library’s “core mission to collect and preserve and make available Israeli and Jewish culture and history.” 

She and 10 other library employees “put aside most of what we do to work full-time on this archive.”

“The first job,” Ukeles recounted, “was to download material from the internet. From our experience archiving the Israeli and Jewish internet for over a decade, we knew how ephemeral it was…much more than a book.” 

The library reached out to more than 180 individuals and organizations involved in documentation to coordinate and streamline their efforts, as well as prepare a joint archive coordinated by the library.

Ukeles said the library’s project “is very much collaborative…We are working with all of the cultural heritage organizations who chose to join forces so there will be one place for people looking for materials. If you’re looking for what happened in Kfar Aza or [for example] to the Lifshitz family, it will all be documented and can be searched.”

Shira Shapira works for the Israeli Heritage Ministry and is involved in its project to memorialize the events of Oct. 7 and set up “heritage spaces,” or historic sites.

“The whole [western Negev] has to be a heritage space that has to tell a variety of stories,” Shapira said. 

Toward that end, the Heritage Ministry and its partners have collected objects and eyewitness accounts. They are working on a way to preserve the many burnt cars left at the sites of the attack for a kind of memorial or exhibit. The ministry is using photogrammetry, the science of making measurements through pictures, to compare the damage to structures in the kibbutzim near the Gaza border to what was there before, and in addition to using it for memorialization, it has sent some of its findings to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. They have also mapped out the kibbutzim with notation of where and what was damaged, and which sites were considered historic before October 2023.

Shapira is also the mother of Aner Shapira, who caught and threw back seven grenades that Hamas terrorists lobbed into a bomb shelter near the Nova music festival, before the eighth exploded, killing him. 

Six months later, Shapira said she is “glad, if I can say that, to mark this morning with [conference attendees] and think about the national mission that we are all a part of. We have to understand that we have a job to do, to preserve and tell these stories to ourselves and the world.” 

Shapira spoke about how memorializing the events “plays an important role in our resilience,” in striking a balance between remembering the events and the need to try to return to regular life. 

Similarly, Ukeles said that, through the act of documenting Oct. 7, she “hope[s] to create space in our consciousness for healing.” 

Yaniv Hagi, a resident of Kibbutz Be’eri, launched Memory 710 with the hope of empowering residents of the western Negev.

The organization, which is working with the National Library, has been collecting WhatsApp messages — text, audio, photos and video — sent by residents of the Gaza border communities on Oct. 7, to try to tell the full story of what happened in the kibbutzim and towns that day.

Yaniv Hagi speaks at conference at Israeli National Library, Jerusalem, 7th April, 2024

“On Oct. 8 or 9, I found myself…on a mattress on the floor with all five members of my family, who all got out alive,” Hagi told conference attendees. “I had an idea. I imagined my grandson who was not born yet visiting a museum…He chooses our house, and could see everything that happened that day through our WhatsApp messages and the videos we filmed.”

Hagi realized that their phones had “documentation of what exactly happened, minute after minute. Through voice notes, you could hear things that happened with the local security volunteers and know exactly what happened by cross-referencing them with text messages.” 

Those messages also tell the story more powerfully, he argued: “It’s the difference between me telling you that I was in the safe room and I was afraid, and reading my message that said ‘I am afraid’ in that moment in the safe room.”

Hagi displayed screenshots from the phones of a husband and wife. On the wife’s phone, she says she is in the safe room with her children asking her husband what to do. He suggests that she barricade the door with furniture, and she sends a photo. On the husband’s phone is a WhatsApp group for the kibbutz’s security team, of which he was a volunteer member, with people telling each other where to go to help. At the bottom of the screen was a message that was never sent: “Call the army urgently.” 

“He left to defend his home and was killed,” Hagi said.

Hagi also seeks to empower residents of towns ravaged by the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 to tell their own story: “It’s part of our resilience. Memory 710 is made up mostly of people from the western Negev, which is very important to us… Do we have a narrative of victimhood, or of helping one another? I want to put the spotlight on stories where people help each other.” 

He gave his own experience as an example: His family was evacuated from the kibbutz by settlers from Otniel who traveled from the West Bank to the Gaza border area to save people without being called up by the IDF. He displayed a photo of his family sleeping on the floor of a gym in Netivot, “the city of the Babas,” as Hagi called it, referring to the Moroccan kabbalists who lived there, “the farthest thing from left-wing Be’eri hosting us. People let us into their homes to shower. The mayor himself gave us water and food.” 

Hagi and his team are still working to collect the WhatsApp messages. After that they plan to read them all and catalog them. Ultimately, he hopes to have “results” that can be provided to everyone who took part, such as “an empowering story or a work of art.” 

Koren, the photojournalist, drove to the Gaza border on Oct. 7 and has entered Gaza at least once a week since the start of the IDF’s ground incursion.

He filmed the moment he arrived in Sderot that morning and saw people shot dead in the street; behind the camera, at a loss for words, he said “oy vavoy” (a Yiddish expression of dismay) again and again. 

In another video Koren filmed while lying on the ground, ducking behind his car on the side of a road, gunshots can be heard nonstop. He and a colleague don’t know where it’s coming from. Then, suddenly, about six IDF soldiers arrive and duck behind a concrete barrier on the road and start shooting over their heads. Eventually, he and the other photographers with him get back in the car and drive away. “Hit the gas, faster, faster,” Koren says.

He showed conference participants photos he took of the Oct. 7 attack and its aftermath, which the Foreign Ministry has been exhibiting around the world, including one of “soldiers who fought for 40-50 hours straight and one started crying after seeing challahs and wine still on a table from the [Simchat Torah] holiday.” 

”We didn’t really understand what was happening,” Koren said. “It didn’t end on Oct. 7… Every day there is a story. The hardest thing is that there are 10 things at once and knowing what to do first… The documentation hasn’t stopped to this day… Evacuees, funerals, it’s endless.”

Koren took issue with the fact that the IDF, police and other government bodies send out their own photos and do not allow journalists into combat zones, saying that the practice ultimately hurts Israel. 

“People whose job it is to be objective and report the truth are seen less and less in the field because these bodies have their own interests,” Koren lamented. “I take photos for local and international media and for exhibits, and I want as many people to be exposed to these photos, especially because we see the hasbara that — to put it delicately — is not exactly doing the job, and we are losing our legitimacy.” 

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.