The speech Jonathan Glazer could have given

(RNS) — On Oscar night on Sunday (March 10), director Jonathan Glazer, upon accepting the Academy Award for best international film for “The Zone of Interest,” chose to sharply criticize Israel, and by implication, Judaism itself. The prize was well-deserved; I wrote about the movie here. In his speech, he said that he and producer James Wilson “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 in Gaza.”

Much has been written about his words. My favorite critique comes from author Howard Jacobson, whose Booker Prize-winning novel “The Finkler Question” introduced us to a new Jewish movement — “ASHamed Jews,” who believe that “the world waits upon the finding of their consciences.”

This is the speech that I wish Jonathan Glazer had given.

I stand before you this evening, not only as the director of “The Zone of Interest,” and not only as an artist, and not only as someone who brought a story that needed to be told to the screen.

I stand here as a member of the Jewish people, who has words within him that he cannot restrain.

Ever since Oct. 7, many of us who might have once before stood on the sidelines of Jewish life have learned what it means to stand — not on the sidelines, but within a circle of pain. That pain has many circles. We all feel the pain of those who are suffering innocently in Gaza. We fervently hope and pray that they find relief from that anguish. We hope and pray that they get access to all necessary humanitarian aid. We pray that there will be healing in the midst of a people, so broken and so aggrieved, and that their land and their lives will be restored to them.

And I stand before you as someone who bears the intense trauma of my people. Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst (a phrase from the original speech).

My people experienced its own dehumanization on a sacred day; the dehumanization of elderly people and children dragged into captivity; the dehumanization of young women raped and mutilated, paraded through the streets of Gaza; the dehumanization of young people gunned down while celebrating the unifying power of music — a power that Academy members would recognize; the dehumanization of children incinerated in the presence of their parents. 

I utter the words “children incinerated in the presence of their parents,” and I gulp. If we were to search for the precedent for incinerated children, then surely we would find it in the horror that “The Zone of Interest” portrays.

In that film, the grandmother could not bear the reality of the crematoria; she had to escape in the middle of the night.

Like the grandmother, too many of us could not and cannot bear the reality of Oct. 7; we, too, seek to escape in the middle of the night, the night of our unknowing.

Or, let me put it this way: When it comes to the horror that befell the Jewish people on Oct. 7 — a horror that cried out for military response — too many of us have entered the zone of disinterest.

“The Zone of Interest” is about Auschwitz. To quote Hannah Arendt, it is about the banality of evil.

But, in our world, evil is no longer banal. Evil has become chic. Terror has become a fashion statement.

That evil emerges from the minds and lips and pens of naive people. Among them are our young people, those who should be our best and our brightest, who parrot glib slogans. That evil comes from misguided people crowing for the erasure of a sovereign state — for the elimination of only one sovereign state, among many, for its imperfections, and even its failures.

No other country in the history of the world — not South Africa in the midst of apartheid; not China because of the destruction of Tibet, or the Uyghurs; not Great Britain because of the oppression of Northern Ireland — no other country has found its very existence placed on the table.

It portrayed a great horror on screen. There are entities in our world who would seek to replicate, update and upgrade that horror. Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran — they want to create another Auschwitz. Don’t believe it? Read their charters; listen to their words. 

This is what we should have learned even as the gates of Auschwitz were closing: When people call for your destruction, believe them. 

Thank you. 

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