Zone of Discomfort

Some of you know that my oldest friend in the world is Jonathan Glazer whose brilliant film, “Zone of Interest,” set in Auschwitz, won two Academy Awards last Sunday night! Jonathan and I have known each other our whole lives and we gave speeches at each other’s Bar Mitzvahs! I don’t remember what he said at that party over 40 years ago, but I am sure there was nothing controversial, unlike the speech he gave to a global audience as he accepted his well deserved Oscar for Best International Feature. I find it tragic and heartbreaking that more people around the world are talking about him and analyzing his words, than they are talking about the film itself that he created. The once in a lifetime thrill of seeing such an old friend be honored in this way was certainly diminished for me by how he chose to use his precious moments of glory.

Jonathan is, in my view, a creative genius, and his work is visionary and groundbreaking. He has generally avoided attention and the public eye and it is hard for me to believe that he is enjoying the intense publicity and scrutiny he is getting now. Most mainstream Jewish and Israeli organizations have reacted very negatively to his comments about not letting Jewishness and the Holocaust be hijacked by Israel’s occupation that has caused so much violence. So many, from Holocaust survivors to leftie Israelis, have been outraged by the suggestion that the vile attacks of October 7th happened because of the occupation, and the implication that the Israeli government are like Nazis.

As his friend, I have been a cheerleader for Jonathan throughout his remarkable career and an enormous admirer of his work. Last Saturday night I sent him a text to wish him well for the Oscars, knowing that he was already in LA. I was surprised to get a response thanking me and asking if I would be willing to take a look at what he was thinking of saying if he won the award. Of course, I agreed and the next morning received a text with his proposed words. I wrote back with my strong reactions and he called me and we spoke for about half an hour as he sat having breakfast in his Beverly Hills hotel with his team and his family. I don’t remember every word of that conversation just a few hours before the ceremony, but I strongly expressed my opinions that it was a bad idea to go there, along with my own narrative of the war as a Zionist. It seemed that he was listening and respecting my perspective, but as I watched the ceremony live with friends, the elation of seeing him walk on to that stage was very quickly deflated as I heard those slightly muffled and confused words. The hurt and anguish in the aftermath of that night has been with me all week, fueled by so much media attention. The essence of the speech was in these words:

“Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present. 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 in Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist?”

The posts, articles and podcasts that I have heard and read are almost all angry and highly critical of the way in which Jonathan used the biggest night of his life. Most people in my world are still carrying trauma from October 7th and a lot of pain from the ways in which so many voices on the left barely acknowledged the atrocities of that day, so this Academy Award acceptance speech from my Jewish friend was hard to swallow. But, I have to say that not all of the reactions have been negative by any means. Some, including certain Jewish voices, have praised him for his moral courage in speaking his truth. This is where it gets very tricky for me. His truth is not my truth and I so wish he could have kept his remarks as a universal message about the horrific dangers of dehumanization of which we are all capable as humans. Of course, there are Israelis and Jews who dehumanize Palestinians and obviously the vile ideology of Hamas dehumanizes Israelis and Jews, and yes some of the violence perpetrated by Jewish settlers in the Occupied West Bank is abhorrent, and there are so many places in the world, including on the streets of our cities, where this force of dehumanization is out of control. As much as I and so many of us have supported this war, how can we not ask questions and feel deeply troubled by the casualties, the destruction, the hunger? We do not all agree and, in fact, there are profound differences among us that we need to recognize. I have been aware of my own capacity to dehumanize those who see the world very differently from me, including my oldest friend. Since Sunday, I have wondered how to be there for Jonathan and decided that the only way is for deep and honest conversation. I commit to listen to him and will ask him to listen to me as we share our divergent truths. I literally have pictures of us in diapers together and will not let our lifelong friendship die. I am still deeply proud of all that he has achieved and look forward to holding that oscar when I next see him in London. If he will let me!

This isn’t about me and Jonathan, but about all of us and the complexity of our relationships across differences. In a way, this is one of the messages of Purim where our tradition invites us to challenge our assumptions about who is blessed and who is cursed, who is good and who is evil. We need to be able to listen to each other whenever it is possible, even if it is deeply uncomfortable. Machlokot l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven, are a central part of Jewish discourse. The question, though, is when does a point of view stop being for the sake of heaven, but for my need to be right when everyone else is wrong? Is truth always subjective or are there objective truths that we cannot ignore? As always the questions are more poignant than the answers.

There is so much healing that needs to happen in the world and maybe part of that is the kindness with which we listen to each other’s truths, even if they are opposite to our own. I am not claiming that this is easy. I have lost friends this year for sure and I know some of you have too. On Shabbat, we concluded the second book of the Torah (Exodus) with the completion of the work of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which is immediately filled with the Divine Presence. This could only happen because of the ways in which everyone showed up and brought their unique gifts of participation. I am certain that they did not all agree.

About Rabbi Marc Soloway

Marc is a native of London, England where he was an actor and practitioner of complimentary medicine before training as a rabbi in London, Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the American Jewish University in 2004 and has been the the spiritual leader at Bonai Shalom in Boulder ever since. Marc was a close student of Rabbi Zalman Schechter Shalomi and received an additional smicha (rabbinic ordination) from him in 2014, just two months before he died. He has been the host and narrator of two documentary films shown on PBS; A Fire in the Forest: In Search of the Baal Shem Tov and Treasure under the Bridge: Pilgrimage to the Hasidic Masters of Ukraine. Marc is a graduate of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders, has traveled to Ghana in a rabbinic delegation with American Jewish World Service and co-chair of the Rabbinical Council and national board member of Hazon, which strives to create more sustainable Jewish communities. In 2015, Marc was among a group of 12 faith leaders honored at The White House as “Champions of Change” for work on the climate. Marc is a proud member of Beit Izim, Boulder’s Jewish goat milking co-op.

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One comment

  1. Teddy Herzl, "…..the English Jews ought to erect a monument out of gratitude, because I saved them from an influx of east European Jews and thus perhaps anti-semitism.” [55]