Thirty-three years after the event, we now have a film by a great director memorializing the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. But, although much hyped in advance, it has not exactly been a blockbuster at the box office, and it has also engendered considerable controversy.
To Time magazine, Steven Spielberg’s Munich is a “masterpiece.” It has “all the virtues we’ve come to expect when he is working at his highest levels.” To Newsweek, Munich is “a superbly taut and well-made thriller . . . staged with a mastery Hitchcock might envy.” Unexpectedly welcome, Newsweek adds, “is the tone, the point of view, the morally complex weight Spielberg brings to bear on this story.”
But to Variety, it is precisely the “morally complex weight” of Munich that drags it down: “the story’s thrust repeatedly stalls as all sides of an issue are didactically propounded.” While the “beautifully made pic will spur newsy media coverage, . . . members of the general public will be glancing at their watches.” This last prediction would appear to be borne out in the, by Spielbergian standards, less than stellar ticket sales.
As for the film’s general approach, or what might be called its politics, a major point of debate here centers on the “balanced” way in which it is said to depict its Israeli and Palestinian protagonists. In brief, what Newsweek and others laud as moral complexity strikes others as something distinctly unsavory. Thus, to David Twersky, director of international affairs at the American Jewish Congress, there is an “odor of moral equivalency [between victims and perpetrators] wafting through this thing.” Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, voices the same objection in more florid terms: the film, he says, “is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness.” According to the New York Times columnist David Brooks, Spielberg’s presentation of Israelis and Palestinians as two equally victimized peoples “trapped in a cycle of violence” gives rise to a version of reality in which there are no villains and, “above all, no evil.”
But others have risen to the director’s defense. To Michelle Goldberg of Salon, Munich “does not suggest that terrorists and counterterrorists are morally equivalent or that Israel is wrong to defend itself.” Rather, it “is about the way vengeance and violence—even necessary, justified violence—corrupt both their victims and their perpetrators. It’s about the struggle to maintain some bedrock morality while engaging in immorality.” Going beyond Goldberg is Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, for whom Munich shows, “with respect and understanding, . . . the need to respond to terrorism. . . . We do not think this is an attack on Israel [or] a film of moral equivalency.”
For his own part, Spielberg has said that he made Munich out of a simple desire to commemorate the slaughtered Jews of Munich:
[E]very four years there’s an Olympics somewhere in the world and there has never been an adequate tribute paid to the Israeli athletes who were murdered in ’72, and I wanted to tell this as a tribute to them. . . . I wanted this film to be in memory of them, because they seem to have been forgotten.
On top of this commemorative aim, Spielberg also believes the film is relevant to our own troubled times, and specifically to the current war against terror. As a comment on two adversaries trapped in a “quagmire,” and as an implicit “prayer for peace,” Munich tells us “something important about the tragic standoff we find ourselves in today.”
Munich opens with a chilling, terrifying, ten-minute sequence that expertly re-creates the horror at the 1972 Olympics. We see a team of Palestinian guerrillas commencing their raid in the predawn hours, climbing over the fence into the Olympic village (assisted, unwittingly, by a group of American athletes) and forcing their way into the dormitories where the Israeli team sleeps. The Palestinian terrorists, members of a group called Black September, are merciless and utterly determined; the eleven Israelis are terrified, shaking with fear, some resisting, some escaping, some bearing themselves stoically. Two of them are killed on the spot.
The denouement of this attack takes place not in the dormitory but in Munich’s Fürstenfeldbrück airport, where the remaining nine Israeli hostages, having been transported from the Olympic village by helicopter, will die in a fusillade of Palestinian bullets and grenades. But that comes at the end of the film. Sprinkled throughout are further snippets from the terrorist assault, mainly composites of contemporary newsreels with Spielberg’s own reproduction of a botched German rescue attempt. These flashbacks are interwoven with the real story of the movie, which is not about Palestinian terrorism or the deaths of the innocent Israelis at all, but rather about Israel’s response.
