Spielberg’s Munich- Myth and Reality
Posted Jan 13, 2006

Spielberg’s Munich- Myth and Reality

Steven Speilberg’s Munich has already generated considerable controversy. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks said that Spielberg presents a “perpetual motion machine” of violence and that he ignores the “evil” involved—presumably meaning the Palestinians. The right-wing organization, CAMERA, is aghast that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner depict Palestinians as people rather than as mindless killers. At Jewish Voice for Peace, we work for a lasting and just peace that respects the rights of Israelis and Palestinians equally. We do that by working to change American policy in the region and by raising a Jewish call for policies that treat Israelis and Palestinians equally within the framework of international law.

What’s the reality?

Munich tells a story of Israel in the persona of one man, Avner, the leader of the team of Israeli assassins sent to kill Palestinians alleged to have masterminded the Munich Olympics massacre. In no way does it justify or excuse to any degree the perpetrators of that horrific act. What it does is raise two questions of concern to anyone, Jewish or not, with a conscience: Is there any hope that the violence we see in the film can possibly lead to peace? Can the violence be justified morally? And one certainly comes away with the feeling that the answer to both questions is a resounding “no!” 

In 1972 at the Munich Olympics, eight Palestinian terrorists from the group Black September took nine Israeli athletes hostage. In the end, all the Israelis were killed during a clumsy rescue attempt by German police. Five Palestinians were killed, and three others captured, though they were later freed as ransom for a hijacked plane. It is only briefly mentioned in the film that Israel responded immediately, bombing Palestine Liberation Organization bases inside refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. Over 200 Palestinians were killed or wounded (precise figures are unavailable, though the movie quotes 60 as being the number killed), the overwhelming majority of them innocent civilian refugees.

While the attacks on the camps in Syria and Lebanon are mentioned in passing in the film, whether such attacks are justified was not a question Munich chose to deal with. That’s not an indictment of the film by any means; Munich is, first and foremost, entertainment, it is already a very long movie, and it takes on enough questions that we need not criticize it for not taking on more.

The film chronicles the Mossad operation undertaken in the wake of the Munich massacre to hunt down and kill leaders of Black September and leading figures of the PLO. The film has been attacked for weakness in historical facts. This is a criticism that falls flat for two reasons: one, the film does not claim to be an accurate historical representation. It is entertainment based on real events, and begins with a disclaimer to that effect. Two, as with virtually any covert operation, verifiable facts are sparse and hard to come by. In this case, not only is there classified information, but Israel has never even admitted this operation took place, making verification even more difficult. Those complaining about the film’s inaccuracies are going by testimony of different people than the author of the book on which the film is based did, nothing more.

But to hear the way the film has been characterized by some so-called supporters of Israel, one would believe that Munich featured some exploration of the Palestinian point of view. Indeed, when I saw it, I expected some minor sub-plot where a Palestinian character was somewhat explored. There was none. Again, this is not an indictment of the film—the movie was about Israel and Israelis. But this underscores just how extreme the critics of the film are.

Who was Black September?

Black September was an offshoot of the main party of the PLO, Fatah. They took their name from the September, 1970 onslaught by the Jordanian army against a Palestinian uprising in that country. At that time, Fatah and the PLO more generally were trying to become more of a political leadership and distance themselves from terrorist attacks. But the fight against Israel was very popular in the Palestinian street, and Fatah did not believe it could afford to be seen as giving up the violent struggle. So, Black September was created, a group that would take violent action in the name of the Palestinian cause, while allowing the main Fatah leadership to retain a discrete distance from those actions. Black September worked with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that was much more engaged in violent attacks than Fatah. This gave Fatah the benefit of not only remaining associated with militant actions, but also prevented the PLO from splitting between factions that would have been headed by the PFLP on the one side and Fatah on the other.

