Perpetrators: Israel under The Zone of Interest

As Naomi Klein poignantly put it, Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is all about drawing our attention to the continuities between the monstrous past and the monstrous present. But that this link is constantly broken is not only because we are remarkably able to adjust to everything, genocide included, corrupting in the process our most fundamental sense of good and evil. Beyond this general sociological observation, historical specificities must be accounted for in order to understand why, for instance, calling for a ceasefire to stop mass murder can be seen as controversial.

It all begins with the ways in which the global perception of the Holocaust has been construed. Doubtfully consensual, its fracture is the consequence of Israel’s long-term campaign to segment the never again for its own particular agendas. A separate and inaccessible category, severed from other practices of mass murder, in our minds the Holocaust is supremely associated with the Nazi science of elimination and inconceivable numbers. Nothing, it may be presumed, can stand in comparison. Beyond German idiosyncrasies, however, we have failed to stress the archetypal mental state of intention which may have served to identify its presence in other forms of mass murder, and above all, we have failed to think of the Holocaust as the warning sign for all material practices of mass murder. The result of this is conveyed in our incapacity to connect across horrors—to see the similarities and the common denominators between different forms of mass murder and so to react immediately against their occurrence. And yet a genocide is not any less a genocide because of a lack of perfect administrative coordination, or of diminished outputs. That is where our interest should be focused today: we not only appear to be amenable to accommodating genocide, too many among us have become incompetent to appraise and acknowledge a genocide when we face one.

Thus The Zone of Interest pleads with us to summon our lost sense of alarm and consternation in the face of mass murder. But in stressing the continuities of human monstrosity, the movie opens the door to consider further parallels concerning the perpetrators of those acts, the passive supporters, and the silent observers. Where were your grandparents during the war? The question sits upon my tongue when I meet a German. Regardless of efforts made to move away from the practices and beliefs of that legacy, the magnitude of the horror is indelibly attached to the society that produced it. And Israelis will soon find that a similar gaze will descend upon them, regardless of whether or not the International Court of Justice establishes intent and finds that Israel’s practices fall within the definitions of the Genocide Convention. It is never enough to remind us that the Court did not dismiss the case.

More generally, what validates the analogy is the nature of the threshold that has been crossed, and the historical aggregate from which that threshold was crossed. The historical aggregate is the summation of all practices, before and after the Nakba, forced upon the Palestinian people by Zionist colonialism since the early twentieth century. The threshold that has been crossed lies in the specifics of the horror. To spell out the rolling savagery: as of mid-March 2024, since October 2023 more than 31,000 Gazans have died at the hands of the Israeli military, including 12,000 children. At least half of the dwellings in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed. Death camps may take many forms: think of the clusters of thousands buried under the rubble, just a few kilometres apart, surrounded by soldiers, tanks and armoured vehicles. That’s Gaza today. Starvation is being used as a weapon. The elimination of life in Gaza seems to be the goal. A special place in hell is saved for those heads of state who have cut funding for Palestinian refugees.

Israelis cannot hide behind the shoulders of their state, because they are their state. No wall of ignorance separates them from the crimes their relatives, friends, and neighbours carry out in the Strip. Destruction is in fact celebrated. The excuses are irrelevant, inappropriate, obscene. The days when Israelis could tour the world unbothered are about to be over. We Israelies will attract that disturbing gaze reserved for perpetrators.

Where were you? The question will sit upon the tongue.

Editorial: Gaza and the Unspeakable

Alison Caddick, Dec 2023

If this disarticulation of founding story and psychological investment doesn’t occur, what hope is there for Palestinians? But what hope for Israeli Jews too?

About the author

Marcelo Svirsky

Marcelo Svirsky is a long-time friend of the Palestinian struggle. He is a researcher and teacher at the School for Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, Australia. He studies settler-colonial societies, particularly Israel, and focuses on questions of social transformation and decolonisation.

More articles by Marcelo Svirsky

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