Inside the Museum of Tolerance's screening of Hamas attack footage

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 25: The Musuem of Tolerance "Witness to Truth" exhibit on display at the Los Angeles premiere of "Fiddler's Journey To The Big Screen" at Museum Of Tolerance on April 25, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Unique Nicole/Getty Images)
The Museum of Tolerance, pictured in 2022, privately screened "Bearing Witness to the October 7th Massacre" on Wednesday. (Unique Nicole / Getty Images)

An audience of some 150 people gathered at Los Angeles' Museum of Tolerance on Wednesday for a private screening of graphic footage of Hamas' attacks against Israel last month, titled "Bearing Witness to the October 7th Massacre."

The gruesome scenes of violence committed against Israeli men, women and children were compiled by the Israel Defense Forces and mostly captured by Hamas militants' body cameras and cellphones. More than 1,400 Israelis were killed in the attacks and more than 240 were taken hostage, Israel says.

As the audience watched the video, which has been screened in recent weeks in various countries for world leaders, ambassadors, diplomats and journalists covering the Israel-Hamas war, the mood was somber. Some wept, gasped and cried out at the most horrific sequences, including extensive footage from a music festival where some 300 people were killed.

Support for Israel has historically been strong in Hollywood, and with the conflict in the Middle East causing deep divisions in the entertainment industry and across the globe, Wednesday's screening was aimed at shoring up that backing.

Publicist Melissa Zukerman, who helped coordinate the event, noted the "showbiz crowd" in attendance, which included a number of producers, agents and executives, though no celebrities were present — including Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who had reportedly been involved in organizing the screening. One factor that may have affected Hollywood turnout was the announcement Wednesday afternoon of a deal between the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the studios, apparently ending more than six months of labor strife in the entertainment industry.

Introducing the footage, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the audience, “This video will change the way you view the Middle East and it will change the way you view the war in Gaza. Israel, dear friends, is fighting for her future. And I'm here tonight to urge you to support Israel in this fight against sheer evil until we eradicate Hamas.”

With tensions over the conflict running high, the screening also drew about 50 protesters to the museum, located at the corner of Roxbury Drive and Pico Boulevard. At times, the demonstrations grew tense, with shouting matches breaking out between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups, who were separated by Los Angeles Police Department officers.

Read more: Protests grow violent after screening of film on Hamas attacks at Museum of Tolerance

Some demonstrators waved U.S. and Israeli flags, and a woman used a bullhorn to chant, “Bring them home,” a reference to the Israeli hostages. Others held signs that read, “Anti-Zionism ≠ Anti-Semitism” and “The Museum of Tolerance is showing a pro-genocide film.”

Miguel Angel Arias, 33, whose wife is Palestinian, was among those demonstrating against the private screening at the museum. He said he believes the footage will be used to justify the killing of innocent Palestinians. More than 10,500 people have been killed in Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip in response to the Oct. 7 attacks, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

“You have a film that is being shown at a time when people are calling for a cease-fire,” Arias said. “The screening is only for a few privileged people and it doesn’t lead to conversation.”

The event was organized with the help of two advocacy groups — the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League — as part of an effort to return the focus to the Hamas attacks that started the war.

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A screening of the Oct. 7 footage was held Tuesday in New York at the headquarters of the AJC. Others are likely to follow in the weeks ahead as supporters of Israel's military response seek to shape public opinion amid growing pressure from allies including the Group of 7 nations for "humanitarian pauses" in the conflict.

"Bearing witness to this footage should make unmistakably clear that the barbaric attack by Hamas upon innocent men, women, children, the elderly and the infirm is something that is beyond the pale of how human beings should treat one another," Richard Hirschhaut, Los Angeles director of the American Jewish Committee, said before the screening. "That imagery needs to stand apart from political expression and from deeply held viewpoints, whether one is pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel."

In the wake of the death of a 69-year-old Jewish man Sunday following a confrontation at a protest over the war in Thousand Oaks, extra precautions were put in place for Wednesday's screening. The heavy security inside as well as outside the screening included a metal detector and bomb-detecting devices upon entry to the parking garage.

Still, Hirschhaut said that those protesting the screening had every right to do so. "That's the social contract in America," he said. "We should be able to fervently disagree but do so in a way that's civil and respectful of one another's rights. Let this weekend's tragedy be a lesson that the rhetoric and the vitriol must be ratcheted down."

Times staff writers Jeremy Childs, Jeong Park and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.