Black September’s actions were not confined to attacks on Israelis. Their first major action was the assassination of the Jordanian Prime Minister, Wafsi Tal. Many of their attacks were against Jordanian or Saudi targets at first, later focusing on Israeli and also American targets. But it was Munich that really brought the group to prominence. The Israeli operations to hunt down leaders of Black September, along with Black September’s own emphasis on international terrorism, as opposed to attacks within Israel and the Occupied Territories, gave birth to what was sometimes referred to as “the War of the Spooks”, with covert operatives hunting and killing each other all over the world. In the fall of 1973, the PLO decided that attacks around the world were doing their cause more harm than good and they disbanded Black September. By this time, however, international connections had been made and other, small but well-connected Palestinian groups would carry out more attacks on Israeli and American targets for years. It was not until the first Intifada in 1987 that Palestinian violence was generally confined to Israel and the Occupied Territories.

The Palestinians in Munich

Spielberg and Kushner show in one scene that both Israelis and Palestinians are fighting because they both yearn for a homeland in the same place. One can argue the different points of legitimacy for each side, but it is both incorrect and futile to contend that either side is motivated by hatred of another group. JVP says that it is the conflict that promotes that hatred, not the other way around. Further, Spielberg and Kushner weigh the question of securing the State of Israel through force. It comes as no surprise that conservative columnists like Brooks, Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic and Andrea Peyser in the New York Post are uncomfortable with the repeated acknowledgments in the film that Israel has always had to use force to attain its goals. As Avner’s mother says, “They would not give it to us, we had to take it.”

Extremists like Brooks and the people at CAMERA would like to believe that the dispossession of Palestinians and the violence Israelis have employed over the long years of conflict do not raise any moral questions. But most of us realize that they do.

Spielberg and Kushner make sure to demonstrate that the Palestinians being killed by the Mossad operatives in Munich were human beings, and this does nothing to exonerate anyone who was connected to the Olympic massacre. What complicates the matter is the fact that the eleven Palestinians targeted for assassination in the film may not all have been involved in the massacre. The movie raises this very question at the end, and, in fact, that question has been raised regarding a number of the Palestinians on the famed list of targets in the past. The trouble with covert operations is precisely that evidence is often scant, and operations often target people associated with a group, whether or not the planners know if they were actually connected with the act they are avenging. Indeed, this is a feature of virtually all acts of vengeance. And it’s surely why Kushner and Spielberg seem to take issue with acts of vengeance in general in this film.

But in the end, the movie is about the Israelis, and it is the Israelis whom we get to know. The Palestinians are depicted as more than generic, two-dimensional, pure evil terrorists, but we don’t get to know any of them in the movie. We only see one of the Palestinians with his family, and that is more to build tension about his daughter potentially being killed in the operation than for any character development. We hear that the Palestinians yearn for a homeland, but we are never made to understand their lives more deeply, to understand what might drive some of them to such horrific violence. Again, this is not what the film is about, and it is hardly a requirement that Spielberg and Kushner lengthen the film even further to bring these scenes in. But it does show how wildly the extremists we mentioned earlier are overacting to this movie.

Munich raises some important questions, though it’s not the movie we would have made. It does an excellent job, however, of showing the Israeli human and moral dilemmas as well as the terrible price they paid, and this is important. It is not only important to humanize Israelis, but it is important that we, as Jews, as Americans, raise the same questions about Israeli actions and operations as Israelis do. That Munich is set in the 1970s, when Israelis were somewhat less cynical about possibilities of the future than they are today (thanks in great measure to the second intifada and to the great lie of Barak’s Generous Offer at Camp David in 2000) makes it easier to raise these questions. But they are questions we all need to ask about Israel and the Palestinians; about US support for Israeli policies with both political protection and funding; and also about American policies in the so-called “war on terror.”

Munich is not a film that makes any kind of Palestinian case. But it does raise important questions, on top of being a very engrossing and well-made film. That really ought to be enough for anyone.


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Originally published at http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/publish/Munich.shtml and reprinted on TAM with permission.  Visit the original article for links to more articles on this topic.