Perhaps the most misleading line in Stephen Spielberg's Munich, his cinematic account of ’s retaliation for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, comes near the beginning. 's prime minister, Golda Meir, tells her cabinet, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." The implication is that Meir was reluctant to hunt down the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre, that doing so was contrary to Israeli and civilized values.
The truth is just the opposite. Meir understood that 's chief obligation is to ensure that Jews will never again be slaughtered with impunity, simply for being Jewish. Holding mass murderers accountable is not a compromise; it is a necessary condition of 's continued survival.
The most misleading omission from Munich is 's response to the massacre. released the Black September terrorists less than two months after they had killed 11 innocent civilians. had to hunt down Black September, because didn't value Jewish lives enough to capture, to try, and to imprison those who kill Israelis on German soil. (Also missing from the film is any mention of 's refusal to allow the Israeli Olympians their own security detail, despite credible threats to their safety, and 's refusal to let conduct a rescue operation.) Meir said that she was "literally physically sickened" by 's capitulation. She continued, "I think that there is not one single terrorist held in prison anywhere in the world. Everyone else gives in."
Nobody can accuse Stephen Spielberg of insensitivity toward Jews and . But by trying so hard to appear evenhanded, he has made an incomplete and imbalanced movie. In Munich, those who would murder racist butchers are no better than the butchers themselves. Conservative columnist Warren Bell put it best when he described Munich's simple-minded morality like this: "when good guys kill bad guys, they're as bad as bad guys." Liberal writer Leon Wieseltier concurred: "Munich prefers a discussion of counterterrorism to a discussion of terrorism; or it thinks that they are the same discussion. This is an opinion that only people who are not responsible for the safety of other people can hold."
If both sides of the political spectrum can agree that a nation is not only right, but obligated to act as did, why does Munich try so hard to say otherwise? A large part of the blame belongs to the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, whose literary accomplishments (Angels in America, among other brilliant plays) are too often overshadowed by an extreme left-wing political agenda. Why would Spielberg entrust a script about to someone who once declared, "I wish modern hadn't been born?" To be sure, Munich does acknowledge the Jewish victims. But it also deplores those who would keep Jews from becoming victims. The film’s pervasive sense of Jewish tragedy makes no room for the possibility of Jewish heroism.
And yet, even if Munich had gotten the dialogue, plot, and tone right, there would still be something missing. More precisely, there would be someone missing, a character named Avery Brundage. Brundage was the American who, as head of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1936, had insisted on sending an American delegation to "Hitler's Games" in Berlin. In 1941, Brundage was expelled from the anti-war America First Committee for his Nazi allegiance. But in 1972, he was president of the full International Olympic Committee. According to Time Magazine, during the standoff over the 11 kidnapped Israeli athletes, Brundage's chief concern was with "remov[ing] the crisis from the Olympic Village," as if to say: "There's no way we can save the hostages. Let's at least save the Games." After the murder of the Israelis, and despite strong opposition within the IOC, including from the German organizers, Brundage insisted that everything go on as if nothing had happened. He refused even to mention the dead Israelis in the following day's memorial ceremony. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray summed up Brundage's decision like this: "Incredibly, they're going on with it. It's almost like having a dance at Dachau."
Murray's comparison is apt. It was Dachau that taught my grandfather's generation the importance of as a haven in a world that is too often either hostile or indifferent to Jews. When he was my age, my father watched Munich, the massacre, live on TV, and he learned the same lesson. Thirty-three years later, Munich, the movie, forgets to explain why acted as it did. But that's the real story behind ’s retaliatory measures and it’s the story that Steven Spielberg, regrettably, has missed.
Mitch Webber, 25, is a student at Harvard Law School.
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