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12 March 2024

Who dares to “hijack” the Holocaust?

Jonathan Glazer’s abject Oscars speech for The Zone of Interest served to downplay the inhumanity his film so powerfully depicts.

By Howard Jacobson

Jonathan Glazer’s profoundly subtle and disturbing film, The Zone of Interest, no sooner won an Oscar for Best International Feature than its director delivered an apology for his Jewishness so grovelling in its emotional simplicity it would have made the angels – of any religion – weep.

I wanted The Zone of Interest to win an Oscar. Quite frankly I would have been delighted had it won them all. Based freely on Martin Amis’s dark-delving philosophical novel, it is a marvellously subtle film that addresses the greatest of moral conundrums – how it was that an educated and refined society could live cheek by jowl with barbarism. To say that the film didn’t flinch from the most vexed contradictions in human nature is not the half of it. To a soundtrack that could have been the music of the 20th century imploding, it minutely examined the thing we call normality and left it in shreds.

Maybe there is no explanation for the coexistence of the most jarring behavioural contrarieties, the mechanism that makes it possible to love one’s family and care not a jot about the destruction of other people’s. Unless it was something as demeaning as the desire to please, there is no explaining how such a subtle and unusual artist as Jonathan Glazer could, with the richly deserved Oscar in his hand, deliver such brutally sensational and commonplace thoughts.

“Right now, we stand here,” he said, “as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.”

There is disagreement about the meaning of this clumsy formulation. Is Glazer refuting his Jewishness full stop, or refuting his Jewishness being hijacked to justify an occupation? Because I want to give him every benefit of every doubt I will accept the latter explanation. So that’s all right then. He’s holding on to his Jewishness after all. Whew! Except that it’s not all right. What and where is this hijacking of which he wants no part? I have not myself heard any serious, thinking moral Jew adducing the “occupation” to the Holocaust, though I have heard it said by those for whom discrediting Jews is a passion that this is the sort of moral blackmail Jews routinely employ. Jews, it is said, cry anti-Semitism only to silence criticism of Israel, just as they help emergency relief efforts in other countries only to harvest the organs of the dying, just as they selectively murder children because that’s what they’ve been doing for centuries…

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Such are the canards deployed to rob the Jews of any lingering sympathy they might yet enjoy as victims of that inhumanity The Zone of Interest depicts, and so to downplay, as just another gambit in Jewish subterfuge, the Holocaust itself. Hijack! Consider the import of that word. So despicable are the Jews, they will steal from themselves the most hellish events in their history to justify visiting hell on others.

Why would Jonathan Glazer, of all people – a man who has been immersed to an unusual degree in recent Jewish history – give the slightest weight to this libel? 

I don’t say he should have stood before a televised audience of millions and cheered on the Israeli Defence Forces. Indeed, he had no need to invoke his Jewishness at all. But since he chose to do so, could he not have used the opportunity to unite rather than divide, to explain, to speak wisely about a tragedy that is tearing all parties to it apart? Could he not have spoken of the horror felt by every Jew on 7 October, not just on account of the violence done but the approving reactions to it, and the horror felt today by every Jew at the death toll in Gaza, and allow no one to suppose that the heartbreaking scenes there somehow give succour to a fictional Jewish blood-lust justified by the Holocaust? 

I don’t accuse Jonathan Glazer of being selective in his compassion. “Whether the victims of October 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza,” he said, “all the victims to dehumanisation – how do we resist?” But resistance to dehumanisation does not necessitate divesting oneself of Jewishness, however one interprets that, whether as the hijacking of it to win a false legitimacy or in seeking any other advantage that being Jewish might confer. For a Jew to concur in this fashionable defamation – that Jews are moral profiteers, and that it is only by shedding such Jewishness that a Jew can feel pity – is doubly despicable.

As a serious, thinking Jewish man, Jonathan Glazer must have read the late Amos Oz on the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which both parties could be said to be in the right, and then, when the situation worsened, both parties could be said to be in the wrong. The “occupation” didn’t just happen one day to satisfy Holocaust righteousness. It was a child of history, born of a mutual intransigence that pre-dated the Holocaust, the consequence of mistakes and violent obduracies on both sides. A tragedy does not entail blame, but if Jonathan Glazer must buy into Jewish blame he must buy into Palestinian blame as well. It would have taken real moral courage to pursue that line; right now it takes none to castigate Jews.

In my years teaching English literature I had frequent recourse to DH Lawrence’s dictum, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” That Dickens was a bad husband, I was forever telling my students, no more made him a bad novelist than beating her dog made Emily Brontë a bad novelist. We will no more fathom the nexus between art and moral intelligence, than that between a normal family life and savagery.

Jonathan Glazer made an ambitious, important film. I salute the artist. But his abject mea culpa debases him as a man.

[See also: The price of private education]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

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