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Susie Becher

What They Did Then and What We Do Now

Palestinians in Rafah line up for water on November 13, 2023 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians in Rafah line up for water on November 13, 2023 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

On March 11, two seemingly unrelated events occurred at a distance of some 7.5 thousand miles from each other.  In the war-torn Middle East, a bus carrying 68 Gaza orphans made its way from Rafah to Bethlehem, and in Los Angeles, director Jonathan Glazer took to the stage at the Dolby Theater to accept the award for best international feature film at the 96th Academy Awards ceremony. The link between the two stories is rooted in the controversies they ignited. First, the background.

Evacuation of Gaza Orphans

The evacuation of the Gaza orphans took place in response to a request relayed by the German Embassy in Tel Aviv on behalf of SOS Children’s Villages International, a nonprofit charity group that assists children and youth who lack parental care. Conditions at the charity’s facility in Rafah had become increasingly dangerous as a result of the war and the orphanage was barely functioning, necessitating a life-saving operation.

Only those children whose relatives gave consent were included in the evacuation. A statement released by the German Embassy thanked Israel for the “important humanitarian gesture” and emphasized that the move was a “temporary” measure intended to rescue the children from “acute danger.”

The transfer was approved by the Israeli Defense Ministry and the National Security Cabinet but reportedly did not receive the explicit approval of the security cabinet. The Israel Defense Forces facilitated the passage of the convoy to the West Bank via the outskirts of Jerusalem.

‘Zone of Interest’ Production

The making of The Zone of Interest was conceived in 2014, when Glazer optioned the film rights to Martin Amis’s novel based on the life of Rudolf Hess, commander of Auschwitz, and his family as they try to build an idyllic existence in their home adjacent to the death camp. Long before the horrific Hamas attack on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent ferocious invasion of Gaza, Glazer set out to produce a film that would depict what he saw as the “ordinariness” of perpetrators of evil, portraying the Nazis not as monsters but as human beings who do monstrous things. Describing the atmosphere he sought to capture, Glazer said his goal was to show how “genocide becomes ambient” to the lives of the characters.

As fate would have it, when Glazer took to the podium to accept the Oscar, the Gaza war was entering its six month. The Israeli hostages dragged across the border on October 7 had spent 157 days in captivity, over 30,000 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, the vast majority of the Gaza population had been rendered homeless, some 100,000 Israelis remained internally displaced, Yihya Sinwar was rejecting any ceasefire deal that meant Hamas giving up control of Gaza, and Benjamin Netanyahu was still promising to keep fighting until the IDF achieved “all-out victory.”

Glazer’s Acceptance Speech

The true surprise would have been had the Jewish director of the gripping Holocaust film, which Roma director Alfonso Cuarón said was “probably the most important film of this century,” failed to use the 70 seconds in which he had the attention of 19.5 million viewers to address the Israel-Palestine conflict and to say: “Look what we do now.”

One cannot help but wonder how much of the controversy over Glazer’s remarks would have been avoided had he given his speech to a skilled copy editor before delivering it. Or if he didn’t want to share it with anyone in advance, he could have applied the most fundamental rule of good writing, which teaches that active voice is clearer than passive, as the latter is often clumsy and difficult to comprehend. Imagine if he had simply said what he meant: We stand here as men who refuse to allow the occupation to hijack our Jewishness and the Holocaust. Instead, Glazer took on the occupation in a convoluted sentence that many are still struggling to decipher. Although his next words were about the victims of the October 7 attack, he had already lost the so-called “pro-Israel” camp, which switched off after hearing “we stand here as men who refute our Jewishness….” There are also those who listened to the end and nonetheless condemned Glazer for what they claimed was an attack on Israel, although he spoke of innocent victims on both sides.

View Jonathan Glazer’s speech at the 96th Academy Awards (youtube.com)

Evidence of Dehumanization

Getting back to the orphans, the question that remains to be answered is what does the story of their evacuation have to do with Glazer’s Oscar speech. The answer can be found in the response to the humanitarian operation from both sides of the divide.

When news of the evacuation broke, the X platform (formerly Twitter) was flooded with posts from Palestinian activists accusing Israel of conducting ethnic cleansing. Never mind that the plea to save the orphans had come from the NGO responsible for their care. Never mind that their relatives authorized their evacuation. Never mind that the German Foreign Ministry had given assurances that the transfer was temporary. And never mind that they were moved to a facility in the Palestinian Authority and not to a foreign country. If the Israeli authorities approved it, it has to be evil.

On the Israeli side, reactions from the right wing were quick to come.  Shlomo Ne’eman, outgoing head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, called for West Bank settlers to protest the transfer. As the bus transporting the orphans passed, settlers tried to attack it, shouting that it was “full of terrorists.” This accusation against children should come as no surprise, given Israel’s propagation of the conventional wisdom that there are no innocents in Gaza. (Actually, in a recent TV interview, former Mossad official Rami Igra said that it is only those over the age of four who can be considered Hamas supporters, so I suppose the two- and three-year-olds on the bus would have been spared had the settlers succeeded in halting the convoy.)

In a rather twisted view of what constitutes noble behavior, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich demanded to know who was responsible for issuing such an “immoral order” while Israeli hostages remain in captivity.  A similar response came from an unnamed source in the security cabinet, who called the evacuation “ridiculous and immoral behavior toward the hostages in Gaza and their families.” National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir also denounced the operation, calling it a “fake humanitarian measure.” He said that “this is not how a country that strives for absolute victory is run,” adding that “in war, you have to crush the enemy, without being sanctimonious all the time.”

Connecting the Dots

These incomprehensible reactions from both Palestinians and Israelis to the rescue of fewer than six dozen parentless children from among the millions of Gazans facing the threat of illness, starvation, and possible death encapsulate the message that Jonathan Glazer delivered at the Dolby Theater. As he said, The Zone of interest shows dehumanization at its worst. We are not there yet, and Glazer did not suggest that we are, but we should not dismiss the warnings.

In dissociating himself from Glazer’s remarks, Danny Cohen, executive producer of the film, said he had been contacted by members of the Jewish community who felt that the educational importance of the movie had been compromised when Glazer “mixed [it] up with what’s going on now.”  Rather than succumbing to the pressure, Cohen should have stood by Glazer and replied that the educational importance of the film lies in drawing lessons about where we could end up if what’s going on now continues.

About the Author
Susie Becher is Managing Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a collaborative quarterly published in Jerusalem; is Communications Director of the Policy Working Group, a team of senior academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and media experts who advocate for an end to the occupation and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and serves on the Steering Committee of Zulat, an activist think tank advocating for human rights and equality in Israel.
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