The scene thus shifts from the carnage in Germany to sunlit Tel Aviv. We enter the warm and loving home of the movie’s central character, Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), a strapping, youthful, sensitive agent of the Mossad, happily ensconced with his pregnant and extremely fetching wife. Abruptly, their domestic idyll is interrupted by a military summons from on high. A car is waiting outside. The bewildered Avner is chauffeured to Jerusalem by no less an authority than the chief of the Mossad, there to be ushered unceremoniously into a meeting of ranking generals with the prime minister of Israel herself, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen).
The dazzled Avner is asked if he is willing to take part in an “important” mission. This assignment, he is told, will mean traveling abroad and not seeing his wife or soon-to-be-born child or anyone else he knows in Israel for an indefinite period of time, which might be years. Beyond the fact that the mission will be dangerous, he is given no further clue as to what it will entail. He is allowed 24 hours to decide.
After an agonizing night, Avner accepts and heads off to Europe. There we meet the four other members of the Mossad team as they discuss their grisly duties. They have been tasked with finding the whereabouts of the eleven planners of the Munich massacre, hunting them down one by one, and killing them. If possible, the operation should be carried out in a highly visible manner—bombs are better than bullets—in order to send a message: Palestinians will pay a stiff price for killing Jews. Avner is the team leader. He is accompanied by Hans (Hanns Zischler), a skilled document forger; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a bombmaker; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), who handles cleanup; and Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African Jew and experienced getaway driver.
At first the team members are a little uneasy about their unaccustomed roles as assassins—but, with Munich fresh in their minds, they are also gung-ho. As the mission proceeds, however, and as missteps and travails mount, they begin to harbor doubts.
Their first victim turns out not to look like a terrorist at all. Shadowing him around Rome, they encounter a good-natured, middle-aged Palestinian (played by Makram Khoury): an intellectual, a translator of The Arabian Nights into Italian, courteous, smiling, a generous tipper. So congenial a person is their quarry that when the Mossad agents finally corner him in the hallway of his apartment house and he begs piteously for his life, they are unable to bring themselves to pull the trigger. But at length they do, and his blood runs to the ground, mixing there with the milk that seeps from his grocery bags.
Their second victim is no less urbane, his link to the Munich massacre no less obscure. In carrying out their orders from Jerusalem, the members of the team are afforded another tutorial in the costs, real and potential, of their mission. The target’s daughter, an eleven-year-old with a delightful smile, unexpectedly returns home seconds before their bomb is set to go off.
By the third assassination, which takes place in Cyprus, the pattern is inalterably fixed. Once again the target does not fit the mold of a terrorist or a planner of terrorist acts. Instead, he is an affable middle-aged Palestinian who lives in Sweden, where he teaches Swedish to Lebanese immigrants. And once again there is an instructive mishap. The bomb that kills the Palestinian in his hotel room turns out to be excessively powerful; an Israeli girl, on honeymoon with her Gentile husband, is severely burned and blinded in the neighboring room.
As assassination follows assassination, the troubles besetting the Mossad team only deepen. Obtaining information about their targets requires doing business with a bizarre and wholly untrustworthy family of French anarchists. The team gets into a gun battle and ends up killing a Russian KGB officer, bringing down on Israel the wrath of a superpower. Then one of the members is himself killed following a tryst with a seductress he picks up in a bar. She in turn is killed by the Mossad team in an especially hideous manner, her naked body left sprawled on a chair with blood dripping across her breasts and genitals. A second member of the squad is killed—we do not know by whom, and we never learn. Then Robert, the bombmaker on the team, is blown up in a work accident—but was it really an accident? Once again we never learn.
