'Israel not hijacking Judaism, Holocaust by defending itself'

Jonathan Glazer’s Oscars speech against Israel prompts fierce Jewish reactions

‘The Zone of Interest’ director slammed by Holocaust survivors group, ADL for remarks denouncing ‘occupation’ and ‘dehumanization’ in Israel and Gaza, while some defend him

Jonathan Glazer poses with the award for best international feature film for "The Zone of Interest," in the press room at the Oscars on March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Jonathan Glazer poses with the award for best international feature film for "The Zone of Interest," in the press room at the Oscars on March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

JTA — In the wake of the Oscars, Hollywood has been treated to a rare spectacle: Jewish communal leaders attacking the Jewish director of an award-winning Holocaust movie.

The Anti-Defamation League and an organization representing Holocaust survivors are among those now angry with Jonathan Glazer, the British Jewish filmmaker behind the widely acclaimed drama “The Zone of Interest,” which is set in Auschwitz. During his acceptance speech Sunday for best international feature, Glazer denounced the “occupation” and “dehumanization” that he said has led to loss of life in both Israel and Gaza — and connected it to a lesson that he said his own film tried to teach.

“Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present,” Glazer read from his prepared remarks. “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 the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza.”

He went on to say that they are “all the victims of this dehumanization,” and asked, “How do we resist?” He concluded by dedicating his Oscar to a real-life Polish resistance fighter who was depicted in the film.

Glazer’s comparing of the “dehumanization” of the Holocaust to the Israel-Hamas war has not sat well with many institutional Jewish and pro-Israel leaders. Their reactions point to a deeper division within the Jewish community, which has only grown since October 7, over when and how to link the Holocaust to Israel.

“You made a Holocaust movie and won an Oscar. And you are Jewish. Good for you. But it is disgraceful for you to presume to speak for the six million Jews, including one and a half million children, who were murdered solely because of their Jewish identity,” David Schaecter, president of the Miami-based Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation USA, wrote in an open letter to Glazer on Monday.

Schaecter, a Holocaust survivor himself, also called Glazer’s message “factually incorrect and morally indefensible” and said that Israel “has nothing to do with the Holocaust.” He claimed Glazer was trying to “equate Hamas’ maniacal brutality against innocent Israelis with Israel’s difficult but necessary self-defense in the face of Hamas’s ongoing barbarity.”

Holocaust survivor David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA, speaks during a news conference on April 24, 2017, in Boca Raton, Florida. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

His comments were echoed almost word-for-word by the Anti-Defamation League, which posted on X, formerly Twitter, “Israel is not hijacking Judaism or the Holocaust by defending itself against genocidal terrorists. Glazer’s comments at the Oscars are both factually incorrect & morally reprehensible. They minimize the Shoah & excuse terrorism of the most heinous kind.”

The ADL’s current director Jonathan Greenblatt and former director, Abraham Foxman, both also condemned his speech. “It’s truly disheartening to see someone minimize the Holocaust literally as they are accepting an award for a film they made…about the Holocaust,” Greenblatt posted on X. “Glazer talks about understanding where dehumanization can lead, yet is blind to the fact that it’s Hamas’ dehumanization of Jews & Israelis that led to the current war. Let me be clear: Israel is not hijacking anyone’s Jewishness. It’s defending every Jew’s right to exist.”

Foxman’s own objection stemmed from what has become a common misinterpretation of Glazer’s words: that the filmmaker was actually rejecting his Jewishness.

“As a survivor of the Holocaust I am shocked the director would slap the memory of over 1 million Jews who died because they were Jews by announcing he refutes his Jewishness. Shame on you,” Foxman posted on X, while adding that he was “pleased” the film won.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and pro-Israel influencers including Montana Tucker and Hillel Fuld were among those also incorrectly claiming the director was “refuting” his own Judaism. And the Combat Antisemitism Movement, in its own refutation of the speech, flipped the message on its head by accusing Glazer of appropriating his own Judaism to criticize Israel.

“Unfortunately, Jonathan Glazer has turned a magnificent achievement into another ‘As a Jew’ moment, where he appropriates his religious and ethnic identity to attack the national homeland of the Jewish People which is fighting a war on seven fronts against those who openly call for the genocide of Jews,” the group’s CEO, Sacha Roytman Dratwa, told the Hollywood Reporter.

Some major figures in Israel also got in on the act, with Michael Freund, a former advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling Glazer “a self-hating Jew of the worst sort who exploits the Holocaust to attack Israel in public at the Oscars ceremony.”

Glazer’s speech unfolded during a period of intense scrutiny around Israel-related comments in the arts and entertainment world. Advisors to the globally renowned Berlin Film Festival also suggested this week that they might alter rules around speeches after some of this year’s award winners — including a few Jewish and Israeli directors — used their time to condemn Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza.

Illustrative: Filmmakers Ben Russell (L) and France’s Guillaume Cailleau (2ndL) stand on stage while receiving the Encounters Award for Best Film for their film “Direct Action” during the awards ceremony of the 74th Berlinale International Film Festival, on February 24, 2024 in Berlin. (John MacDougall/AFP)

Adding to the speech’s confusion was the fact that one of the film’s producers who stood next to Glazer was Len Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born Jewish billionaire who has extensively supported pro-Israel causes and joined a recent donor campaign against antisemitism at Harvard University.

