Ed Zwick on Passivity, Jewish Power, and Hamas

Ed Zwick's new film, Defiance, about the Bielski partisans of World War II, is everything Schindler's List is not. For one thing, it's about Jews. Schindler's List was a story of Christian redemption; the Jews were simply there to be acted upon. In Defiance, which tells the true story of a group of Jewish partisans who sheltered hundreds of men, women and children in the Byelorussian woods, Jews take charge of history. Defiance is in some ways a corrective to the conventional understanding of Jewish behavior in the Holocaust. For some critics, too much of a corrective: A.O. Scott writes that "in setting out to overturn historical stereotypes of Jewish passivity, Mr. Zwick... ends up affirming them." I wasn't struck the same way by Defiance: the Bielski partisans weren't the only Jews to fight back against their murderers -- Jewish resistance in World War II is still a story insufficiently told. And I wasn't left with the impression that Zwick believes survival was within reach for most Jews who perished.

But why am I defending Zwick? Let him do it his own self. We spoke by phone recently, and we talked about Jewish muscle and Jewish passivity, Europe and Zionism, and whether Defiance is Hebrew for Glory. Here is an edited transcript of our talk:

Jeffrey Goldberg: You're opening in Europe. We've heard a lot of talk in Europe comparing what Israel does in the Occupied Territories to what the Nazis did to the Jews. Are you worried about the way the movie will be understood in Europe right now?

Edward Zwick: You know, the argument comparing what the Jews are doing and what the Nazis did is just such a preposterous exaggeration, because one when one uses the word genocide, you have to ask: If Israel were interested in genocide than they have more than the means necessary to accomplish such a thing, and given that, in context, they're using a certain amount of restraint. Yes, I know the word "restraint" is hard to talk about, given what's happening in Gaza, but it is a type of restraint. What I'm responding to is equivalence. Words are important. Genocide is a word thrown around too easily. This is happening now in Poland and Lithuania. There's an attempt to make an equivalence between alleged war crimes of the Bielskis and the Holocaust.

JG: Do you see any equivalence between Israel and Hamas?

EZ: What I see is that there is a double standard, that on one side you have an organization dedicated to creating the maximum amount of destruction and horror, and doing it in a way that is deliberately bloody-minded and terrorizing. On the other hand you have an extremely powerful state with all the means at its disposal to create a horrifying result, and yet trying, despite the resulting horrible casualties, nonetheless seeming to use extraordinary restraint. It's really an interesting contradiction.

JG: Let's talk about Jewish self-defense. In Schindler's List, the Jews are the sheep and Schindler is the shepherd. Here, they're fighters.

EZ: I think this has been a long odyssey. In the context of this, I've read a lot about Orde Wingate, or the Jewish battalions in World War I, but I think it might have been Leon Wieseltier who led me back to read the Book of Judges or the Book of Joshua to see just how much of a warrior culture this always was. The notion of self-defense is implicit in the David and Goliath story, in the Maccabee story, in the Bar Kochba story. It was all there. I would say that Schindler's List, as powerful as it was, seemed to have continued with a particular iconography of victimization and passivity. That was the iconography with which I had grown up and to which I had grown accustomed.

JG: Was Defiance meant as a corrective?

EZ: I have to say I took some exception to that A.O. Scott review. His reading seems to say that the kind of heroism that I'm describing was missing from the Jewish response to the Holocaust, and that I'm saying that if only everyone acted like the Bielskis, the Jews would have survived. This is a canard. The Jews were massacred, if you will, by the Germans not because they didn't resist but because they couldn't resist. The French army, the Polish army, were defeated, and they were actual armies. Amid the siege, there were pockets of resistance, and it is worth telling about, whether it is in London, or Denmark or Belgium or wherever. But twenty million people died in the Gulag, two million in the Cambodian genocide. Genocide is something humans are very good at. To escape it is a tribute to honor and luck, and to help other people escape it is an honor. But the fact that you don't escape it is not a negative verdict on your honor.

