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Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” Stirs Debate About Israel’s Secret War Against Terrorists

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2006

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

“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,” says Spielberg. “Perhaps (your victims) are leading double lives. But they are, many of them, reasonable and civilized too.” Killing them, he says, has unintended consequences. “It’s bound to try a man’s soul, so it was very important to me to show Avner (leader of the Israeli hit squad) struggling to keep his soul intact. I don’t think he will ever find peace.”  

Beyond this, Spielberg wonders if the Israelis and Palestinians will ever find peace. “I’m always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it’s threatened. At the same time, a response to a response doesn’t really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine,” he says. “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 debate 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, the literary editor of the New Republic says the film “is 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.”  

Michelle Goldberg of Salon argues that “Munich” “does not suggest that terrorists and counter-terrorists are morally equivalent or that Israel is wrong to defend itself.” Rather, 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 Commentary (Feb. 2006), its editor, Gabriel Schoenfeld, goes beyond charging Spielberg with “equivalency.’ He writes: “... Spielberg is hardly reticent or ‘equivalent’ ... 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.”  

Henry Siegman, Senior Fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations and former executive head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America, writes this in The New York Review of Books (Feb. 9, 2006)” “I saw nothing in the movie to justify the claim that it seeks to establish the moral equivalence of terrorist killings of civilians and Israeli retaliations. While the movie includes an emotional exchange between a Palestinian terrorist and the leader of the Israeli counterterrorism team about the moral claims of their respective national struggles, the focus of ‘Munich’ is on members of the Israeli assassination team and their mounting doubts about their assignment and what it may be doing to their values and personal lives. These doubts are frequently the subject of their conversations, and finally cause the leader of the team so much anguish that he refuses to return to Israel. The Israelis therefore inevitably emerge as more real, personally appealing, and morally attractive than the Palestinian terrorists, whom the viewer never gets to know much about.”  

Siegman concludes that, “... the movie may help people to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a more balanced perspective. The same cannot be said for criticism that assumes a moral superiority on the part of the Israelis that so far has been largely unearned. It must also be said that a particularly unfortunate aspect of the accusation of moral equivalence made by some of the movie’s critics is that it has distracted attention from what is surely the most important moral issue by far, namely the decades-long occupation that has turned the lives of millions of Palestinians into a daily hell. Those in Israel who have come to view the shattering of an entire people as an acceptable condition of their own national normalcy will certainly not agonize over the ‘collateral damage’ caused by Israel’s retaliations.”  

Steven Spielberg says that criticism leveled at him and screenwriter Tony Kushner is unfair. Some American, he said, “have grown very angry at me for allowing the Palestinians simply to have dialogue and for allowing Tony Kushner to be the author of that dialogue. ‘Munich’ never once attacks Israel, and barely criticizes Israel’s policy of counterviolence against violence. It’s the most questioning story I’ve ever had the honor to tell, For that, we were accused of the sin of moral equivalency, which, of course, we didn’t intend and we’re not guilty of.”  

The controversy, Spielberg added, “made me feel a little more aware of the dogma, and the Luddite position people take any time the Middle East is up for discussion.”

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