While Glazer’s use of “we” seemed to imply he spoke for both himself and his producers Blavatnik and James Wilson, who both joined him onstage, it’s unclear how much they knew about the content of his speech beforehand.

A spokesperson for Blavatnik told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he had no comment on the Oscars.

The spokesperson added that Blavatnik “is extremely proud of ‘The Zone of Interest’ and the acclaim it has received. His long-standing support of Israel is unwavering and well-documented.”

Meanwhile, progressive Jews celebrated the speech and accused its critics of deliberately misinterpreting it.

“The Zone of Interest is a brilliant, chilling film about those who choose to tune out the horrors of a genocide happening next door — so it is unsurprising that those who are actively invested in averting our collective gaze away from Israel’s genocide in Gaza are losing it,” Simone Zimmerman, co-founder of the Jewish group IfNotNow, which is vehemently critical of Israel, wrote on X. The organization has said it believes Israel is committing a genocide in Gaza, a charge Israel has fought against in part by citing the Holocaust.

Jay Michaelson, a progressive rabbi and author who won a 2022 National Jewish Book Award, argued in a piece for The Daily Beast that Glazer’s speech “reflected the best of Jewish values.” He pointed out that Glazer acknowledged Israeli victims of the October 7 Hamas attacks and avoided lightning-rod terms like “genocide,” “colonialism” and “from the river to the sea,” which pro-Israel groups have condemned.

“It was harsh, but even-handed and balanced,” Michaelson wrote. “And it is accurate: defenders of Israel’s actions frequently invoke the Holocaust, antisemitism, and the often-tragic sweep of Jewish history to make their case.” (Historians and Jewish supporters of Israel often frame its founding three years after the camps were liberated as a necessary response to ensure Jewish survival after the Holocaust. Israel’s Declaration of Independence said the Holocaust “proved anew the urgency of the re-establishment of the Jewish state.”)

Yet even Glazer’s defenders have trafficked in misinformation, with some suggesting that the Oscars have deliberately refrained from posting his speech to YouTube because of its content. In fact, according to film-industry publication IndieWire, the speech is not up yet because of an agreement between the Academy and ABC, the channel that airs the Oscars, giving the channel a 30-day window to post video content from several categories including the one Glazer won. (ABC’s own YouTube page has posted the speech.)

Representatives for the film and for Glazer himself did not return JTA requests for comment, and have not issued public statements regarding the criticism of the speech. But in earlier interviews for the movie, the director made clear that he was driven to make “The Zone of Interest” because of his Judaism, and that he was thinking about its material in a new light after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

James Wilson, from left, Leonard Blavatnik, and Jonathan Glazer accept the award for ‘The Zone of Interest’ for best international feature film during the Oscars, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, March 10, 2024. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

“It isn’t a partisan film,” Glazer told the New York Times in December. “It’s about all of us.” He also said that he was revulsed both by Hamas’s attack, in which Palestinian terrorists killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages, as well as by the severity of Israel’s response that has killed more than 30,000 people in Gaza to date, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, an unverified figure that does not differentiate between civilians or combatants. Israel says over 13,000 of the Gaza dead were Hamas and other terror group fighters.

Glazer and his team did extensive research into the Höss family, even filming the movie at a house near theirs just outside Auschwitz which they designed in meticulous period detail.

The intra-Jewish feud over a Holocaust movie is unusual. But Glazer himself — who attended Jewish day school in London, and is the grandson of Eastern European Jews fleeing Russian persecution in the early 20th century — is an unusual director. His earlier, heavily cerebral films like “Under the Skin” and “Birth” defied easy interpretation. And “The Zone of Interest” was already a polarizing Holocaust movie, a world away from past Oscar-feted dramas like “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist,” and “Life is Beautiful” — the kinds of films that led the term “Holocaust movie” to become a punchline for cynical awards-bait.

Unlike those movies, “Zone” focuses not on Jewish victims but on the unbothered life of Auschwitz perpetrator Rudolf Höss and his family living next door to the camps. It was a decision some Jews criticized, but which Glazer said he made in order to bring the Holocaust out of the realm of historic victimhood and emphasize humanity’s capacity for evil in general. (The film, which interpreted noise from the camps on its soundtrack to portray the genocide in audio form, also won an Oscar for best sound.)

As a new generation of artists looks to interpret the Holocaust, Glazer’s approach — to both his speech and the film itself — has touched a raw nerve among Jews. And debates around his messaging have spun out into a more existential Jewish feud: between those who seek to reinforce that Jews were the victims of history’s largest genocide, and those who think that even Jews have the capacity to commit genocide under certain circumstances.

In an X post, Rabbi Mike Rothbaum, of the Atlanta-area Reconstructionist Congregation Bet Haverim, indicated that he was sympathetic to Glazer’s view — and frustrated by the state of the conversation about the filmmaker’s comments.

“What’s more frustrating,” Rothbaum wrote, “the people who genuinely didn’t get what Jonathan Glazer was talking about, or the people pretending they didn’t get what Jonathan Glazer was talking about?”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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