JG: It was, for some early Zionists, a critique of European Jewry, that they were passive.

EZ: I just don't see it. It's like Milk. Milk doesn't imply that all gay men who stayed in the closet were cowards. Defiance is just one movie that seeks to add necessary complexity to the portrait of what happened, because the portrait has been monolithic.

JG: Do you think you should have portrayed the inevitable massacre of most Jews more vividly?

EZ: One makes a choice. My choice was to be very subjective. We never see the Germans. They're seen from afar. There is never this omniscient scene when the commander says, 'We'll root them out of the forests.' I let the Germans exist as a specter. They're shadows in the snow. The closest I come to this sort of scene is where they're with the Judenrat and talking about the fact that if anyone leaves the ghetto, there will be reprisals. All of the arguments in that scene are thing we've heard about and read about, which is to say, if we wait, time is on our side, these people are people who have endured pogroms over the years. That's the closest I felt I could come to providing a realistic context for these people's experience. And I tried to give the Judenrat a strong argument for waiting.

JG: Let's talk about Jewish toughness and its currency.

EZ: History does seem to have its uses. There are reasons why certain stories become known at certain moments and others not, that happen to do with the contextual moment in which they are learned.  And I suspect that there are several reasons why this story wasn't better known in popular culture. One of which had to do with survivors, and there's always some survivor's guilt. Another is that they did things that were probably pretty horrible. I tried to show some of that, the execution of a German. This may also be something that has to do with Israel. The role of Israel in the political imagination at this point.

JG: Is this a Zionist movie? I mean, any movie about Jewish self-defense can be interpreted that way.

EZ: This is a movie about its moment. Any movie that aspires to be more than that is going to be in big trouble. This is about these four men and what they did. It would be a misreading of my intentions to say that this is celebrating a kind of reactionary position. That's not it. What I believed is that this is about the strength of the victims. These are people who are imagining that they are going to die at any minute in that forest and so what is triumphant to me about this movie is that they kept alive something that was uniquely theirs as a culture.

JG: The film does have a kind of Zionist arc, but maybe it's not a Zionist movie. After all, the Bielskis end up in Brooklyn after the war.

EZ: One bit of history: At least one of the brothers, if not two, went to Israel first and fought in the War of Independence before they came to Brooklyn.

JG: Do you hope or imagine that just as young African-American watching Glory felt pride, that Jewish people watching this will leave feeling pride about what happened in the forest?

EZ: The most interesting calls I've had thus far have been from people I know who are talking about watching the movie with their children. It's not just about their children's responses, it's their desire to show it to them. Whether or not a movie digs into the culture is an interesting question. Glory, when it came out, did not find its way into the African-American community right away. It did not capture the imagination of that community for one or two years. My hope for this is that it would be added to the literature. I remember when I was making Glory, I had a visit from the Congressional Black Caucus and they wanted to talk about my intentions. And they said, all we care about is that these people not be portrayed as a monolith. With the Holocaust, there's a danger of having this overwhelming set of images that resulted unintentionally in that kind of monolithic understanding. So, yes, I would hope that this movie becomes something that Jews would look at and come away with some additional understanding of their experience.

JG: Pride?

EZ: Definitely pride. There is pride to be taken in all the different aspects of people's response to the Holocaust. There was bravery. You read about people in the worst of circumstances who found courage in a thousand different ways. But this is a more explicit way, represented in this film, and not to have included that in our understanding, I think, is an omission, a significant omission, and this goes back to my response to the New York Times review.

JG: So, are you one who has discovered lessons of the Holocaust?

EZ: I don't consider myself capable of that. I can look at one corner of the Byelorussian woods and see what it means to me. It certainly means to me that people with nothing, anticipating dying at any moment, nonetheless built schools and found love, marriages that lasted sixty years and that they lived fully and maintained their humanity in an extraordinary way. Someone wanted to deny them their humanity and they refused to have their humanity denied.