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Chalav U'Dvash

Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought
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Volume 0, Number 0

Critics Gone Wild


Under the Microscope in Munich

By Sara Kranzler

Steven Spielberg's film Munich was released in December 2005 on the heels of a small flurry of anticipatory reviews, both of the personal politics of the producers and of the masterpiece itself.  The film is based on George Jonas' controversial work Vengeance, which was previously adapted in 1986 for the HBO film Sword of Gideon. The newer rendition has received reviews offering little between standing ovations and sharp criticism. Munich has been described as everything from "having a greater impact on your behind than on your intellect"a to having "uncommon depth, intelligence, and sensitivity."b  Amongst the most vehement critics are Jewish American supporters of Israel. They claim that the movie is a slanderous, slanted composition lacking in historical accuracy and context.

The storyline is premised on the actual kidnapping and execution of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. In reaction, Israel, under Prime Minister Golda Meir's leadership, sends out an undercover hit squad to assassinate the perpetrators. Actor Eric Bana plays Avner Kauffman, the main protagonist and the leader of the five-person mission.

The film is a composite of two separate chapters: the massacre of the Jewish athletes in the hands of the Palestinians, and the Israeli revenge. While the massacre quickly unfolds within the first fifteen minutes and through later flashbacks, the Israeli revenge extends throughout the remainder of the two-hour film. Both chapters are tragic, human, and full of suspense and irony. Nevertheless, there are those who claim that this equivalence in drama is insufficient to create an objective narrative. They accuse the film of insufficiently developing the impression that without the circle of sophisticated leadership within Black September, there would have been no massacre. It enrages Israel supporters that the Palestinians are instead portrayed as a downtrodden people struggling for a homeland. This is an especially substantial argument, given that the movie is about the Munich massacre. At best, Black September represented a belligerent Palestinian People seeking recognition as a People entitled to a homeland.

In a similar vein, the arrangement of the two chapters has critics crying bias. These Israel supporters argue that in tales of bloodshed, it is the victims of the emphasized story—in this case the members of Black September—who receive the public's sympathy. This argument is a harsh judgment of the viewing public. Considering that the pervasive impression of the film is not sympathy for the Palestinian plight, the claim just seems fallacious. If anything, the argument could be made that the sympathy of the viewer is meant to lie on the side of the Mossad (Israeli Intelligence) agent, since the movie ends with Avner reliving the torture of the hostages in a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) daytime nightmare.  Still, on an intellectual note, irrespective of relevance to the film, this accusation raises good questions.  For example, can a one-sided account be considered focused, rather than biased, and is bias synonymous with inaccuracy?

Even those who can swallow the State of Israel as the sole subject of this film's critique of violence could still claim that the equivalency set up between the Palestinian and Israeli positions is unfair. Unlike the Palestinian attack of high-profile innocent Israeli civilians, the real-life "Avner" explains:

When Israel exacts revenge for terrorist attacks—whether by sending out a team like mine after Munich or by launching an air-to-ground missile in the occupied territories after a car bombing—she aims to do it surgically, targeting only those responsible for the incident that triggered the mission.c

The only Palestinian violence shown in the film is the Munich massacre. The accusation that the film equates the two sides then is a reference to the scene in which Palestinian terrorists are double-booked into the same safe house as the Israeli hit squad. This creates a scenario in which American pop music, which has been settled upon after some quarreling, hums in the background of an intimate political debate between the leaders of the two groups. While this scene creates the impression of equal sides, the dynamic of the discussion is anything but fair. Avner is the questioner, and his Palestinian parallel is the defender.  It is interesting that more is said in the course of that scene, and the rest of the film, about the Palestinian struggle for a homeland, than is said about the motivation for taking the Israeli athletes hostage. As a result, Spielberg shifts the focus from the history surrounding the Munich killings to a question of Israeli-Palestinian violence in general.  Though unfair to that moment in history, it is not clear that Spielberg is attempting to portray moral equivalency between the violence of the two peoples in this scene.  If anything, it is the humanity of each side's cause that is being considered, and not their method or attitude towards violence.

While both parties crave a home, the Palestinian vision is portrayed as including an element of anti-Semitism. As the leader of the Palestinian cell announces to Avner, "We can wait forever. And if we need to, we can make the whole planet unsafe for Jews."d The film also contains direct and specific examples of why the two are the same in tactic. While this borders on equating the use of violence, it skirts the issue. Ephrayim, Avner's Mossad boss, implies that the Jews are acting exactly like the terrorists when he tells Avner: "You do what the terrorists do. Do you think they report back to home base?"e This scene points out that the Jews are acting like the Palestinians, learning from the Palestinians' techniques, and acquiring, though hating, their success.

