How does Steven Spielberg’s Munich relate to Hamas’ recent electoral victory? Israel presents this organization as the epitome of Palestinian terrorism. This caricature could lead Washington to deny aid to the Palestinian people
Munich starts with the recreation of the 1972 kidnapping and slaughter of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. The Palestinian Black September group, frustrated by not getting support or even attention for their cause, seized Israeli athletes at the Olympic dormitories. The Israelis, stunned by the Munich events, began to support a Palestinian religious movement — that later turned into Hamas. Israeli leaders also secretly devised a strategy of assassination, which Spielberg portrays in a vivid scene.
In grainy footage the audience sees armed Palestinians grabbing Israeli athletes, negotiating to fly them out of Germany and then the foolish German attempt to trick the kidnappers at the airport, resulting in the death of kidnappers and athletes.
In another Spielberg film “inspired by real events,” a non-Jew bribes cynical concentration camp officers during World War II to let Jews live and even gives them their rationale for corruption: the Jews will produce for the Nazi war effort. Like Schindler’s List, Munich also uses money as the means to its end.
This time, the Mossad offers very high bribes to a family of French cynics to find the location of certain Palestinian targets, so that the film’s hero and his helpers can assassinate, not save them. Since the Israeli government — not barbaric Arabs — has fashioned a calculated plan to eliminate people, we instinctively root for the killers and hope they can overcome the obstacles placed in their murderous paths. What worthier cause for murder than Israel? As the Mossad agents kill, they also find themselves hunted and assassinated — by the PLO or the CIA or Soviet Union? The hero discovers that every time he murders a Palestinian, it costs Israel — or the U.S. taxpayer — more than $1 million. Money again!
After witnessing the killing of the athletes, Hollywood film grammar alone would demand violent vengeance. So, we are not surprised to see the highest Israeli officials authorizing international assassination as state policy. Ironically, Spielberg presents two Israeli representatives that cause one to wonder about the very nature of this Jewish obsession. Ephraim, the Mossad case officer, played by Geoffrey Rush, runs squads of assassins. This cynical, middle aged spook, bereft of human compassion, represents the needs of the Israeli state and its compassionate, motherly Prime Minister, Golda Meir.
We also meet the other contender for the most obnoxious Israeli character of the decade. Spielberg portrays the mother of the attractive Avner (Eric Bana), the head of the assassination squad, as a self righteous, racist nationalist who thinks exclusively of herself. Gila Almagor pretends to love Avner and Israel, but her flawless acting shows a self infatuated woman projecting narcissism onto some mythical Israel.
Spielberg’s brilliant portrayals of some characters combine with predictable Hollywood grammar in the story and plot. Sex, murder, internal conflict among the assassins, and growing doubt as plot ingredients end up with predictable liberal moralizing.
Israelis and Palestinians both have compelling arguments for their causes, but violence is a dead end. If only the two sides could overcome their obduracy. Spielberg makes no mention of the World Court decision that Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is illegal, or the overwhelming UN votes that affirm Palestinian ownership of those occupied territories.
Yet, Spielberg also transcends the cliché about Israel being inherently virtuous and helps shatter the myth of Israeli innocence. The film’s release, just preceding Hamas’ electoral triumph, also challenges the consistency of Israeli democracy. The Palestinians elected a party that both speaks the Israeli force language and has accepted Parliamentary protocol.
Spielberg who has focused on violence in Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, uses graphic assassination scenes both to captivate and repel the audience. After Black September’s bloody Munich fiasco, Israeli policy makers decide to get tough. Avner, a policeman, leaves his pregnant wife. How can he refuse an assignment in the name of Israeli state security? He must also be careful to leave no traces to Israel while he exacts revenge. The Israeli decision makers supposedly wish to teach a lesson to those who perpetrated the slaughter of the athletes and any who might think of repeating such an act. But their conspiratorial bent transcends the instinctual thirst for revenge and lesson teaching.
