Munich: A Review


By Hussein Ibish

Since the first World Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, questions regarding the Israeli national project have, in the West, centered mainly on a series of internal Jewish dialogues about the effect of nationalism and statehood on Jewish culture, ethics and spirituality. For Palestinians and other Arabs, entering into these conversations typically involves the unpleasant discovery that one can be a footnote to one’s own history. What Palestinians and the Arabs have taken to be an epic struggle between themselves and Israel actually turns out to be conceived by the other party as essentially an argument between Jews about Jewish values and ideas, with the other side of the Arab-Israeli hyphen occupying a place of almost no significance, except as the foil against which the Jewish people play out their family squabbles. These conversations have been traced in countless volumes almost all of which repeat the same effect, most recently Jacqueline Rose’s excellent survey, “The Question of Zion” (Princeton, 2005), yet another book about Zionism entirely free of any Palestinian presence, except its dedication to the late Edward Said.

Enter “Munich,” the new film by director Steven Spielberg, co-authored by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. “Munich,” is a fictionalized and, frankly, sugar-coated account of the campaign of vengeance by Israeli agents against Palestinians following the kidnapping and killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. It follows a group of Israeli assassins led by a young man, Avner, through their assignment to kill 11 Palestinians they are told were involved in planning the Olympic attack. By the end of the film Avner questions the entire project, including whether or not many of the targets were in fact in any way involved in the Munich attack.

Writing in “The New Republic,” Leon Wieseltier complains that “this film has no place in its heart for Israel.” One wonders what film he was shown, since “Munich” is not only told entirely from an Israeli perspective, it seems concerned only with the moral and physical fate of Israel and the Israelis. It has little place in its heart for anything other than Israel. “Munich” is, in fact, a kind of love letter to Israel, albeit one that takes the form of a scolding, a manifestation of tough love. The film is above all an intervention in the aforementioned Jewish dialogue about the effects of nationalism and the exigencies of Israeli statehood on Jewish identity and moral self-regard. It calls Israel’s violent relationship to the Palestinians, and even, for a brief moment, its violent founding, into question, especially in the context of “Jewish ethics.” One of the assassins asks the others, “how do you think we got possession of this land, by being nice?” which hints at the dispossession at the core of Israel’s founding. Another, the incompetent bomb-maker of the team, drops out saying that the campaign of vengeance is incompatible with the sense of “Jewish righteousness” with which he was raised. To loose this in a cycle of killing, he says, would be “to loose everything.” “Munich” engages what are now very well-worn arguments about the tension between a nationalist, indeed chauvinist, set of values reflected in much of Zionist discourse (represented by one of the assassins who declares, “I only care about Jewish blood”) and universal moral concerns shaped largely by diasporic Jewish sensibilities. The film is plainly torn between these two impulses: the yearning for not only Jewish self-defense but the violent and even terrifying self-assertion embodied by the Israeli state, and a fear of moral degradation based a sense of ethical superiority, rooted in cosmopolitan and exile experiences, over supposedly simple-minded national subjects.

The yearning for “normalization” through the assumption of national power also entailed a horror of the moral consequences of such “normalization” on a community whose ethical self-image was shaped in contrast to cruel national governments and their willing servants. If you are better because you are different, always able to maintain some distance from total interpolation as a nationalist subject and thereby retain greater moral autonomy from ideology and greater access to universalist sensibilities, what happens when you become a “normal” national subject as a Jew in Israel? Avner should be, according to the diagnosis and prescription at the heart of Zionist thought, among the first generation of Israelis to have become “normalized.” He should have been cured of the distortions of character and action imposed by exile and minority status. Raised in Israel after its establishment as a state, Avner is “a sabra” with “the most boring job
in the world,” and at the start of the film is busy being fruitful and multiplying with his pregnant wife. The central conceit of “Munich,” I take it, is that this “normalcy” in Israel, if not illusory, can come at a prohibitive moral and psychic cost. By the end of the film,
Avner has lost faith in not only the Israeli government but even the Israeli project itself. Renouncing the promised “normalcy” of a Jewish life in the Jewish state, he adopts instead a life of exile in the ultimate cosmopolitan and diasporic space – New York City.
“Munich” is not exactly, or at least not fully, post-Zionist, but Avner’s story represents the possible consequences of Israeli nationalism taken to its logical extreme by an Israeli government that embraces the worst forms of state misconduct. Through the experiences of Avner, “Munich” argues that Israel can itself be the vehicle for the most powerful repudiation of Zionism. Exile can be preferable to a nationalism run amok.