After months of hunting Palestinians, the mission is mostly accomplished. But in the process the two surviving members of the team have been transformed from hunters to hunted, and the once unflappable Avner has descended into the inner circle of a personal hell. Openly questioning the rectitude of what he has done, he abandons Israel, emigrates together with his wife and child to New York, and begins to suspect that he and his family are being targeted for death by the Mossad. The closing moments of the film show him standing on the Brooklyn waterfront, with the silhouette of the World Trade Center at his back, declining to return to Israel and declaring to his case officer that “there’s no peace at the end of this.”
Although he has produced his share of fantasy features, from E.T. to Jurassic Park, with many others in between, Spielberg is also in command of a certain style of hyperrealism, on display most vividly in Saving Private Ryan (1998). In re-creating the horrors of the Munich massacre, with machine guns blazing and the blood of innocents splashing onto walls, he is swimming in one of the cinematic currents of which he is an acknowledged master.
Entertainment Weekly has called this film “spectacularly gripping.” That is a stretch. Sheer length alone—Munich clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes—virtually guarantees longueurs. Although each action scene is as compelling and lifelike and terrifying as the next, interpolated among them is talk and more talk, some of it quite tedious. The Israeli cabinet debates how to respond to Munich; the Mossad assassins debate their actions among themselves; Avner debates his own actions with his case officer, with his mother, with his wife, and, in one highly improbable scene, he even debates the merits of the Middle East conflict with a Palestinian counterpart.
Occasionally these scenes descend into cartoonish banality. Verbal clichés direct from The Joys of Yiddish—including many “mazal tovs” and jokes about brisket—are supplemented by, in the words of Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, visual clichés “direct from your travel agent: Eiffel Tower for Paris, bicycles for Holland, and feast-laden tables for Israelis, wherever they are.”
As for the principal characters, with the partial exception of Avner they are essentially stick figures of whose inner lives we gain not so much as a glimmer. Even the soul of Avner is left unexplored; we observe him wrestling with his demons by means of downcast looks, puzzled glances, and foreboding music, but never become acquainted with the mice that are racing around inside his head. If the historical subject matter on which this film is based is inherently spellbinding, the historical actors we meet are for the most part thoroughly opaque.
How does Munich rate as a treatment of that spellbinding historical subject matter? The Munich massacre, after all, was a real event. In its aftermath, Israel did send a team—teams, actually—of assassins into Europe to track down and kill the planners and perpetrators. Part of that real story was told two decades ago in Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorism Team, a page-turner of a book by the Canadian writer George Jonas, which Spielberg draws from liberally and to which he gives full credit. The movie also opens with an evasive caveat: “inspired by real events.” But where do the real events end, and where does the inspiration begin?
To the extent that Munich relies on Jonas’s Vengeance, it is already on an incline, if not a slippery slope. An utterly absorbing book, Vengeance is also difficult to appraise, being based almost entirely on the much-controverted testimony of a single Mossad agent, Avner. Moreover, although Jonas is an undeniably careful researcher, he makes only modest claims for his work, noting that “the difficulty facing the researcher in this field is considerable.” When his book first appeared in England in 1984, it was on two best-seller lists simultaneously: non-fiction and fiction alike.
Whatever nits one might pick with Vengeance, however, Munich does not follow it faithfully, and in some crucial respects does not follow it at all. To take just one central issue: in the book, as in the film, Avner does indeed become disillusioned. But in Vengeance his disillusionment stems from how he has been treated by what he calls Israel’s “power elite,” not from the counterterrorism mission itself.
What Jonas writes on this score is unambiguous. As of 1984, Avner’s
views on his mission are devoid of second thoughts or regrets. He claims not to have ever had any personal feelings of enmity for the men he killed or helped to kill, but continues to regard their physical elimination as something demanded by necessity and honor. He fully supports the decision that sent him and his partners on their mission, and has absolutely no qualms about anything they did. . . .
[H]is overall patriotism as an Israeli remains undiminished. Contemplating every conflict, past or present, he unequivocally takes Israel’s side. As between Israel and her enemies, he stands squarely with his own country.
