Even before its notable shut out at this year’s Academy Awards, Steven Spielberg's Munich lost the battle for Israeli public opinion.
Following a screening for former Mossad officials in Israel last month, a consensus emerged that the movie--Spielberg’s take on Israel’s response to Palestinian terrorists’ murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games--had all but ignored the country at the center of its story. “There is nothing about Israel in this movie,” the officials noted at a post-film panel.
And indeed, to anyone even slightly familiar with Israel’s military service and security forces, the movie had failed to portray accurately Israeli protocol, uniforms, social interactions, customs, and way of life more broadly. Israel operates one of the world’s most effective and efficient security services. Watching Munich, however, one might conclude that Israeli agents are either amateurs, bumbling fools, loose cannons, or some combination of the three.
Munich’s many inaccuracies are not accidental. The film is based on author George Jonas’ controversial book Vengeance. Jonas defends it as “solid research,” as does Jonas’ ex-wife Barbara Amiel, who “cannot stress too highly the care and effort that went into this book as well as George Jonas's lifelong commitment to the values clearly expressed in Vengeance that are now all but reversed in the film.” But while the book may have been thoroughly researched, the resulting work nonetheless indicates that, at best, Jonas fell prey to a con man’s story: Vengeance is today widely regarded as a fabrication. Another warning sign: Munich’s screenwriter was none other than anti-Israel dramatist Tony Kushner.
(Fortunately, one does not have to rely on Munich to understand the events it purports to explore. Another movie, The Sword of Gideon, (1986) was also based on the book and it is far better without having to rely on Spielberg’s pyrotechnics. A new documentary, “Bayonet,” is to be released shortly and it should provide a far greater element of credibility to what really happened. Similarly, a recent documentary on the Discovery Channel, Munich: The Real Assassins does a very good job because it relied on authentic sources, not, like Spielberg, on fiction.)
The biggest weakness of the movie, however, lies in its endorsement of two moral fallacies. The first moral fallacy is strongly embedded in Western tradition. Namely, the movie presents a false equivalence between victim and perpetrator. Spielberg and Kushner go out of their way to show a sacred “balance” that gives an equal footing to terrorists and those who fight them. Were they to carry on ad-absurdum, they would have equated the allied forces in WWII with the Nazis whom they fought. Or perhaps they would have suggested that a police officer who kills a criminal who threatens the officer’s life (or that of a citizen) is no different from the criminal.
To blur the boundary between victim and victimizer, Munich distorts what Israeli prime minister Golda Meir once said about killing: "We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children but we cannot forgive them for forcing our children to kill their children." In the movie, however, the sentiment appeared as: “Israel, like every civilization, may find its necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” What compromises in Jewish values? The famous Jewish value that suggests killing the enemy who intends to kill you? There are no heroes or villains anymore for Spielberg and Kushner: everyone is equal. Thus do they accord unwarranted legitimacy to terrorists and criminals.
The second moral fallacy is the biggest weakness of this movie. While potentially appealing to some idealists (religious or otherwise) and to anyone who abhors violence, the ending message is that all violence is obscene and futile, clearly implying that the violence of the defender is wrong. Moreover, violence begets violence. Devoid of context, the film could have said that fighting Nazis was futile and obscene and “might” beget more violence. The idea that fighting terrorism is futile is a luxury that the beautiful people in Hollywood and their media admirers can afford.
In an era when the terrorist threats against civilians exist on an unprecedented scale, Spielberg might have explored the delicate balances of the human soul. Unfortunately, what he achieved instead was an untenable formula for the destruction of a democratic nation.
Yet, in a perverse way, Munich has performed an unintentional service for Israel and the Jewish people. Purporting to be “inspired” by real events, Spielberg ended up proving that some of our very own cause us no less damage than our external enemy.