We who care desperately for Israel and for the Jewish People don’t need a propaganda film to make our case. A completely truthful account – as Spielberg has given us – will always be in our interest.
Avner and his Israeli hit team are indisputably fragile and human. They have evident weaknesses and irrefutable vulnerabilities. Three of them fall victim to a decidedly human lack of professional discipline and/or to a deficient technical acumen. Hence they do not come across as the Mossad operators and operations more familiar to the cinematic fantasy world inhabited by American and European moviegoers. Ironically, Spielberg’s Israelis are not the usual stuff of Hollywood, but fundamentally “normal” flesh-and-blood human beings. Avner is no James Bond, and his several colleagues are far less conspicuously seasoned agents than they are seat-of-their-pants assassins.
Very early in the film we meet Maj. General Aharon Yariv, Golda’s counter terrorism adviser. Before Munich, he had been IDF commander of the Golani Brigade, and, during the 1967 War, the head of Israel’s military intelligence (AMAN). Interestingly, I had the privilege of knowing “Ahrele” personally, and I sometimes came to speak at Tel-Aviv University on nuclear matters (Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies) at his specific invitation. At our very first meeting, in his office, after some polite conversation about nothing in particular, Yariv leaned over to me, hesitated for a moment, and asked with some incredulity: “Rene, are you really Jewish?”
General Yariv was a diminutive man (he died a few years ago after a massive stroke while driving home from his office), quiet and unassuming. Yet he was correctly credited with having a very big brain, and he understood, always, that the key to success in the intelligence business was invariably intellectual. On at least one occasion we discussed the Mossad operation against Black September. As a professor of international law, I was completely sympathetic to his argument that the Munich terrorists could only be punished extra-judicially. After all, no country was about to extradite any of the murderers to Israel, and the only alternative would have been to leave the killers unpunished.
Nullum Crimen Sine Poena, “No crime without a punishment.” So it is written in the final judgment and subsequent codifications of the Nuremberg Trials Law of 1945-46. Significantly, this ancient principle of law and justice has its roots in the Torah. Known also as the Lex Talionis, the Law of Exact Retaliation, it is a timeless and sacred expectation that must never be canceled. Certainly it must be taken seriously when an Israeli Olympic team is murdered by Arab terrorists.
But let’s return to the movie. Avner and his Israeli team are not interested in the intricacies of international criminal law. Nowhere is there any evidence that they are moved by largely legal arguments for retaliation and punishment. They are, as we have seen, increasingly beset by various doubts, not so much concerning the rightness of Jewish/Israeli revenge as about the guilt of their particular victims. Further, Avner is assuredly reasonable in his apprehension that the Palestinian Arab foe is not unlike the mythic Hydra monster. For every terrorist “head” that is lopped off by Israel, he understands, many others will grow in its place.
This is the authentic dilemma of Israel’s uncertain place in the world. In the final analysis, the key issue of the film is not so much one of complex moral struggle as it is one of tactical expedience. Even if the Israelis can justify their operation in fully legal and ethical terms, it is unlikely to be of much use to them. As Spielberg reveals in MUNICH, the Mossad operation sometimes creates even more heinous Arab terrorists than it destroys.
Personally, I have absolutely no difficulty defending assassination as counter terrorism. Compared to full-scale war, assassination is usually far less destructive of innocent human life, and far less gratuitously harmful. I am also untroubled by the cliched “wisdom” of those critics who claim that even the most just assassins ultimately become the same as their victims. Mossad is not Black September, and the assassination of terrorists is generally required by the rule of Nullum Crimen Sine Poena, “No crime without a punishment.” At the same time, from the point of view of strategic survival, it is of limited utility, especially today – when there are literally tens of thousands of aspiring Arab suicide bombers (prospective “martyrs”) waiting enthusiastically in the wings. Steven Spielberg should not be faulted for understanding this, and for raising questions about even the most lawful Israeli retaliations as expressions of a realistic and pragmatic foreign policy.
In the best of all possible worlds, every country would stand up for Aut Dedere, Aut Judicare, “extradite or prosecute.” But this is hardly the best of all possible worlds, and for the foreseeable future justice in counter terrorism will never be detachable from vengeance. If Spielberg’s MUNICH is to provide us with more than entertainment, and if it is to point us all toward more enduring systems of world order, it will ultimately have to start us thinking about rising above visceral satisfactions and toward some serious long-term solutions. Right now, Israel remains imperiled on many fronts, not only from Palestinian terrorism but also from Iranian nuclearization. It remains our most primary obligation to think about an extended safety for the Jewish State, not just about ad hoc and temporary remedies. To be sure, Spielberg doesn’t help very much in this regard, but to expect otherwise would be to ask much too much of a film maker. We must not blame Spielberg for having stripped away the romantic veneer of international assassination, nor should we fault him for showing some of the human and tactical flaws in Israel’s Order of Battle.
Copyright, the Jewish Press, January 27, 2006.. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for the Jewish Press. He is also Chair of “Project Daniel.”