If that by itself is not enough, we now have Avner’s own word as well, in the foreword to a 2005 reissue of Vengeance:
[I]f I had to do it all over again, I would make the same choice I made when Golda Meir approached me more than 30 years ago. . . . I make no apologies for the mission my team and I carried out in the 1970’s—and, indeed, am proud that I was able to serve my country in this way.
This is hardly the Avner we meet in the movie, a man so wracked by guilt that he rejects Israel and wonders aloud whether he is a murderer of innocents.
But this brings us to the question of Spielberg’s purpose in taking such liberties with what we know of the historical record. Is his film guilty of the charge of moral equivalence leveled by its critics?
The evidence for such an accusation is undeniable. Consider a brief sequence near the beginning of the film, in which we are treated to a series of video clips of people mourning over that September day in Munich. As if on home television screens, we see a grief-stricken Israeli family and a grief-stricken Palestinian family; then another grief-stricken Israeli family and another grief-stricken Palestinian family; and so forth. The names of all those who perished at Munich, Israeli athletes and Palestinian terrorists alike, are read out in measured and doleful tones.
Commingling the names of the dead in this way can only suggest a shocking reluctance to distinguish murderers from their murdered victims—or perhaps not a reluctance at all but rather a deliberate attempt to suggest that all were equally victims. And this is only one among a number of such facile scenes in Munich that betray a similarly false evenhandedness.
But to indict Spielberg on this basis is to miss something far more disquieting and repugnant that is going on. Pace David Brooks, there is evil aplenty in Munich, and Spielberg is hardly reticent or “equivalent” in pointing it out. It is the evil of the Israelis.
Thus, although the Palestinian violence that opens the film is exceptionally brutal, it is by no means the only, let alone the worst, brutality that Munich wants us to contemplate. To begin with a relatively small detail that is a foretaste of things to come, there is the suggestively immoral way in which Avner is assigned to a death squad by the governmental machinery of Israel. He is asked to accept this posting without knowing what it is. “You are an Israeli officer; that’s your only loyalty,” is how his Mossad supervisor will later put it to him. In other words, he is expected to show blind obedience to authority, to follow orders without questioning them—cardinal evils of the 20th century indelibly associated with the war crimes of Nazi officers.
Another foretaste: at a cabinet meeting where Golda Meir makes the case for Israel’s assassination campaign, she appears blithely uncomprehending of the adversary and his motivations. “Who are these Palestinians?” she asks in a slow sneer, drawn out for emphasis. Incapable of perceiving the world except through the distorted prism of Jewish suffering, she answers her own question: they are nothing more than Nazis in Arab garb, “the same as Eichmann.” This hyperbolic comparison— murderers of eleven “the same” as a murderer of millions?—is left to hang in the air as an example of how Israel is trapped by its past.
Never once in all this does any Israeli present us with a reasoned argument for striking back against terrorists who have hit once and—wandering around Europe virtually unmolested by European governments—may be planning to hit again. National security? Self-defense? Deterrence? Justified retribution? None of these considerations is invoked in all the film’s talk and debate. On the contrary, what Israel is proposing to undertake is made to seem a departure from justice, and especially a departure from traditional Jewish values—even in the eyes of the Israelis themselves. “People say we can’t afford to be civilized,” says the prime minister. “I’ve always resisted such people. . . . Today, I am hearing with new ears.” In a line perhaps intended as the moral touchstone of the film, she declares wanly, “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”
This discreditable rationale is, furthermore, the loftiest offered for what Israel intends to do; others, lower and uglier, are on display as well. Avner’s mother, a refugee from Hitler’s Europe (and hence also trapped by the past), insists that absolutely anything is permissible in Israel’s name: “Whatever it took; whatever it takes.” Steve, the South African driver on the team, argues for the mission in terms even cruder in form (“Don’t f— with the Jews”) or nakedly racist (“The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood”). And there the whole issue is allowed to rest.
