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Experiencing Oct. 7 through Virtual Reality

"Be the Witness VR" uses the latest technology to tell an ancient story—that in spite of everything, Jews will survive.
[additional-authors]
May 15, 2024
Destroyed houses are seen on December 20, 2023 in Be’eri, Israel. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

It has been a while since I wrote in my column here at the Jewish Journal. There is a reason for my silence. I noticed that there were so many people, like myself, with views about Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian cause, antisemitism, genocide, and international politics. Like me, most live in relative safety, thousands of miles away from the trauma and terrifying human consequences of this current war. I realized that my opinion pieces were just that — my opinion, and nothing more. So, I did what I believe many others could have and should have done: Stop opining, and start to listen more.

I am writing this week after taking time to absorb the gravity of this unprecedented situation. I spent time in Israel, visited the sites of genocidal mass killings in the Gaza envelope, and delved into the experiences of Oct. 7 with its survivors. I am producing a virtual reality testimony program, “Be the Witness,” produced for the Israeli education organization Israel-Is. I also produced a forthcoming website with the A-Mark Foundation, which provides nonpolitical insights from experts in the Middle East using conversational video AI. I took time to listen and learn from the best minds in the field and make their expertise available to all.

This week as we remembered Yom HaShoah, the weight of the loss of 1,200 mainly Jewish lives on Oct. 7 was a terrifying reminder of the genocidal nature of antisemitism.

“Be the Witness VR” launched in London last week, the day after Yom HaShoah. Israel-Is CEO Nimrod Palmach has a mission to teach the world what ‘Israel is’ and has worked tirelessly to bring the story of the witnesses of Oct. 7 to the world so they can tell their own story in their own words at the places they experienced that day.

Using advanced immersive technologies, it is now possible to be at Kibbutz Be’eri and the site of the Nova music festival at Re’im. There, you can look directly into the eyes of Millet Ben Haim as she describes the moment the music stopped. 

Using advanced immersive technologies, it is now possible to be at Kibbutz Be’eri and the site of the Nova music festival at Re’im. There, you can look directly into the eyes of Millet Ben Haim as she describes the moment the music stopped. You can be under the bush as Mazal Tazazo describes the moment she awoke after being rifle-butted, only to find her two best friends lying next to her, dead.

I have felt many things during the learning journey I have been on: At times, sadness; occasional anger; consternation about the ways in which ideological extremism seems to continually overwhelm the middle ground; sorrow at how the evil of a small group of people can create deep divisions in families and communities worldwide; disgust at the way the perpetrators of Oct. 7 were not content to kill, but also raped, mutilated, and tortured their victims; wonder at the resilience of the young people caught up in this war through no fault of their own; and concern about the lack of empathy for Palestinians in Gaza, who have endured immense suffering at the hands of Hamas and the toll of war.

The one thing I have not felt is fear. There are several reasons for this. The first is the strength I have derived from the survivors themselves. I have been listening to their stories almost daily as we worked on “Be the Witness VR,” which includes five individual eyewitnesses telling their stories. They had much to fear, and yet, despite the immense trauma they have been through, they are resilient. Like the generation of Holocaust survivors who went before them, despite their profound disappointment in human behavior, they promote love and empathy. Knowing that Hamas is a lethal and manipulative enemy is not the same thing as fearing them.

Secondly, during my listening journey, I have witnessed the diversity and resilience of the Jewish people as never before. To much of the outside world, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, all tarred with the same brush. What they don’t have the privilege of seeing is just how amazingly different we all are. They don’t see our sharply divergent views on politics, religion, and culture. As far as I can tell, there are 15 million different versions of what it means to be a Jew. There is one overriding exception, which is why antisemites can be forgiven for misreading our unanimity — when faced with anti-Jewish hatred, Jews know where the buck stops. We will fight for our survival.

One thing I have done during my hiatus is to take time to listen to Palestinian voices too. Not the angry, vociferous tirades we encounter on our news channels, but the ordinary people caught up in a war that is not of their making. It’s hard to hear when the volume is so loud, but my staunch opposition to Hamas and its destructive ideology does not need to mute the empathy I feel for the devastating loss that so many Palestinians have endured.

If we want humanity to prevail, our own humanity must also survive, however much we mistrust one another now. Germany was once the enemy that carried out Oct. 7 for the equivalent of 5,000 such days. Today they are our ally. 

I have spent much of my life studying the Holocaust, not because I am interested in how Jews died, but because I am interested in how Jews survived and have told their own story. Anti-Jewish hatred culminating in mass murder is part of a long history of persecution, regrouping, and restoration that has endured for many thousands of years. Hamas, like all the others, will one day be a blip, a distant memory in the Jewish people’s long and enduring legacy.

“Be the Witness VR” uses the latest technology to tell an ancient story—that in spite of everything, Jews will survive, we will teach the power of love and humanity over hate and barbarism, and we will all be stronger for it.


Stephen D. Smith is Executive Director Emeritus of USC Shoah Foundation and Founder of the Chatterbox Group.

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