Steven Spielberg, John Williams and the Zionist Cinema Project

This piece has its genesis as a respectful addendum to the recent work by David Yearsley, but moves in a trajectory different from the previous. Whereas the first story discussed the notion of how John Williams had an impact on the Cold War, I want to begin with another notion, how John Williams has composed the reveries for the Zionist project in Israel-Palestine with his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg. There are some inter-connections, such as the fact that Israel and Palestine were both used as diplomatic arguing chits in the UN, but the discussion is a little different here, in my view.

The two most immediate examples of this project are the Spielberg dramas about Jewish history, SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and MUNICH (2005). Both films have explicit invocations of Zionist colonialism as a solution to the European Jewish question and can be seen as propaganda in this regard.

SCHINDLER’S LIST is the story of the Nazi war profiteer and businessman Oskar Schindler, who took advantage of the availability of Jewish laborers to create cookware and munitions for the Germans and it the process rescued over 1,000 Jews from the Nazi death camps. The film closes with a famous scene where the film’s actors and their real-life counterparts visit Schindler’s grave in Israel, a sequence that has been called one of Spielberg’s finest. However, those who were paying attention to the prior scene, a credo showing the execution of Amon Goeth and the liberation of the Schindlerjuden, will recall that it features on the soundtrack Jerusalem of Gold, the anthem of conquest that became an Israeli radio hit after the 1967 war. The connotation, that Jewish liberation goes hand in hand with Zionist colonialism, is obvious, to the point Israeli audiences reportedly laughed out loud in theaters when the film was first released, causing the sequence to be re-scored.

It is also worth noting that the film is quite apolitical and that the entirety fails to mention the USSR played a huge role in rescuing many European Jews following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Soviet annexation of eastern Poland. Obviously there are a great many side-conversations that must be had regarding Soviet anti-Semitism, as well as Stalinist brutality to non-Communist anti-Fascists, but the record is clear, the Soviet Union made a great deal of efforts to relocate Jews from Europe to the Asian frontier so to prevent their slaughter. Schindler may have saved a few Jews, but Stalin arguably saved far more. The film has an obvious narrative motif juxtaposing the Nazi lists of Jews forced to relocate to Cracow with Schindler’s list, one emphasizing death and the other salvation, yet one cannot remain curious why Spielberg does not give any acknowledgement to Stalin’s list also. Why are we supposed to give so much credit to individual goyim who did a noble service but not the same respect to a world power that did try to stop the killing? Could it be perhaps that this logic might undermine the victim narrative that justifies Israeli brutality?

Can we ask with some level of intellectual maturity why Spielberg is engaged in the Netanyahu-styled blame and shame game that only perpetuates Eurocentric whining and anti-Asian violence? If he is such an advocate of peace, why is he failing to offer a more robust rebuttal of Israeli policies that have darkly reminiscent elements of the Nazi programs, such as ghettoization, a pass system, and discriminatory citizenship laws that make Palestinian life in Gaza equivalent to that of the Warsaw ghetto? A key element of this project was the Williams score, which is highly respected. Many critics argue that this was a film where Spielberg and Williams both matured as artists, but is there much maturity to be found in works that promote racism through a cunning sheen of neoliberal identity politics? As a queer Eagle Scout, I feel it is appropriate to point out to my Fellow Eagle he is failing to follow the tenets of the Scout Oath and Law when he behaves in such a fashion.

It is also worthwhile to recall the rebuttal of Spielberg’s friend Stanley Kubrick, who was contemplating his own film about the Nazi slaughter before abandoning the project, in part due to his own depression caused by the research, and in part because he thought Spielberg had filmed the maximum of what could be said about the events on celluloid. But he was not in love with the film either, saying “The Holocaust is about six million people dying, SCHINDLER’S LIST is about a thousand people living”. The reality is that Kubrick felt trying to represent the actuality of this brutality was itself impossible and perhaps even blasphemous. As such, the closest filmgoers ever got to his vision of Nazism was the 1980 adaptation of THE SHINING, which included many subtle visual cues to various forms of colonialism, from Native American art that nodded toward Manifest Destiny to elevator cars flooding the hallways with blood, a mechanized delivery of carnage akin to the trains of Auschwitz.