If the assassination campaign is made to sit on an indefensible moral foundation, that is not the only shortcoming we are invited to weigh. At the outset, Avner is firmly told by his case officer that each of the eleven individuals on the Mossad hit list has had a hand in planning the Munich massacre. But that proposition is itself brought under doubt as the film progresses.
Some of this is accomplished through clever casting: as I have already noted, the Palestinians targeted by the Mossad hardly look or behave like your stereotypical terrorists. And some is accomplished through the script, which never offers us any information linking most of the targets to Munich or to terrorism at all. On the contrary, we are repeatedly given to believe that no such link exists.
Told early on, for example, that one of the targets is an organizer of Fatah in France, Carl grows skeptical. “Did they show you evidence of this?” he asks Avner. To which comes the singularly unpersuasive reply that the “story” comes from Mossad headquarters, “and I believed them. . . . It’s a crisis, a war, you don’t have to always scrutinize. . . . Don’t think about it.” Blind obedience again.
By the end of the movie, Avner himself demands that his Mossad controller “show me the evidence.” But no evidence is ever forthcoming. We are led to conclude that, in a perfect counterpoint to the Arab massacre of innocent Jews at Munich, there has been a systematic killing by Jews of innocent Arabs.
In the meantime, evidence of a very different sort is given a thorough hearing. At various junctures, Palestinians press the case both for their methods and for their larger national goals, and in terms that contrast invidiously with the case that is made, or rather not made, for Israeli nationhood. The Palestinian cause is made to seem reasonable and historically grounded; the establishment of a Jewish state gets scarcely a positive word.
Justifying the resort to terrorism, one Palestinian target of the Mossad team cites repeated Israeli aggressions against Palestinian civilians and rehearses the plight of his people at Israeli hands. “We are,” he proclaims, “for 24 years the world’s largest refugee population, our homes taken from us, living in camps, no future, no food, nothing decent for our children.” At least now, he explains, as a result of the assault on the Israeli Olympic team, “the world will begin hearing us.” Shortly after uttering these words, he is permanently silenced, the victim of a Mossad bomb.
Nor is it only their Palestinian adversaries who make the case against Israel. A member of the Israeli hit team helpfully chimes in as well. “You think the Palestinians invented bloodshed?” he asks. “How do you think we got control of the land, by being nice?” To this no one proposes an answer; presumably, there is none.
The difference between the two sides is drawn as well in the nature of the violence they employ. Palestinian deeds may be ferocious, but they are also passionately felt, an upwelling of the persecuted weak against the implacably strong. Israeli violence, though no less brutal, is heartless and methodical—not the expression of individuals willingly sacrificing themselves for a just cause but the coldly mechanical and calculated product of the intelligence apparatus of an aggressive state.
Finally, the Mossad’s mode of operating displays a number of repellent features that are apparently peculiar to Israel. One of them is sloppiness. Though reputed to be an ultra-efficient intelligence organization, the Mossad of Munich is anything but. The character known as Robert, for example, has supposedly been assigned to the hit team on account of his proficiency as a bomb-maker. But it turns out that his real expertise, gained from service in the police, lies in dismantling bombs. As a result of this small error, committed somewhere along the chain of command, more than a few innocent people in the movie will be maimed or die.
Then there is the Mossad’s nearly obsessive concern with money. A continuous running gag is Avner’s need to obtain receipts for every expenditure, no matter how trivial. His fellow team members fret over such things as the price per kill; their first target, one of them notes ruefully, “cost us, by my calculations, $352,000.” Why this focus on cash? A charitable interpretation is that Spielberg wants us to see it as part and parcel of the Mossad’s cavalier attitude toward human life; less charitable interpretations, based on enduring ethnic slurs, suggest themselves as well.
