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Spielberg’s most glaring omission is the incident at Lillehammer in the spring of 1973.
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
If there is something that can be learned from Stephen Spielberg’s Munich, it is that any film that is critical of Israel is destined to be attacked in the press with overwhelming and indiscriminate force by “professional supporters” of the Jewish state. Just as the Mossad operatives who are depicted in Munich, felt that they were sending a clear message to Palestinian terrorists which would deter future attacks, these writers feel that they are sending an equally clear message to Hollywood producers: “Don’t make movies that question Israeli actions or policy.”
Munich follows a Mossad death squad that is assigned the task of assassinating the planners and perpetrators of the 1972 kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The film follows the journey of a fictional assassin, Avner, as he grows more and more disillusioned with the Mossad’s extralegal counter-terrorism campaign. In the end, he leaves the Israeli secret service embittered and regretful, preferring exile in Brooklyn to returning home.
Charles Krauthammer, in a column titled, “Truth Is Also Massacred in Spielberg's Munich” refers to the director as a “Hollywood ignoramus” for having one of his characters use the Nazi Holocaust as a justification for Zionism and the actions of the nascent Israeli state. Krauthammer claims that this argument is “Palestinian narrative… classic narrative for anti-Zionists, most recently [expressed by] the president of Iran….” It is true that many Palestinians feel one of the causes of their dispossession in 1948 was the support that guilty Europeans gave to the Zionists in order to exculpate their sins of anti-Semitism and genocide. This does not mean that the many Jews and Israelis do not share this view. Actually, Jews often cite the Holocaust and more generally anti-Semitism, as a justification for both the existence of Israel and its military aggression. Criticizing Spielberg for “giving flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian,” is a distortion of truth in the extreme. But Krauthammer is nothing but extreme in his views and thus is not satisfied in just criticizing Spielberg’s view of Israel’s post-Munich reaction to Palestinian terrorism. The conservative syndicated journalist proceeds to accuse the film of making the case for the “moral bankruptcy… [of] … the entire enterprise of Israel itself.”
Harvard law professor and media spin-doctor, Alan Dershowitz, in his article “Message of Spielberg’s Munich Doesn’t Square With Reality,” spends much of his article refuting the claim “that Israel's policy of targeting terrorists for assassination caused, or at least contributed to, the attack on 9/11.” He calls this argument “patent nonsense.” However, the film never makes the argument that there is any causal relationship between Israel’s actions after the Munich massacre and 9/11. Rather, the image of the World Trade Center, shown in the final scene of the film more plausibly is meant to indicate the similarity of the American reaction against al-Qaeda to the Israeli response to the Munich massacre.
With all due respect to Messrs. Dershowitz and Krauthammer, two stalwart and unrelenting defenders of all things Israeli, by far my favorite critique of Munich is by veteran Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, co-author of one of the earliest histories of the Mossad, Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community. Melman and his co-writer Steven Hartov, in their article “Munich: Fact and Fantasy,” write that according to their informants, the source of George Jonas’ book, Vengeance, upon which the film was based, was not an Israeli assassin but an imposter who never worked for the Mossad. Melman’s main complaint is that his Mossad sources, some of whom were the principals in the events depicted in the film were not hired by the Munich crew as consultants. His consternation is so great that he even puts in a “good word” for Abu Daoud, who the Mossad claims planned the Munich attack. It seems that Abu Daoud, like Melman’s Mossad sources feels that he could have contributed greatly to the veracity of the screenplay and was also spurned by the Munich director. Melman is apparently clueless as to why Spielberg may not have been too keen on having terrorists and assassins on his payroll competing for the attention of his screenwriters while they were composing a script that may have portrayed those same assassins and terrorists in a manner that is less than flattering.
In the recent book, Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response, Aaron Klein, an Israeli military/security correspondent, tells a tale which, if true, shows that Munich is actually more factual than the viewer might assume. The irony is that Klein’s long list of sources are the same Mossad people that Melman claims could have told the true story. They include Zvi Zamir, the Mossad chief at the time of the events described in the movie, and Mike Harari, who was an operations officer involved in the post-Munich assassinations. Harari, some may remember, was at the side of Manuel Noriega, serving as a close military consultant for the Panamanian strongman in 1989. Unlike his patron, Harari managed to escape the country just before the American invasion. I assume that he was on sabbatical from his duties with the Israeli secret service at that time.
The account of the post-Munich assassinations as related in Klein’s version of the tale closely reflects events portrayed in Munich. The description of the victims and the way they were murdered are remarkably similar. The part of Munich which appears to be pure invention seems to be the characters and their motivations, and, of course, the doubts of the members of the Israeli assassination team. I think that the real Israelis, were not a very introspective lot and were probably subject to as little doubt as to the righteousness of their mission as are Messrs. Krauthammer and Dershowitz. The other possible invention is the very heavy reliance of the Mossad hit team upon a group of French anarchists, which appeared to be an early version of what we know today as a “we’ll handle it all” out-sourcing company. The Mossad people insist that they did most of their own dirty work.
In the end, Spielberg’s Munich, although critical of the post-Olympic counter-terrorism campaign actually is rather easy on Israel. It only hints at the fact that most of the targets of the Mossad had nothing to do with the Munich hostage-taking. Additionally, unlike the people who were directly responsible, the Mossad’s victims lived normal lives without the protection of security guards and thus were easy targets. Klein categorically states that the first assassination, that of the Palestinian/Italian intellectual Wael Zu’aytir “was a mistake… based on [u]ncorroborated and improperly cross-referenced intelligence.”
Spielberg’s most glaring omission is the incident at Lillehammer in the spring of 1973. Ali Hassan Salameh was one of Yasir Arafat’s inner circle and was thought by the Mossad to be one of the planners of the Munich kidnappings. He was frequently mentioned by Avner, the film’s protagonist as someone who their group must kill. Yet he proved to be an elusive target for the Israeli team in Munich. The titles at the end of the film note that Salameh was eventually assassinated by the Mossad in Lebanon in 1979. What the film does not mention is that in 1973 an Israeli Mossad hit team lead by Mike Harari murdered a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway whom they mistakenly believed to be Salameh. Five of the six Israeli operatives that were arrested and tried for the killing were found guilty and served time in Norwegian prison. The incident made international news and did much harm to Israel’s public image and the Mossad’s reputation. Mike Harari was not one of the captured Israelis. As he did in Panama, he managed to escape his pursuers.
Munich is not a great dramatic film. It is at times too wordy and some scenes like the sex-dream sequence at the end the film, seem pointless and awkward. But I applaud Spielberg for making a film that questions Israeli tactics and by extension America’s war on terror in this very conservative time. Spielberg, however, is behaving as if he is surprised by the criticism he has received. On the film’s web site he says in a video interview that in his mind the Mossad agents in the film are heroes. That is absolutely not the point of view presented in Munich, but no doubt, the director is under much pressure from the movie’s publicity team to placate a potential army of pro-Israel detractors.
Spielberg has hired ex-US Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross to help him convince the American Jewish community that this film is not inimical to their image of Israel. Ross persuaded Americans that he was an honest broker in the US-Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of the 1990s, so maybe he can get American Jews to swallow what they normally would consider a bitter pill. Ross will probably tell the American Jewish community that even if the Mossad does not look so good in Munich, the film could divert people’s attention from the far more horrifying reality of what the Israelis are doing today in the West Bank and Gaza.
-Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. Currently Mr. Glunts lives in Madison, New York where he and his wife own and operate a used and rare book business.