Politics & Policy

Spielberg’s Moral Confusion

Munich's problem.

around the globe–but particularly in the Arab world–anti-Semites whine that the Jews “control” Hollywood. It’s true that there are many prominent Jews in the movie business, but as Steven Spielberg’s Munich amply demonstrates, it little profits the Jewish people.

Munich is a well-crafted movie, but it is a deeply and disturbingly dishonest one. Many moviegoers were not even born in 1972, and many who were alive will scarcely remember the details. Do moviemakers owe nothing to them? Do they owe nothing to the truth? This is not Oliver Stone’s JFK, but for that reason its effect may be more insidious. The film looks like history but it is a morality play of the artist’s imagination. Spielberg uses real historical figures like Golda Meir as props, putting words in their mouths that they not only did not say, but would never have said. During the opening credits, the audience is informed that the film is “inspired by real events.” That could mean anything–but movie audiences probably will not parse the words with lawyerly care. They will read it in the context of a film that offers generous servings of verisimilitude. There are clips of sportscaster Jim McKay reporting from the Munich Olympics in 1972, as well as the voice of Peter Jennings narrating the harrowing events. Some of the details of the kidnapping and murder of the eleven Israeli athletes are well-researched. But as CC Colton warned, “Falsehood is never so successful as when she baits her hook with truth.”

Munich is actually a misnomer, for the film isn’t so much about what happened in Munich as what supposedly happened afterward. Though Israel has never officially acknowledged the fact, it is unofficially acknowledged that following the terrorist atrocity at Munich, the Mossad tracked down and executed a number of the Black September terrorists who were responsible. Munich follows a team of Israeli Mossad agents assigned to kill the terrorists one by one.

The screenplay (by gay activist Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, and Eric Roth whose previous credits include Forrest Gump) is based on the widely doubted 1984 book Vengeance by George Jonas. Jonas based his tale on the word of one Israeli who claimed to have headed a clandestine assassination squad for the Mossad. But Jonas was the second, not the first author to whom this particular Israeli had peddled this tale of “Avner,” the Israeli hit man. The first, according to Time, was a writer named Rinker Buck who was offered an advance from Simon and Schuster. But the deal fizzled when Buck traveled to Europe to check his informant’s information and found that “he was changing his story daily.” Buck said he could not write the book in good conscience. Jonas apparently could. And while the book has been debunked for 20 years, Spielberg saw fit to build a movie upon it.

Though the film portrays the violent brutality of the Palestinian terrorists at Munich, it does not even begin to convey the context. One of the themes of Munich is that vengeance begets vengeance in an endless cycle of pointless violence. Yet the murder of the Israeli Olympic team was utterly unprovoked–unless one is willing to accept the terrorists’ logic that the very existence of Israel represents provocation enough. Following the murders of eleven Israeli athletes on German soil a mere 27 years after the Holocaust, the Olympic Games were suspended for a day. The Olympic flag and the flags of most competing nations were lowered to half-staff. But the Arab nations insisted upon flying their flags at full mast. Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committe, praised the Olympic movement in a speech after the massacre, but said not one word about the dead Israelis.

Of the terrorists who took part in the Munich attack, three were imprisoned in German jails. Just a few weeks later, PLO terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa plane and threatened to kill the passengers unless the three Munich terrorists were released. Germany promptly complied.

With all due respect to Spielberg’s artistic muse, it is all too predictable that a film portraying Israelis in a sympathetic light is just not in the cards right now. Righteous anger and robust self-defense are out (at least among Hollywood liberals). Today, we must have nothing but shades of gray. As Spielberg acknowledged to Time, he believes that “a response to a response doesn’t really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine.” Terrorists kill, but so do Israelis (and Americans). Each is avenged and both sides become poisoned and corrupted by the endless minuet of murder. Yes, alright, some are killers of innocents and some are avengers of innocents, but in the end, the movie seems to ask, “Does it really matter?” Throughout this brooding thriller, the members of the Mossad team are tormented by doubts, to the point where the protagonist, Avner, eventually abandons Israel altogether. Golda Meir (Israel’s prime minister at the time) is also portrayed as defying her better nature. In ordering the targeted assassinations, she sighs, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”

Not only is there no record of Meir saying anything like this, there is every reason to believe that she would not say it, particularly not in this context. In what sense was targeting the killers of innocents a betrayal of Israeli or Jewish or Western values? Nations are fully entitled and in fact required to protect their citizens. Israel was engaged in a war with Palestinian terrorists, just as we are now engaged in a war with al Qaeda. Perhaps Kushner and Roth and Spielberg would all be more comfortable if our post-capture plans for Osama bin Laden included a stint in a comfortable federal prison–not Guantanamo–with the full panoply of constitutional protections. But few Americans would feel their souls compromised if an American Special Forces guy simply shot him through the head.

Besides, reasonable people understand that there is a moral chasm that separates Israel from the terrorists. Then and now, terrorists target innocent civilians. Their aim is to cause despair, grief, and fear among their enemies and to gain the attention of the world. They are indifferent to the suffering they cause–indeed, even celebrate it. Israelis (and Americans) go out of their way to prevent harm to innocent civilians–even at severe risk to themselves. In Jenin in 2002 the Israeli army sent soldiers to locate terrorists in door to door fighting rather than risk innocent civilian lives by using tanks, helicopters, or planes to attack the terror stronghold. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed who would not have died if Israel had used more indiscriminate violence.

Spielberg’s dishonor goes even deeper. It isn’t just that he places wanton killers and avengers on the same moral plane, he also badly distorts the underlying issues and seems to accept the Arab version of reality, that is, that Israel’s founding was somehow illegitimate. “No one would give it to us, so we had to take it” explains Avner’s mother about the land of Israel in a key scene. This is consistent with screenwriter Tony Kushner’s view that establishing a state means “f***ing people over.” That is a lazy and stupid misreading of history. Jews have lived in that land for thousands of years. The land the European Jews settled in the late 19th century was legally purchased and then vastly improved, bringing a swell of Arab immigration to the area. Still, the modern state of Israel would have been a tiny enclave surrounding the entirely Jewish city of Tel Aviv (hard by a Palestinian state) if five Arab armies had not descended upon it in hopes of wiping it off the map in 1948.

The Palestinian spokesman in the film is permitted to wax eloquent about the suffering of Palestinians in refugee camps. But in 1972, those camps had been under Israeli control for only six years. Before that, they were maintained by the Arab governments who hoped to use the miserable Palestinian refugees as human time bombs against the Jewish state.

The movie closes with Avner in the foreground and the towers of the World Trade Center rising behind him. The unsubtle message: We have brought the violence of September 11 upon ourselves. How? By fighting back. One of the team members, the bomb maker, pleads with Avner to abort his mission, crying “Jews are supposed to be righteous.” This is the liberal view that we see adumbrated daily about America’s war on terror. To be righteous is to be passive and weak. To be righteous is, to use Spielberg’s words “to talk until we’re blue in the gills.” Robert Frost understood this mindset perfectly. He said “A liberal is man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.” We know what happens to Jews who don’t fight or can’t fight back. (Spielberg made another movie about that.) Now he argues that self-defense is a moral taint. He is confused. It is just a shame that he inflicts his moral confusion on the rest of us.

Mona Charen, a nationally syndicated columnist, is author, most recently, of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (And the Rest of Us).


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