Life & Culture

Podcast review: Unholy is ‘The Rest Is politics' for Jews

Yonit Levi and Jonathan Freedland are knowledgable about Israel and respectful when they disagree


Necessary salve: Yonit Levi and Jonathan Freedland host Unholy together


Podcast | ★★★✩✩

One of my favourite things about Jews is that we can never just enjoy things. Everything must be dissected, analysed, taken apart, challenged. Look at the Talmud! A tiny paragraph of action can be fodder for pages and pages of discussion. So, with that in mind, allow me, a Jew, to review the podcast of two other Jews, interviewing another Jew, about yet another Jew who made a film that’s kind of about Jews.

The podcast Unholy, the brainchild of Jonathan Freedland and Israeli journalist Yonit Levi is, on the face of it at least, another of the sort of podcast we’ve come to see dominate the charts. Two people, who agree about most things, give their views on that week’s Jewish news. Basically, The Rest Is Politics but for Jews.

They count among their fans Jewish American media royalty Ira Glass of This American Life and New Yorker editor David Remnick, so in many ways it’s the ultimate expression of centrist moderation. Sure, there’s friction between Levi’s more pragmatic Israeli approach and Freedland’s diasporic naiveté, but in many ways, it’s nice to hear disagreements where both parties are fundamentally concerned with Israeli lives, unlike the vast majority of discourse on Twitter.

Since the war started, the podcast has become bigger and bigger, and rightly so. Reasonableness towards the war is in short supply, and this podcast is filling a need.

The focus of this particular episode, which has earned some praise since its release last week, is the Oscars speech made by Zone of Interest director Jonathan Glazer. In a much-publicised, and criticised diatribe, the British director used his platform to “refute [his] Jewishness being hijacked.” In their response to Glazer, Freedland and Levi both articulated what many Jews will have felt. Even if you are against the occupation, the way Glazer phrased his beliefs was clumsy and unhelpful.

Levi also expressed a sadness that I know many Israelis feel, that celebrities standing on the biggest stages in the world are allowed a free pass to vilify Israel, and are greeted by rapturous applause. They’re good also on the progressive dichotomy of “good Jews” and “bad Jews” — a tension many British Jews will surely recognise.

Their main guest this week is former director of BBC Television and Zone of Interest producer Danny Cohen. In a timely and smart conversation, Cohen gives context and faithfully represents the views of most mainstream British Jews, astutely making the point that Glazer’s remarks became a distraction to what was otherwise a very powerful and — to use that vile Hollywood cliché — “necessary” film. 

Cohen makes a good interviewee and serves as a reminder that the medium of podcasting is a far more calm and rational space than live broadcast news. The oxygen that he’s allowed to explain nuances and make intelligent points is sadly lacking from much of the reactive 24-hour rolling news ecosystem and could have happened only in this format.

This episode of Unholy, and indeed the series as a whole, will not be new to many Jews. Levi and Freedland embody two mainstream schools of thought in our community and they handle their small disagreements in a respectful and dignified way. They can veer into self-aggrandisement at points, but this reaches nowhere near the levels of the average perennially smug podcasters in the vein of Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart.

The podcast lacks teeth, and things are often overly generalised, but I can see why it’s popular. In a world (and especially in the UK) where “serious” news often ends up swinging into anti-Israel bias, it’s nice to hear from two sensible people who don’t slip into hyperbole. They’re also both clearly very knowledgable about the situation, which again is a rarity in British media. It makes for a remarkably stress-free listen as a result. It might be not set the world alight, but Unholy (which may as well be called The Rest is Jews) is a necessary centrist salve in these highly polarised times.

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