Avner and company learn gradually that knocking off the eleven supposed Palestinian authors of the Munich kidnapping in different countries derives from more devious motives. Serving Israel, Avner assumes, is a righteous cause, but assassinating becomes his way of life, not just a means to accomplish a political end. Murder transforms him and his team and begins to reshape their characters. And the victims may not have been involved in the Munich affair.
Assassins, as Avner learns, never enjoy emotional peace. He also discovers that by carrying out cold-blooded murder, even in the name of justice and Israeli security, good men will descend quickly into layers of purgatory.
Their new roles vitiate their intelligence and sensitivity. These representatives of democratic Israel become killing machines. Yet, like the “terrorists,” they have histories, families, interesting hobbies and vulnerabilities. One team member gets horny and meets his fate at the hands of a pretty woman hired by an opposing intelligence service.
The Mossad killers buy, at a very high price, the name of the woman assassin from their French source and proceed to assassinate her. Ironically, she is just like them, a professional killer who would just as easily have worked for the Mossad as any other service.
By focusing the film on Israeli assassins, Spielberg turns the black and white, right and wrong worlds of the Israel-Palestine dispute into ugly shades of gray. Even with his concessions to old Hollywood grammar (close up sex and violence), and even with the most attractive assassins, Munich presents an Israel stripped of innocence and virtue. For some Arab groups, this was not sufficient. They claim that Spielberg presented caricatures of Palestinians — men whose only identity and overriding passion is with their ancestors’ olive trees. In an unexplained plot twist, Avner meets a Palestinian hit squad and they share an apartment. He asks Ali if he really misses his father’s olive trees.
“Well, of course,” Robert Fisk writes. “Ali does rather miss his father’s olive trees. Ask any Palestinian in the shithouse slums of the …refugee camps in Lebanon and you’ll get the same reply.” (Robert Fisk, The Independent January 21, 2006)
Pro-Israelis have also skewered Spielberg for betraying Israel by showing Israeli agents not only asassassins, but people who come to doubt the methods of their State to the point of reconsidering the “Israeli cause.”
When Avner finally quits, reunites with his wife in New York and begins to get it on with her, he cannot stop thinking of the naked Dutch woman that he and his team have assassinated to avenge the killing of one of his team.
Spielberg gets a bit crude when he presents the image of this young woman in her last seconds of life, naked with two bullet holes in her throat and chest, juxtaposed with Avner astride and penetrating his wife.
Avner knows he has murdered innocent people, certainly people who had nothing to do with the Munich plot. The Geoffery Rush character, who represents the Israeli state, would murder anyone if the policy makers ordered it.
Whatever the defects, Spielberg displayed the courage to question Israel’s supposed morality. The film’s hero and his supporting heroes learn the harshest of lessons, unlike real Mossad agents who keep assassinating. In 2004, Israeli assassins murdered the blind quadriplegic Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. A month later, they killed Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi. As American forces have discovered in Iraq, the “eye for an eye” strategy results in re-producing zealots faster than you kill them.
Avner burns out on killing. So, his handler, Ephraim, travels to New York. Come home to Israel, he tells Avner. Now skeptical, Avner asks for assurance that those he murdered really did plot Munich. He also invites Ephraim to dinner at his home. But Ephraim rejects the dinner offer and refuses to assuage Avner’s guilt. Avner becomes paranoid, thinking Mossad might kill him as well.
After all, Israel has used violence — alongside democracy — since its inception. At one point, to undermine the PLO, Israel even supported a nascent Hamas, thinking that religion would distract Palestinians from their desire for statehood and independence. Hamas turned out to bite one of the hands that initially fed it, the Israeli government.
Hamas won an election democratically because they and not their secular rivals showed they could deal with Israel both from a tough and clean — unlike the organization Arafat wielded — position. Calling Hamas “terrorists” misses the point. Hamas is a symbolic child of Munich — with both Palestinian and Israeli ancestors. Now, the world must decide what to do about it. The Spielberg movie will not offer much guidance. But it does raise important, myth-shattering questions.
SAUL LANDAU is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.