MUNICH is an adaptation of the George Jonas novel regarding Israeli international espionage in response to the events of the Munich Olympics, where former IDF soldiers who happened to be athletes were captured and later killed by Palestinian militants affiliated with the Black September group. This film is impressive in cinematographic terms, much as SCHINDLER’S LIST was, but was also wretched in message. There is plenty of victim blaming and nonsensical speechifying by Eric Bana about ‘peace’, yet not once do our heroes ever utter the basic coordinates of resolving the conflict, a just settlement of the refugee question and recognition of the right of Israeli and Palestinian states to live in peace within the pre-June 1967 borders. Of course, if that were to be the content of Spielberg’s pictures, he would be making short films that have actual intellectual and political merit. But instead, we get Eric Bana going bananas. Oy vey!

As with the earlier film, MUNICH’s soundtrack helps sell the Zionist propaganda. It is loaded with moody piano reveries that create tension in the soundtrack while the erstwhile Bana tries to hunt down his targets. This is combined with a moaning, Kaddish-like female choral performance that shows how absolutely tragic this whole affair of international bounty hunting is. The climactic scene, where Bana envisions the Munich death of the Olympic athletes simultaneous with a conjugal session with his wife, brings a new level of meaning to the notion of colonialism as a psycho-sexual fetish. The international mission itself can be seen as a micro-cosmic vision of the entire ‘peace process’ debacle, with the cheap existential melancholy expressed by the team members serving as a reflection of alleged Israeli angst over their violation of international laws while the interaction by various characters with French, American, and Soviet figures is akin to how the international community has played host to Israeli rejectionism.

But besides these two blatant examples, there are other moments in the Spielberg/Williams collaboration that raise eyebrows. One cannot look at INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM without being sickened by the anti-Asian bigotry and stereotyping that bears some relationship to the framing of Palestinian villains in later films, a strain of nasty racism also present in the alleged comedy and certifiably unbearable 1941. Can we also wonder about INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, which includes a sub-plot of Nazi-collaborating Arabs? While Spielberg did not work on Oliver Stone’s JFK, Williams did, and in that film the anti-Zionist motivations of Sirhan Sirhan in murdering Bobby Kennedy are obscured so to promote a bonkers and homophobic conspiracy theory that Noam Chomsky thoroughly debunked in his forgotten classic Rethinking Camelot. Or consider the Spielberg film LINCOLN, which featured both Williams and MUNICH screenwriter Tony Kushner. Besides being a breezy plagiarism of the Gore Vidal novel, it is essentially an analogy for the fight over the neoliberal Affordable Healthcare Act, a debacle loaded with huge gaps that is really a bail-out for the pharmaceutical and insurance companies. The film ends with the implication that Lincoln would have done more is he had lived, perhaps enacting the ideals of Thaddeus Stevens, suggesting in analogue that Obama would have preferred single-payer healthcare had he not been stopped by the GOP. Of course, that is total nonsense, Obama threw single-payer advocates under the bus as soon as possible and pulled in his major campaign donors from Big Pharma immediately. Likewise, Lincoln was not an abolitionist, his record towards Africans was reprehensible and he was in favor of repatriating freed slaves to Africa after the war.

What role Williams played in the Cold War is debatable, I think that a good deal of scholarship indicates that the USSR was close to collapse by the mid-1970s and that Jimmy Carter’s tomfoolery in Afghanistan ironically both gave the society an injection of strength to carry on for another decade while creating the very morale drain that led to the end of the Soviet system. If one can argue tenably that Williams aided in this, I am open to the suggestion. Yet I am able to say with some certainty that his pro-Israel work has been a true instance of what the late Louis Althusser described as an ideological state apparatus.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.