Richard D. Zelin

‘The Zone of Interest’ and antisemitism: What’s to be done?

Ironically, despite the recent dramatic and disturbing rise in antisemitism in the United States (and elsewhere), four of the contenders for Best Picture at this coming week’s 96th Academy Awards have either a Jewish connection or theme.

One of the leading contenders is The Zone of Interest, directed by Jonathan Glazer and praised by critics for its quality, craftmanship and technical sophistication. Besides Best Picture, it has also been nominated for four additional Oscars: Best International Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound. The movie, which has previously received other prestigious awards, including the Grand Prix and FIPRESCI Prize, is loosely based upon British author Martin Amis’s riveting and powerful novel about the Holocaust, which I had an opportunity to read.

The setting or “zone of interest” of the novel is Auschwitz, or as Amis refers to it in the book Kat Zet (shorthand for the German Konzentrationslager), the concentration camp where more than one million Jews and others were brutally killed. The monstrous events that unfold there are narrated by three main fictional characters: Angelus (Golo) Thomsen, a nephew of Martin Borman, Hitler’s private secretary, who oversees IG Farben’s production of synthetic rubber and fuel to support Germany’s war effort; Paul Doll, the commandant of the concentration camp; and Szmul, the head of the Sonderkommando, a group Jewish of prisoners responsible for assisting with the killing of fellow Jews and the removing of their dead bodies. Each of these characters, as Tova Reich perceptively noted in her Washington Post review of the novel, can be respectively seen, in Holocaust terms, as collaborator, perpetrator, and victim.

Through these narrative voices, Amis tells, in precise and excruciating detail, with varying degrees of satire and black humor, depending on who’s speaking, the inexplicable horrors unleashed by Hitler’s reign of terror. Indeed, the primary focus of the novel is on how the Germans despicably used technologically advanced tools of warfare to kill Europe’s Jews arbitrarily and viciously, not on the why. As Amis says in the epilogue of the book: “There is no why in Auschwitz.”

Although the novel is stylistically flawed in certain respects, he brilliantly gets into the mind of his characters: Thomsen as an aloof privileged cad, initially complicit then later an ambivalent Nazi sympathizer; Doll as the epitome of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil;” and Szmul as a powerless, sad, and soulless victim. While Thomsen and Doll are skillfully rendered, Szmul is the most touching and sympathetic figure. Indeed, there are two episodes in the book that are particularly gut-wrenching. One is when Szmul tells us that his young sons, Schol and Chaim, were among “the silent boys” who helped usher Jewish arrivals to their death and then were shot thereafter. The other is when he realizes that a young transport to the camp is one of Chaim’s closest childhood friends.

Leading Zionist thinkers argued – and fervently hoped – that with the reestablishment of the modern State of Israel, Jew hatred would recede over time and tragic events like the Holocaust would be a thing of the past. But this has not proven to be the case. That the ovens of Auschwitz still burn, as Michael Oren chillingly put it in a recent article on Substack, was on vivid and horrifying display on October 7, when thousands of genocidal Hamas terrorists killed, burned, raped, and kidnapped innocent Israelis either living near the Gaza envelope or attending the Nova music festival. Indeed, this was the vilest and deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust.

What transpired on that fateful day, was traumatic not only for Israelis but also for American Jews. For Israelis, it called into question Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence prowess, but even more profoundly the very purpose of the state where Jews would no longer be “victims on call,” as Daniel Gordis powerfully and succinctly asserted in his latest book, Impossible Takes Longer. For American Jews, it was not only the terrible events of the day but also the shocking and dangerous surge in antisemitism that has taken place since that has been deeply traumatizing.

In fact, since the Israel-Hamas war, the Secure Community Network, an organization responsible for providing security assistance to Jewish institutions, reported that 2,628 antisemitic incidents occurred in the United States between October 7 and the end of last year. Not surprisingly, this has caused many Jews to nervously wonder about their place in American society. Indeed, a recent poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee indicated that 93% of American Jewish adults see antisemitism as a problem and, tellingly, 63% of them said that they feel less secure today, prompting many to change their daily behavior. The survey also found similar attitudes among younger college-aged Jews, who have been disproportionately impacted by recent events, given the rampant rise in antisemitism (and anti-Zionism) on many university campuses.

As a result, in what has become a common but increasingly depressing refrain, American Jews are NOT OKAY. In fact, a YouTube video with a snappy tune has picked up this meme and has gone viral. While catchy, I fear that it may become self-fulfilling and lead to apathy. But this is not the time for complacency. Time will soon tell whether The Zone of Interest will receive any Oscars, but this masterpiece, as well as the gripping novel upon which it drew inspiration, starkly teaches us that unchecked antisemitism can disastrously lead to the moral abyss.

As such, never again is not, as Itamar Kubovy astutely observed in a current article in The Forward, simply “a memorial for Jewish suffering” but “a preparation for its return.” Now accordingly is the time for action. Indeed, with all the means at its disposal the American Jewish community must do everything to counter the recent increase in antisemitism wherever it rears its ugly head. Similarly, Israel must dismantle Hamas’s military capabilities – and its ability to govern – so that its citizens can feel safe and secure as well. In an essential and necessary but heartbreaking way, both American Jewry and the Jewish state are in a common fight to uphold the renowned Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim’s famous dictum about Jews not being allowed to provide Hitler any posthumous victories.

About the Author
Richard D. Zelin, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to various Jewish publications. He serves in a senior level Jewish communal position in the Chicago area. The views expressed are his own.
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