Conflict zone: on Jonathan Glazer’s Oscars speech

The director’s connection of The Zone of Interest to the war in Gaza has aroused controversy in Hollywood and beyond, and sparked debate around the right of Jews, in Israel and outside, to criticise that nation.

Jonathan Glazer

When it premiered in Cannes last May, it might have been possible to read Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest as straightforwardly a film about the Holocaust and the mindset of its perpetrators. But more recently, world events have made the film resonant – and controversial – in ways that no one could have predicted. 

In October, Glazer presented his feature at the New York Film Festival, one day after the atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel on 7 October. By December, when I interviewed the director for Sight and Sound, Israel’s retaliatory attack on Gaza was well under way. According to figures published by Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, the death toll there has now exceeded 30,000 and United Nations agencies have warned that Gaza’s population is facing famine; meanwhile, an estimated 134 hostages abducted by Hamas are still missing.

In his S&S interview, Glazer was clear about the broader resonances of his drama: “I made this film to talk about our capacity as human beings for violence, and our capacity to disassociate ourselves from the horrors committed in our name.” 

On 10 March, when The Zone of Interest won Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards, the director was more specific. Flanked on stage by producer James Wilson and executive producer Len Blavatnik, Glazer said, “Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanisation – how do we resist?”

The statement was cheered by the Oscars audience, although Blavatnik was reportedly unaware of what Glazer would say, while another executive producer, Danny Cohen, later stated that he fundamentally disagreed with the director. Glazer’s words were widely reported and, by some, misunderstood. John Podhoretz, editor of conservative American magazine Commentary, responded, “By saying he refutes his Jewishness on the biggest stage in the world five months after the attack on Israel, Jonathan Glazer has instantly made himself into one of Judaism’s historical villains.” 

There was, of course, no suggestion of Glazer ‘refuting’ his Jewishness, in the sense of repudiating it; he had simply made an awkward choice in his phrasing and in the misleading use of ‘refute’ (Merriam-Webster: “To prove wrong by argument or evidence; show to be false or erroneous; to deny the truth or accuracy of”). Other angry responses came from the US Holocaust Survivors Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League, which claimed that Glazer’s comments “minimise the Shoah and excuse terrorism”. An open letter, published in Variety in March and initially signed by some 450 Jewish creatives in the US, accused Glazer of drawing a “moral equivalence” between the Nazis and “an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination” and accused him of giving credence to “the modern blood libel that fuels a growing anti-Jewish hatred around the world”. (Writing on film website The Spool, Samuel Harwood has subsequently questioned the authenticity of some of those signatories). 

The Zone of Interest (2023)

In the New Statesman, the novelist Howard Jacobson praised The Zone of Interest, but inveighed against its director’s “abject mea culpa”. He, too, attacked Glazer for perpetuating an antisemitic libel: “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.” He added, “if Jonathan Glazer must buy into Jewish blame he must buy into Palestinian blame as well” (in fact, Glazer very clearly referred to the victims of Hamas in his speech).

Similarly, László Nemes – the director of Son of Saul (2015), the only Holocaust fiction feature that is comparable in vision and artistic seriousness to Glazer’s – praised Zone but criticised its director: “Had he embraced the responsibility that comes with a film like that, he would not have resorted to talking points disseminated by propaganda meant to eradicate, at the end, all Jewish presence from the Earth.”

Other responses, however, made it clear that Glazer was voicing feelings that are shared by many Jews around the world, who feel that the Netanyahu government’s assault on Gaza, however legitimate its initial motivation, has been pursued with horrifying relentlessness and an absence of mercy. Glazer’s intervention has been widely defended. Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz Memorial, called his speech “a universal moral warning against dehumanisation”. In Israeli newspaper Haaretz, playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America, 1991), agreed with Glazer: “He’s saying Jewishness, Jewish identity, Jewish history, the history of the Holocaust, the history of Jewish suffering must not be used… as an excuse for a project of dehumanising or slaughtering other people.” Among others supporting Glazer, Dave Zirin in The Nation argued it is wrong “to make it sound like Glazer is rejecting his religion and culture, when the opposite is obviously the case”.  More recently, speaking to Variety, Ken Loach called Glazer’s statement “very brave” and noted that it had received “lots of support from many, many Jewish people who said it breaks the stereotype that all Jewish people support what Israel is doing, because clearly that’s not the case… It was hugely valuable in that it shows that diversity.”

Indeed, the point made by Zirin and other commentators concerns the assumption that anti-Zionist positions are, by definition, antisemitic: this equation is a “rhetorical tactic antithetical to Jewish values”, said the signatories of a letter published last November in American literary magazine n+1, including photographer Nan Goldin, producer/screenwriter/academic James Schamus and writer-director Emma Seligman. 

Yet many people – Jewish and gentile, pro- and anti-Israel – habitually insist that Zionism and Judaism necessarily contain or equate to each other. It is part of the experience of a diaspora Jew, which I am, that one may feel little connection with Israel, emotionally, culturally or in one’s personal experience – and yet, one will always encounter plenty of people who will tell you that you are inextricably connected with Israel whether you like it or not. They may even hold you implicitly responsible for Israel’s behaviour as a nation – as we are witnessing in the current international resurgence of antisemitism. Arising from all this is the question of the right of Jews, in Israel and outside, to criticise that nation, and to be understood as speaking with integrity and from their consciences, rather than from bad faith or perversity. In February, the Berlin International Film Festival’s Best Documentary award went to No Other Land, an eye-opening reportage by a Palestinian-Israeli collective on Israel’s forced evictions of Palestinian villages in the West Bank. Accepting the award, one of its directors, Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham, condemned the war in Gaza and called for a ceasefire; Berlin’s mayor Kai Wegner, who is not Jewish, retorted that such remarks were unacceptable and that antisemitism “has no place in Berlin”. 

The angry responses to Glazer and Abraham highlight a strange aspect of the situation of international Jewry. To criticise Israel as a Jew may incur accusations – from other Jews or from gentiles – of being antisemitic, of fuelling antisemitism, of perpetuating or disseminating ancient libels. 

For the pro-Israeli hardliners, it may be inconvenient to imagine that statements made by Glazer, Abraham, Kushner and other like-minded Jewish voices are not a form of sabotage or disloyalty – but an authentic voicing of a different Jewish position, one that involves self-examination, a questioning of the Jewish individual’s relation to Israel (especially Netanyahu’s Israel) and to an ongoing crisis of dehumanisation. 

Glazer’s words stated the challenge as it stands, across frontiers: to reiterate, “Whether the victims of October 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanisation – how do we resist?”