Picture credit: John Shearer/WireImage
Artillery Row

Jonathan Glazer’s speech was an affirmation of Jewishness

Critics who accuse him of denying his identity have things backwards

Most Oscar speeches are decidedly un-political, but the political ones are reliably dramatic. Marlon Brando’s Sacheen Littlefeather, Michael Moore baying for Bush, Spike Lee’s urge for love over hate: they are arresting enough in their own way, but enfeebled by the privilege that buttresses their gilded soapbox.

Jonathan Glazer’s acceptance speech for The Zone of Interest has been placed in the same bracket. Warning of the perils of “dehumanisation” that the film depicts, Glazer, a former kibbutznik, “refuted” his Jewishness and the Holocaust being “hijacked by an (Israeli) occupation that has led to conflict for so many innocent people.”

The incendiary backlash that followed came from many Israeli hardliners, but also fellow filmmakers like László Nemes. Recently, 450 artists and executives penned a letter denouncing Glazer for allegedly drawing “moral equivalence” between both the Nazis and Israel, and the atrocities of October 7th with the “ongoing attack on Gaza”. The first charge withers under a little scrutiny, which is no doubt why some critics have selectively quoted the speech, distorting his words into a denial of his Jewishness.

For implying that October 7th, a brutal antisemitic crime, did not appear out of a clear blue sky, he is accused of indulging in woke antisemitism for the pro-Palestine movement. An “easy way out”, as novelist Howard Jacobson put it. But this is mistaken.

Israel, somewhat surprisingly, is rarely the topic of a Dolby theatre sermon (conspiracy theorists: here is your cue to leave). As she collected her Best Supporting Actress gong for the WWII drama Julia at the 50th Academy Awards, Vanessa Redgrave denounced “Zionist hoodlums”, praising instead the real fight against antisemitism waged by other Jews, and herself. Her anti-racism, and not the Zionists’, she suggested, was legitimate.

Glazer’s speech inflamed tensions but it was not inflammatory like Redgrave’s. Buried beneath the furore over whether Glazer was unfairly holding Jews to account is the proud defensiveness in his words, and their fidelity to the spirit of his art.

As audiences watch the, quite literally, garden-variety happenings of the Höss family perched next to the turrets of Auschwitz, the engines of Nazi extermination screaming in the periphery, they are not given nudges to empathise or draw specific comparisons. They are confronted by the surreal, sordid reality: Auschwitz was possible because it was so easily compartmentalised by unexceptional people; the cries of mass extermination reduced to “ambience”.

We should be made of sterner stuff than to indulge complacent reactions to moral dilemmas like these

Those accusing Glazer of drawing moral equivalence miss the point. By raising the dehumanisation that gave way to the Shoah as something commonplace, logically, it can be found anywhere. We should be made of sterner stuff than to indulge complacent reactions to moral dilemmas like these. Saying “never again” means finding new ways and new relevancies for the Nazi genocide, not keeping it in the annals of history. The reality that antisemitism still exists should open discussions, not muzzle Israel’s critics as it breaches international law.

In his book In The Land of Israel, Israeli writer Amos Oz called Zionism “the story of Jews becoming a people like other peoples, and therefore a very revolutionary story — because Jews were never a people like other peoples.”

Rather, it asks us: is becoming a people like other peoples enough?

Jewish identity, like any other, is protean. Israel was not created as a consolation for the Holocaust, even as it looms the largest over its cultural memory. Zionism was a 19th-century dream of a people free from persecution in their ancient homeland. If we aspired to become fully-realised and self-determined, The Zone of Interest, whether intentionally or not, undermines this with a reminder that the state can just be another atrocity machine. This is not drawing a false equivalence between Israel and the Third Reich. Rather, it asks us: is becoming a people like other peoples enough?

Isaac Deutscher wrote in his 1954 essay “The Non-Jewish Jew” that the Shoah, and all that preceded, is so baked into Jews’ consciousness, it outstrips Talmudic scripture and custom:

Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I, therefore, a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated.  I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy; because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.

I used to be adamant that Israel really had nothing to do with Judaism, but this naiveté only serves to embolden antisemitism by proxy of anti-Zionism. Yet just because Israel and Jewishness are entwined does not make them static. Once I was approached by a young man who asked me for a lighter, and, noticing the Star of David hanging from my neckchain, asked: “You Jewish pal?” I quickly said yes, a light nausea brewing. 

“Fuck Israel though, yeah?”, he said. 

I paused. 

“Yeah, sure. Whatever.”

Having had my identity cornered in this way, a demand that I refute the Jewish homeland, I find it easy to recognise the reservations, like Jacobson’s, about Glazer’s seemingly indulging in tropes of Jewish moral profiteering over the memory of the Holocaust. Many Jews find Israel’s punishment campaign indefensible but must also defend Israel as an ideal as the Jews’ only nation borne of historical tragedy, even as they reserve the right to scrutinise it without qualification.

This special interest Jews have in Israel exceeds even that of the fervent Anti-Zionist. In that sense, I believe Glazer’s statement was an appeal to Jews, not to Hollywood or Pro-Palestine supporters. Warnings that Israel’s actions damage its ideal as a place of real security and self-respect for Jews should not be silenced, least of all now. 

Resisting the innate human talent for dehumanisation means resisting the idea that anyone is somehow beyond that reproach. Human beings, it turns out, have an uncanny ability to dial down awful realities, until they are just the hum of white noise.

What else would enable protestors to feel invigorated singing al-fresco classics like “Zionist scum off our streets.” Why else would Israeli soldiers parade around in dispossessed or dead civilians’ underwear for social media, while thousands more are slaughtered each day? It is the fairy tales we tell ourselves that enables groups like Hamas to dehumanise the Jew so far that they cannot contain their glee as they butcher and burn fathers, mothers and children in front of each other, camera rolling.

Contrary to the shady insistence of some anti-Zionists, the point is not that Israel is exceptional. Its actions reflect those of a nation-state in a febrile ecosystem. But that’s an excuse for nobody. And while this is a family argument, it is not just a Jewish argument for Jewish people. Especially as the spectre of eternal Jew hate is used to justify repression and dismiss the mass death of civilians.

See how Glazer’s voice wavers, his fingers trembling, as he reminds us of this, and it should be clear to most that it was anything but “easy” for him. Most likely he’ll be asked about that moment for the rest of his life. Claiming that the state for Jews is justified in bombarding a civilian population because of millennia of hate, does not make us more human, but infantilises us. It instructs us to always be afraid of others. This can only drag us further and further away from self-respect, security, and peace.

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