On the day after the Mossad’s first kill, the five members of the squad, having rapidly forgotten how difficult it was to pull the trigger on a man begging for his life, gather to mark the occasion in an outdoor café. “Drink some wine, we’re celebrating,” says one. “I am not celebrating: I am goddamn rejoicing,” responds another. Smirking merrily, they rise from their chairs and dance together. Later on, as their education proceeds and they are made to pay a price in the loss of their own men, the celebrating will cease. But a kind of bloodlust, we have been given to understand, is a default feature of the Israeli mentality—a point driven home by the ardent congratulations and handshakes bestowed on a repentant and despondent Avner during his periodic visits home. “I’m proud of what you’re doing,” says his mother. “You don’t know what I am doing,” he replies in a voice full of sorrow.
Shortly before Munich was released, Steven Spielberg told an interviewer: “I worked very hard so this film was not in any way, shape, or form going to be an attack on Israel.” This is a truly curious formulation. Why should he have had to work “very hard” to avoid turning a film intended to commemorate the murder of Israeli civilians into a film attacking Israel? And if he did work very hard, why is the film he made still so blatant an attack on Israel in virtually every way, shape, and form?
Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in Spielberg’s choice of screenwriter. Tapping the playwright Tony Kushner (together with Eric Roth) to adapt Vengeance as a screenplay was a stroke of either conscious calculation or unconscious predilection. Best known for his passionately left-wing Angels in America, Kushner has also gained a reputation for his passionately left-wing views on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has repeatedly called the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East a “mistake,” and is a member of an organization that urges boycotts of Israeli products and disinvestment from corporations that do business in Israel. About the Munich massacre, he is on record as saying that “murdering athletes is a horrible thing”—and then adding that “one of the questions is, why did that happen? What kind of horror produced this horror?”
Spielberg is himself a man of the Left, if of the soft rather than the hard variety. Unlike Kushner, moreover, he is known for his longstanding interest in Jewish memory, evidenced not only in Schindler’s List, his 1993 film about the Holocaust, but in the project he has financed to amass a vast video archive of Holocaust survivors speaking about their lives. The declared purpose of that project is to use its collection of “testimonies” in order to “overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry—and the suffering they cause.”
In filming Munich, Spielberg seems to have had a similar purpose in mind—a purpose, it must be said, as treacherous as it is expansive. It certainly caught Spielberg in its coils. Avowedly eager to memorialize Israel’s murdered athletes, he apparently found himself anxious not to commit the sin of “prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry” against their murderers, either. “The thing I’m very proud of,” Spielberg has said, “is that Tony Kushner and I and the actors did not demonize anyone. We don’t demonize our [Palestinian] targets. They’re individuals. They have families.”
But this is infantile and moronic. All sorts of demonic personages have had families. Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda had six lovely children, or did have six lovely children, ages three through twelve, all named after their favorite “uncle”—Hela, Hilda, Helmut, Holde, Hedda, and Heide—until, before taking their own lives, the charming Magda poisoned them one by one in the Fuehrer bunker. Now Spielberg, hypocritically preening himself on his liberal tolerance and pushed along by the craftier Kushner, has given the butchers of Munich a break, while foregrounding the “horror”—of Israeli policy—that supposedly “produced” the Munich massacre and other Palestinian atrocities, prior and subsequent. With the World Trade Center hovering in the background of his final scene, he then points this thinly veiled allegory about the evils of counterterrorism in the direction of George W. Bush (in Kushner’s words, “a feckless blood-spattered plutocrat”) and Ariel Sharon (in Kushner’s words, “an unindicted war criminal”).
The allegory is itself based upon a radically tendentious reading of history, if not outright lies. In Munich, Israel’s response to the Olympic massacre is made to seem not only futile but the root cause from which an entire wave of Palestinian terrorism will spring. To drive home the point, one of the members of the Mossad team tallies the costs incurred as a result of what has been let loose by their own actions:
Since we began, the other side has sent letter bombs to eleven embassies, hijacked three planes, killed 130 passengers in Athens and wounded scores more, and killed our military attaché in Washington. . . . Black September’s original leadership has been decimated. But new leaders are emerging for whom Black September wasn’t violent enough.