If the film is placing Israel's actions under the microscope, the concern of bias lies not in the portrayal of the Palestinians, but in the portrayal of Israel and her history. The claim that the film does not contextualize Israel's vengeful reaction within the significant political reality and pervasive Israeli sentiment of the period is one of the Israel supporters' strongest arguments against the film. The only problem is agreeing upon an accurate account of the history, since the Israeli government's activity is shrouded in top-secret Mossad information and bureaucratic complexity. Yet there are some obvious points. For one thing, the extent of the Israelis' anguish after the smashing of their dream to participate in the Games in post-war Germany is not directly conveyed. In addition, the film focuses on the moral struggle that the very human patriot Avner faces as he executes revenge on behalf of his people. As a result, the film creates a dynamic in which the citizen's struggle is based on the policy of his mother country, Israel.  

While the film does convey the fact that Israel did initially struggle with the moral implications of her reaction, tremendous harm is still done to the State of Israel by the film's focus on the individual struggle of Avner. Prime Minister Golda Meir authorizes the formation of a Mossad unit to find and assassinate those responsible for Munich, reasoning that "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."f Little other moral deliberation is portrayed. Golda Meir, who is famous for saying that "I can forgive [the Palestinians] for killing my sons, but I cannot forgive them for making my sons into killers,"g is portrayed as guilty of actualizing that very fear. She is shown to be a woman of little understanding or maternal pride, though her sons are portrayed as righteous enough to struggle with the moral complexity of her policy. A complete historical contextualization—which would allow for an understanding of the implications of the assault on Israel and the extent of Israelis' own patience and cooperation in the face of the contempt shown by the terrorists, the Germans, and the International Olympic Committee—is imperative for understanding Israel's need for retaliation.

A more sympathetic portrayal of Israel would have developed the cumulative factors that led Israel to revenge. The greatest motivating factor behind the Israeli policy to execute revenge was the realization that they could only depend on their own resources to protect their citizens, since no one else seemed to care. In the film, Golda Meir says, "Ambushed and slaughtered again. While the rest of the world is

playing games—Olympic torches and brass bands—and dead Jews in Germany. And the world couldn't care less."h It is important to realize that there was barely any sympathy, and certainly very little cooperation, on the part of the International Olympic Committee. "The organizers of the Games naturally wanted [them] to resume as soon as possible," the Police Chief of Munich, Manfred Schreiber, said in an interview. "The organizers ... want peace and quiet, they want the event to take place unhindered, they want the event to continue without any delays."i As a result, the Israelis were treated like bad sports, and under the claim of legal complexity the Germans were allowed to bungle the hostage exchange several times. Though the film tells of the post-Munich Palestinian airplane hijacking of a flight leaving Germany, to which the Germans "reacted" by releasing the Palestinian perpetrators without consulting Israel, the viewer does not have a chance to understand the impact this event had for Israel. While the film clearly states Israel's motivation, without more of the historical premise, Israel looks honor-centered. The contextualization of Israel's hurt and the considerations behind its state policy, claim critics, would change the tone of the story from one of a cycle of violence to one focusing on the greater issue at hand: the question of how to respond to terrorism.

Though perhaps the argument could be made that the film is ambivalent as to whether the State of Israel, established to protect all Jews, ought to exist, the analysis of the counter-terrorism tactics is expressed in exclusively Jewish philosophical and Biblical terms.  For example, after their first kill, the Mossad hit unit sits around discussing whether they should celebrate; their conversation centers around the Biblical story of the angels celebrating after Pharaoh's army drowns in the Red Sea. As the story goes, Carl, one of the Mossad agents, explains, God is unhappy at this development, and asks the angels: "Why are you celebrating? I just killed a multitude of my children."j The film is thereby questioning the actions and decisions of Jews while simultaneously showing a dedication to life and peace within their tradition. While it reflects well on Israel that it is the Jews who wrestle with their consciences, their Arab counterparts are not given that same opportunity.

Roger Ebert argues that the film contains "deep love for Israel."k He claims that this is best seen from the scene where Avner's mother reminds her son why the state had to be founded: "We had to take it because no one would ever give it to us. Whatever it took, whatever it takes, we have a place on earth at last."l In other words, while the film does question Israel's policy of swift and full retribution after being attacked, the film does not deny the true idealism and dedication to life that lies at the basis of the state.  The claim of "deep love" is cognizant of the fact that there are elements of criticism of Israel within the film.

