‘Heart-wrenching’ how badly Oct. 7 survivors want to share aftermath, says media delegation
A group of media influencers and journalists who toured Israel as part of a mission led by Shai DeLuca, a Canadian-Israeli interior designer, seen in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Dec. 4 to Dec. 7, 2023. (Credit: Courtesy)

“Had this happened to any other people in the world, this story would be told nonstop,” said Shai DeLuca, a Canadian-Israeli interior designer.

By Dave Gordon
December 27, 2023

(JNS) — Shai DeLuca, a Canadian-Israeli interior designer, won a defamation suit on Dec. 22 against an anti-Israel Toronto restaurant owner who called him a terrorist and killer. “As much as this was my personal suit against Foodbenders, and Kim Hawkins, the win is a collective win and belongs to the Jewish community as a whole,” he told JNS.

“What we are witnessing—the trampling through the streets of Western countries—is reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. Instead of ‘Sieg Heil,’ we’re hearing calls for ‘intifada.’ I lived through the second intifada,” said DeLuca, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. “We are listening to calls for the murder of Jews. In public. Boldly. Loudly. And unapologetically.”

While the defamation incident occurred in July 2020, well before Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel, DeLuca thinks that “the current resurgence of hate marches” and “vile, racist, xenophobic hate we are seeing today” mirrors the restaurateur’s attacks on him.

“In the words of Menachem Begin, ‘I am not a Jew with trembling knees.’ I am a proud Israeli Jew,” he said. “I wear my Zionism proudly on my sleeve, as does the majority of Jews worldwide.” The court’s precedent has “made Jews a little safer in Canada, and I hope I have empowered others to stand tall in the face of such hate,” he added.

Before Oct. 7, DeLuca’s posts on Instagram, where he has nearly 90,000 followers, often addressed Israel and antisemitism in a sea of posts about interior design, DeLuca’s husband and their dog. But since Hamas brutally attacked Israel, DeLuca’s social-media posts have focused overwhelmingly on Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Earlier this month, he led a delegation of five international influencers and journalists on a multi-day trip to Israel (Dec. 4 to Dec. 7) “to bear witness” at Kibbutz Kfar Aza and Sderot, as well as Kfar Vradim in northern Israel. The latter, DeLuca told JNS, helped the delegation learn about Hezbollah and the next possible front, and “what the topographical challenges are, how close the border is and how close the border towns are.”

“I was there on the 7th. The country before Oct. 7 is a very different country than after Oct. 7,” DeLuca, who is also a media personality, told JNS. “Before, it was really bad. After, I witnessed a unity that I don’t remember ever seeing. It was amazing to see.”

“It didn’t matter what political party you belonged to. Nobody talked about politics anymore. Everybody was helping everybody,” he added. “It was surreal, but it was the most uplifting thing I’ve ever seen.”

‘All the allies we can get’

The delegation came together after a private donor approached the Consulate General of Israel in Toronto and offered to fund an excursion to Israel for people in the media. DeLuca was selected to assemble the group. He did so in an attempt to find those with varied reach, including among non-Jews.

He was joined on the trip by Jill Schneiderman, editorial director and partner at the Canadian women’s magazine Divine; Kasim Hafeez, deputy communications director for messaging at Christians United for Israel (CUFI), based in Tampa, Fla.; British Internet personality Oli London; and Grant Cornthwaite, who sent his dispatches to his wife, Toronto-based beauty influencer Randi Cogan-Shinder, for future posting.

“We need all the allies we can get,” DeLuca told JNS.

Art depicting Israeli hostages at the hands of Hamas terrorists. (Credit: Courtesy)

Shani Azulai, deputy consul general of Israel in Toronto, told JNS that her office tries in many different ways to tell “the real Israeli story.”

But sometimes, she added, “it needs to be told not from us, government officials.”

She hadn’t previously met the delegation and didn’t approach them. “They can go in like a blank paper as much as possible,” she said. “All they needed to do was go and tell the story, bear witness, to be the eyes and ears for their followers.”

‘Duty to show the truth of what happened’

DeLuca thought it was important for the group to start at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.

The group met with various Israeli officials as well to “get different viewpoints of what was going on,” he said.

Those included Ran Natanzon, head of innovation and country branding at the Foreign Affairs Ministry; Dan Oryan, head of the ministry’s Balkan department; Ronen Gilor, the ministry’s director for U.N. and human rights; and Rasha Athamni, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in South Korea and the first Muslim woman to serve as an Israeli diplomat.

Damage in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz in southern Israel, December 2023. (Credit: Courtesy)

In Kfar Aza, the visuals left an impression—burnt and bullet-riddled homes, grenade shrapnel holes. But beyond that, residents begged the delegation to tell their stories widely, according to DeLuca.

“It was the reason we were there,” he told JNS. “It was the most infuriating part because had this happened to anyone else in the world, had this happened to any other people in the world, this story would be told nonstop. But for us, it stopped very quickly, and went onto something else.”

“I want people to know that’s what survivors want—to tell their stories,” he said.

Hafeez posted about the experience on Instagram. “Visiting Kfar Aza was one of the most difficult and truly disturbing experiences I’ve ever had,” he wrote. “I don’t want to hear the what about, what ifs and buts! We need to keep talking about what happened on Oct. 7, because we [can’t] let antisemites shift the conversation from this tragedy.”

London posted several videos on Instagram, where he has 727,000 followers, of the Kfar Aza destruction and of media appearances, including one in which he said that influencers aren’t speaking out sufficiently about Israel.

“This family home was among dozens burned to the ground as Hamas terrorists and Palestinians stormed the village, killing 62 people and kidnapping 18,” he wrote in one post. “During the attack, Hamas filmed themselves butchering the villagers, their pets and children. Dogs were shot and massacred, entire families killed in their beds. Babies executed.”

Damage in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz in southern Israel, December 2023. (Credit: Courtesy)

“I did not want to have to come here and witness such horrors. But sadly, many in the world need to open their eyes,” he wrote in another. “It is the duty of all of us to show the truth of what happened that day. We owe it to all the victims.”

Schneiderman told JNS that the terror attack has affected nearly every Israeli directly.

“Every person there has a firsthand connection. They have a connection to the hostages, to an IDF soldier, a connection to somebody that was murdered on Oct. 7,” she said. “It reinforces that it’s a small country, and they really are confused about the world not believing what happened there.”

“It’s so heart-wrenching, knowing how badly they want the stories told,” she said.

The group saw rows of demolished buildings in Sderot and spoke with several residents, who fought back and fended terrorists off until the army arrived.

“When you are connected to people and you see that desperate look in their eyes, you can’t turn away from it,” Schneiderman said. “Seeing their strength, resolve and spirit will always stay with me.”

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