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Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ (Part One of Two Parts)


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Over the years, I have lectured and published widely on Israeli security matters – often with special reference to assassination and international law. Usually, in these matters, I have tried to point out the positive side of assassination, including informed support for Israel’s ongoing policy of “targeted killings.” In the best of all possible worlds, of course, such killing could never be defended as remediation, but we are still very far from the best of all possible worlds. In the particular case of Israel, a principled rejection of assassination could even be tantamount to national surrender.

On September 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists calling themselves Black September, an offshoot of Arafat’s FATAH, burst into the dormitory unit housing the Israeli Olympic team and took 11 hostages. When it was over, all the Israelis had been massacred. Three Arab terrorists survived the airfield firefight in Munich, and presumably were never caught or punished by Israel.

In the best of all possible worlds, international law would act with a single and authoritative voice, giving actual substance to the sacred legal principle of Aut Dedere, Aut Judicare (“extradite or prosecute”). Yet, our world remains incontestably anarchic. In this fearful world, self-help is often the only path to justice. For Jews and for the Jewish State, this wisdom is clear and unassailable.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I recently went to see Steven Spielberg’s account of what happened at the Munich Olympics and of the Israeli response. Having heard that Spielberg’s film raised certain questions about the Mossad operation to kill those responsible, I worried that, once again, Jews had become their own worst enemies. When will we finally learn, I agonized, that to act against those who plan our annihilation is perfectly reasonable and correct behavior?

I had heard a great deal about Spielberg’s MUNICH, most disturbingly that it was a spuriously “balanced” and “evenhanded” treatment of the Munich Olympic massacre and its aftermath – a sort of twisted equation between the Arab terrorists and the Jewish counter terrorists. I feared the worst. Here, it seemed, would be yet another prominent Jewish intellectual degrading his own people and refusing to recognize the vital difference between criminals and law enforcers. “Tinseltown,” I was repeatedly warned – under the reprehensible aegis of director Spielberg – had eroded the distinction between victims and victimizers.

I was mistaken. There is nothing in the film’s dialogue to suggest MUNICH as an expression of Jewish self-loathing. Nothing at all. Although the movie does offer an Arab voice, the net effect of this inclusion is actually to underscore Israel’s fundamental right to self-defense and to highlight the other side’s unambiguously willful disregard for all Jewish life. Indeed, by continually panning back to the original murders at Munich, Spielberg carefully reminds the viewer again and again of Israel’s legitimate rationale and of its unchallengeable moral authority.

There are sensitive scenes in the film where the Israeli operatives ask urgent questions about what they are doing. Are they killing the right targets? Are they accomplishing anything purposeful? Are they merely pawns of their Mossad commanders and even perhaps unwitting allies in supporting sister intelligence agencies (e.g., the CIA)? Is Jewish revenge necessarily the same thing as Jewish justice? But this questioning is certainly not a sign of an Israeli weakness or lack of resolve. On the contrary. In stark contrast to the Arab terrorists, who inflict all killing with an impure voluptuousness detached from reason, Spielberg’s Jewish doubt reveals the Israelis as much more than robot murderers. Moreover, it is perfectly obvious that any intelligent and decent persons engaged in the sort of assassination operation described here by Spielberg would ask precisely these sorts of questions. How could it be otherwise?

The film does allow an Arab voice, and it does permit the insidious representatives of Black September to air their hatreds, but that voice is patently shrill and repellent. Nothing about their voice is compelling or persuasive; it elicits not sympathy but only horror and revulsion. In Spielberg’s MUNICH, the Palestinians never deviate from their all-consuming and relentless plan to murder all Israelis and (wherever possible) all Jews. Why, then, should we worry that the film gives strength to their cause?

Some on the Mossad team, especially Avner – the leader – openly share reservations about the entire operation. This is the case even after they have concluded a number of successive (successful?) hits. But this is not by any means a criticism of Israel, nor is it evidence of a weakening Israeli or Jewish resolve. Rather, it speaks to the unilateral thoughtfulness of the Israelis vis-á-vis their identified Palestinian enemies and targets. Spielberg is not being anti-Israel by allowing these traits to be aired. Instead, he has actually reinforced the moral boundary between the monstrous murder of defenseless athletes and the imperative destruction of the murderers and their accomplices. Yes, of course the Israelis used the Munich operation to eliminate other enemies not recognizably complicit in the Olympic massacre. And, yes, of course, they made various mistakes along the way – some of these errors allowing major perpetrators to escape altogether; others resulting in the death of innocent persons. This is just the way it is in the shadowy and inexact world of assassination and world politics. Spielberg should not be blamed here for suggesting the obvious.

(To be continued)

Copyright, The Jewish Press, January 20, 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.”

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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