For others, the replacement of the Munich story with a story of un-contextualized violence is abhorrent. Israel supporters have claimed that the film proves that Spielberg is "no friend of Israel"m and that the film is anti-Semitic. Claiming that the director of Schindler's List is anti-Semitic is quite a hefty accusation to hurl. Have we defined anti-Semitism so loosely that anyone who does not agree with our politics is anti-Semitic? This accusation, misguided as it is, speaks of the newly constructed definitions of anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. In an article by Jonathan Freedland, "Is Anti-Zionism Anti-Semitism," anti-Zionsim is defined as anti-Semitism when

Critics who make an exception for Jews—who deny us the rights they would give everyone else—and whose language and methods, mistakenly or otherwise, play on the most gruesome memories of our past.  Some anti-Zionists are anti-Semites.n

Those who logically and lucidly challenge our values are not anti-Semitic according to this definition. There certainly can be no moral equivalence made between the attitudes of the Nazis and those of individuals who challenge the politics of Israel. There is a much stronger claim for those who equate anti-Semitism with Palestinian rage and hatred of the Jews.

While "anti-Semite" may just be slanderous, "no friend of Israel" carries significant political connotations. In an interview with The New York Times, Spielberg explains, "For me this movie is a prayer for peace. Somewhere inside all this intransigence there has to be a prayer for peace. ... [T]he biggest enemy is not the Palestinians or the Israelis. The biggest enemy in the region is intransigence."o Spielberg's intent, it seems, is for the storyline to argue that violence feeds violence. As he understands it, the Middle East struggle is based on an eye-for-an-eye mentality, which for fundamental reasons refuses to give peace a chance. Ultimately, Avner is depicted as torn between his passion for the safety of his family, country, and people, and the ugliness of murder and the cycle of violence. The film unequivocally notes how righteous anger becomes blood-thirst, and how demonization of an enemy can transform the victim, Israel and her citizens, into either monsters or humans plagued by PTSD.  

The clamor over the film has raised interesting questions, though it has not been powerful enough to provoke communal boycotts of the film. This is not a fault of the community, but a reflection of the reality of the film itself. The focus on Israel allows the film to be both critical and understanding of the Israeli position. It is not criticism which is problematic. Rather, it is the incomplete portrayal of the history of the formation of Israel's policy following the Munich massacres—a portrayal that suggests a more general cycle of violence, thereby creating an incorrect impression of the period. This raises obvious questions, to which there are no definitive answers. Does de-contextualizing the cycle of violence create a scenario that is too simplistic to be of consequence, or can it bring to light issues which are otherwise overlooked due to the complexity of the larger situation? The film consciously raises the question of whether Israel's use of violence when taking revenge is justifiable, is politically necessary, or is just emotionally reactive. Part of the answer to that question is dependent on an understanding of how to fight terrorism. Though incomplete and thereby at times inaccurate, the film is critical of the current cycle of violence in Israel.


Works Cited

Berardinelli, James. "Munich: A Film Review by James Berardinelli." <http://movie-reviews.colossus.net/movies/m/munich.html>. Accessed 23 Feb. 2006.

Ebert, Roger. "Munich." RogerEbert.com. 23 Dec. 2005. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051222/REVIEWS/51214004/1023>. Accessed 8 Mar. 2006.

"Editorial." New Connexion. <http://www.newconnexion.net/article/11-00/editorial.html>. Accessed 5 Mar. 2006.
Hunter, Steven. Washington Post. <http://www.nextpix.com/v1_1/salon/reviews.html>. Accessed 23 Feb. 2006.
Jonas, George. Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team. Revised Edition. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Kramer, Yale. "Indiana Spielberg and His Jewish Problem." The American Spectator. 21 Dec. 2005. <http://www.spectator.org/dsp_article.asp?art_id=9178>. Accessed 5 Mar. 2006.
Munich. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Eric Berg, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds. 2005. Universal Pictures.
Rosenbaum, Ron. Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semetism. New York: Random House, 2004.  

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Chalav U'Dvash: Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought (Print ISSN 1559-1069, Online ISSN 1559-1077) is an independent forum for discussion relating to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish People and is a recognized club by the Brandeis Student Union. We publish a journal twice per semester, and copies are available free-of-charge to Brandeis students. Contact us to request copies.

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