Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Spielberg's "Munich" Continues to Stir Debate, Soul-Searching about Israeli Policies

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Spielberg's "Munich" Continues to Stir Debate, Soul-Searching about Israeli Policies

Article excerpt

Steven Spielberg's widely discussed movie, "Munich," begins and ends with an account of the capture by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, and eventual killing, of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. Its larger subject is the aftermath, in which the Israeli government mounted a secret war against the guerrillas.

"You are assigned a mission, and you do it because you believe in the mission, but there is something about killing people at close range that is excruciating," Spielberg explained when his film was released in late 2005. "Perhaps [your victims] are leading double lives. But they are, many of them, reasonable and civilized too."

Killing them, he elaborated, has unintended consequences. "It's bound to try a man's soul, so it was very important to me to show Avner [the leader of the Israeli hit squad] struggling to keep his soul intact. I don't think he will ever find peace."

Beyond this, Spielberg wondered if the Israelis and Palestinians will ever find peace. "I'm always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it's threatened," he stated. "At the same time, a response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine. There's been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end? How can it end?"

A major point of the still-heated debate within the American Jewish community centers on the "balanced" way in which the movie is said to depict its Israeli and Palestinian protagonists. David Twersky, director of international affairs at the American Jewish Congress, said there is an "odor of moral equivalency [between victims and perpetrators] wafting through this thing." Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, described the film as "soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness." According to 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."

Salon's Michelle Goldberg argued that "Munich" "does not suggest that terrorists and counterterrorists are morally equivalent or that Israel is wrong to defend itself." Rather, she said, 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." Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League declared that "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."

Writing in the February 2006 edition of Commentary, its editor Gabriel Schoenfeld went beyond charging Spielberg with "equivalency." "Spielberg is hardly reticent or 'equivalent,'" he wrote. "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... Never once...does any Israeli present us with a reasoned argument for striking back against terrorists... 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...If in 'Munich' we have Steven Spielberg's idea of paying tribute to the 11 murdered Jewish athletes of 1972, one dreads to think of how he would pay tribute to the murdered 3,000 of Sept. 11, 2001. The movie deserves an Oscar in one category only: most pernicious film of the year."

Rabbi Alan Yuter of Baltimore's Temple B'nai Israel and a faculty member of the Institute for Traditional Judaism also differs with much of Spielberg's analysis, noting that, "The Israeli reality is that there are dirty choices that sometimes must be made in the real world. …

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