This is a phony balance sheet, starting with the letter bombs, 51 of which were sent within ten days of the Munich massacre and well before the Israeli hit squad embarked on its mission, and ending with the deliberate occlusion of the long Arab war against Israel of which Munich was but one spectacular episode in an ongoing chain of anti-Jewish aggression, state-sponsored and otherwise.
Although uninformed viewers of Munich would never know it, Palestinian terrorism, abetted by neighboring Arab governments, preceded the formation of Israel itself and inflicted a steady toll of civilian death and injury during its first decades of existence. By the early 1960’s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an umbrella body headed by Yasir Arafat and based in the West Bank and Jordan, was, with the encouragement of governments across the region, initiating a new kind of terrorist activity, designed not merely to maim and murder Israeli civilians but to capture the undivided attention of the world in the process.
The first of these well-planned operations came in February 1970, when a PLO subgroup succeeded in placing a bomb aboard a Swiss Air flight bound for Tel Aviv and detonating it in mid-air, killing 47. A succession of similar and even more serious incidents followed, with hijackings and shootings and grenade attacks on innocent passengers in airports across Europe and the Middle East. Only five months before Munich, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, another PLO subgroup working in conjunction with the Japanese Red Army, launched an attack on passengers at Israel’s international airport, hurling grenades and firing automatic weapons, killing 27 and wounding many more.
Munich marked not an endpoint but a high point of this kind of terror. There was something indescribably poignant about the particular Israelis chosen as targets—wrestlers, fencers, weightlifters, and others, their powerfully built bodies shredded by automatic-weapons rounds or burned to death when the helicopter in which they were entrapped at the Munich airport exploded in flames from a grenade attack. Thanks to the presence of American and European networks at the Olympic Village, the images of horror were broadcast to immense audiences across the entire world, just as the Palestinians intended.
Many were repelled by what they saw. Many were clearly frightened; at the Olympics themselves, as Jonas reports, the flags of all countries were ordered to be flown at half-mast, but, after ten Arab countries protested, the Germans obligingly restored them to the top of their poles. And many more, out of a mixture of motives, conceived a new respect for Palestinian determination and for the Palestinian “cause.” Within two years, Yasir Arafat, revolver on hip, would address the General Assembly from its rostrum. Within three, the United Nations General Assembly would solemnly resolve that Zionism, the national-liberation movement of the Jewish people, was a form of racism and racial discrimination.
Portraying horrendous bloodshed realistically is ultimately what gives Munich its force as a movie. It is also what makes its agglomeration of falsehoods so pernicious. “Whatever it took, whatever it takes”: this is the formula put by Spielberg and Kushner into the mouth of Avner’s mother, and it is for allegedly enacting this nihilistic creed that Israel is tarred by them as the initiator of the Middle East’s “cycle of violence.” But in point of historical fact it was not Israelis but Arab governments and Palestinian terrorists who translated this maxim into a decades-long program of action, wantonly slaughtering innocent women, children, and men in pursuit of their openly professed goal of destroying the Jewish state by “whatever it took, whatever it takes.”
Many of them continue to follow the same maxim today—and, in the Palestinian Authority headed first by Arafat and now by his PLO colleague Abu Mazen, systematically educate their children to follow in their path. So do their many counterparts around the world who pursue a similar and even more ambitious war against the “greater Satan” that is America. If in Munich we have Steven Spielberg’s idea of paying tribute to the eleven murdered Jewish athletes of 1972, one dreads to think of how he would pay tribute to the murdered 3,000 of September 11, 2001. The movie deserves an Oscar in one category only: most hypocritical film of the year.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is the senior editor of Commentary.
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