Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 56-57

Israel and Judaism

Spielberg’s “Munich” Continues to Stir Debate, Soul-Searching About Israeli Policies

By Allan C. Brownfeld

“Munich” producer/director Steven Spielberg (holding script) goes over a scene with actors (l-r) Daniel Craig, Hanns Zischler and Eric Bana (Karen Ballard/Copyright: TM & ©2005 Dreamworks LLC./Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved).

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S widely discussed movie, “Munich,” begins and ends with an account of the capture by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, and eventual killing, of 11 Israeli athletes at the l972 Olympic Games. Its larger subject is the aftermath, in which the Israeli government mounted a secret war against the guerrillas.

“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,” Spielberg explained when his film was released in late 2005. “Perhaps [your victims] are leading double lives. But they are, many of them, reasonable and civilized too.”

Killing them, he elaborated, has unintended consequences. “It’s bound to try a man’s soul, so it was very important to me to show Avner [the leader of the Israeli hit squad] struggling to keep his soul intact. I don’t think he will ever find peace.”

Beyond this, Spielberg wondered if the Israelis and Palestinians will ever find peace. “I’m always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it’s threatened,” he stated. “At the same time, a response to a response doesn’t really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine. 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 the still-heated debate within the American Jewish community 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, literary editor of The New Republic, described the film as “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.” 


Salon’s Michelle Goldberg argued that “Munich” “does not suggest that terrorists and counterterrorists are morally equivalent or that Israel is wrong to defend itself.” Rather, she said, 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 the February 2006 edition of Commentary, its editor Gabriel Schoenfeld went beyond charging Spielberg with “equivalency.” “Spielberg is hardly reticent or ”˜equivalent,’” he wrote. “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.”

Rabbi Alan Yuter of Baltimore’s Temple B’nai Israel and a faculty member of the Institute for Traditional Judaism also differs with much of Spielberg’s analysis, noting that, “The Israeli reality is that there are dirty choices that sometimes must be made in the real world.” He does understand Spielberg’s view, however, and finds much merit in his approach. “The movie’s implicit meaning is that the Jew must take the moral lead and be the first to turn the cheek in order to end the cycle of political violence,” he wrote in the March 1 Jewish Post and Opinion. “The Judaism that is an expression of ultimate concern, a Judaism that cannot be negotiated into oblivion for a serene peace, is rejected by halakhically committed Jews and by the State of Israel. Jews are under no obligation to commit suicide for the happiness of those who hate Jews...Nevertheless, Spielberg’s criticism and dissent is important, even sacred...authentic Judaism allows dissent. The purity of arms and the morality of war are issues that must inform the choices we make.”

Spielberg’s basic message, that violence begets more violence, was supported by many commentators. Reviewing “Munich” in the Dec. 22, 2005 Washington Jewish Week, Michael Fox wrote: “Going after terrorists doesn’t dissuade them from their bloody strategies, the film suggests; if anything, it provokes further attacks...’Munich’ also makes the point that dead terrorists are always replaced by new enlistees. In other words, it is an illusion to believe that terrorism can be eradicated by force...As for the Israeli-Palestinian question, ”˜Munich’ deftly sidesteps coming down on one side and demonizing the other. Each people’s needs are given voice, and Spielberg apparently endorses a two-state solution by repeatedly referring in various contexts to the importance of a home. Further, every Palestinian target is given a scene that depicts him as a family man or artist or sociable fellow, rather than psychopathic villain or Jew-hater. Consequently, we don’t get a cathartic thrill from their deaths, but a sense of unease and loss.”

Wrote 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, in the Feb. 9, 2006 New York Review of Books: “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.” The issue of moral equivalency, Siegman noted, was raised by critics, “not by the movie. But their assertion of the ”˜absolute evil’ of targeting innocent civilians, an assertion I fully agree with, does not necessarily justify their conclusion about the moral difference between Palestinian and Israeli behavior. Israeli retaliations are all too often conducted on a disproportionate scale and predictably kill large numbers of Palestinian civilians, an outcome that cannot simply be dismissed as ”˜an Israeli mistake.’”

“Unearned” Moral Superiority

Siegman concluded 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.”

Spielberg charged that that criticism leveled at him and screenwriter Tony Kushner is unfair. Some American Jews, 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 attacked 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 equivalence. Which, of course, we didn’t intend and we’re not guilty of.”

The moral dilemmas highlighted by “Munich” relate not only to the l972 Olympic killings and their aftermath but to events both before and after—continuing to the present time.

In March in Gaza City, two brothers were helping out in their father’s welding shop when an Israeli missile slammed into an ice cream truck allegedly carrying Islamic Jihad gunmen. The suspected militants were killed, but so were the boys. The results of this airstrike, which also killed a third child nearby, have prompted new debate in Israel over the targeted killings of Palestinian resistance fighters.

An Israeli human rights group called for the military to investigate whether the raid involved the use of “disproportionate” force.

The air force commander’s explanation “does not clear our conscience,” said Shai and Dror, a two-man team of Israeli entertainers who broadcast daily on a Tel Aviv radio station and write a column in the Ma’ariv newspaper. Writing what they called an open letter to the slain boys’ mother, they cited many friends who feel the same way, but would not say so in public, “because the Israeli narrative does not allow people to come out against the military...It is forbidden to say that this army does not represent me. But it doesn’t. Not when it kills children.”

In a recent Haaretz interview, Israeli journalist and historian Benny Morris discussed recently declassified information which shows that “in the months of April-May l948 units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the [Palestinian] villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves. What the new material shows is that...there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought, including unusually high concentrations of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion.”

In The Guardian, Morris wrote that while a master plan for the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs did not exist before April l948, “pre-l948 transfer thinking” by Zionist leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, “had readied the hearts and minds in the Jewish community [in Israel] for the dénouementof l948.”

In Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, the Jewish conscience is awakening and is increasingly troubled by some of Israel’s policies. The movie “Munich” reflects this soul-searching in its attempt to restore humane Jewish values. 


Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

Additional information