Yet in spite of its powerful moral concerns, “Munich” lacks the courage of its convictions. Though they come close several times, these assassins never take the life of an innocent. Even in instances where such “collateral damage” would be all-but inevitable (and have requently occurred during actual Israeli assassinations of Palestinian leaders and activists, both then and now), the innocents in “Munich” are always miraculously spared, often by the extraordinary efforts of its Israeli protagonists. It is as if Spielberg is protecting the characters from the inevitable moral consequences of their own project, that he did not have the heart in the end to show Avner and his crew as men who would be willing to accept the loss of unquestionably innocent life in pursuit of their mission to track down and kill the enemy. Illogical and historically inaccurate, this fanciful representation of “purity of arms” in both intention and execution is needed to maintain the moral tension at the heart of the film. It allows a far greater comfort level with a team of killers than a more realistic portrayal could. One of the more accomplished cinematic moments in the film has the team scrambling not to detonate a bomb planted in a phone that is unexpectedly answered by the Palestinian target’s daughter. Had the child died, however inadvertently, at the death squad’s hands, “Munich” would have been transformed into a far more serious, far more challenging, film. A moment of such utter darkness might have disrupted the delicate but untenable moral balance in “Munich,” and undermined the carefully crafted sympathy built up for Avner and his team. However, it would have produced a film that squarely faces the moral issues it intends to investigate, but in the end shrinks from.

Needless to say, Palestinians get no such consideration. There is no question that they are murderers, since they kill the innocent without mercy or apparent qualms. None of the Palestinian characters ever expresses the least doubts about violence (for that viewers must turn to this year’s other film about the conflict, the Palestinianproduction “Paradise Now”). Palestinian crowds cheer every act of violence. The only Palestinian character in the film who is remotely sympathetic is the young girl, whose life is spared by the Israeli team leaping into action to avoid killing her along with her father. The rest are not exactly villains in the classic sense of the word, but they are apparently devoid of the moral center exhibited by most of the Israeli characters in the film. “Munich” recognizes the humanity of its Palestinian subjects, who show love, fear, anxiety and a variety of other primal emotions missing from the typical Hollywood depictions of the Arab as terrorist (as in, for example, “True Lies,” and similar action movies of the 1980s and 90s). There is no doubt that they are people, not cartoon stereotypes. But morality, self-doubt and fully developed humanity is exclusively the domain of the Jews in the film. The one Palestinian who is given, shockingly briefly, a chance to speak, expresses very simplistic anger and a determination to fight on forever and to “win” in the struggle with Israel. No one familiar with Palestinian discourse will recognize its essential tropes or standard arguments here – a Palestinian speaks, but he does not articulate the Palestinian cause.

For all of its obvious good intentions, “Munich” never manages to offer its Palestinian characters, and there has probably never been another Hollywood film with as many Palestinian characters, anything more than the role of cipher, the empty space upon which the sum of Israeli and Jewish fears about persecution in a hostile world are projected. As in so much of Israeli and Zionist discourse, in “Munich” Palestinians are not taken seriously on their own terms, their history and experiences not seriously acknowledged. It presents
only two images of the Palestinians: ruthless killers of Israelis, and targets (justly or unjustly is often unclear) of Israeli retaliation. They do not exist except insofar as they are in violent conflict with the Israelis. In “Munich,” Palestinians are not so much the physical enemy who must be hunted and destroyed, but rather representative of the moral enemy – an essential brutality and lack of ethical sensibility that threatens to subsume and destroy the deep moral values of the Jewish spirit. In the moral economy of “Munich,” the Palestinians represent bankruptcy even more than the ruthless machine of the Israeli state. To say that “Munich” objectifies Palestinians would be an understatement. It abstracts them, places them in the position of a variable in a clichéd formula of Jewish self-interrogation.

For all its doubts, “Munich” is pervaded by a sense of Israeli heroism and self-sacrifice that is admirable and noble. If its Palestinians are not exactly villains, and they are not, then the Israeli hit squad certainly is a group of heroes, however flawed. In “Munich,” nation is equated with family. One does painful, even morally distasteful, things out of love for and to protect the family. “You think Israel is your mother,” Avner’s wife tells him. The film makes it clear that its Israeli heroes undertake a journey into the moral darkness out of
the very purest of motives – to protect each other in a hostile world. An avuncular but deeply menacing French criminal called “Papa” tells Avner, “you could have been my son, but you are not, you are not family.” In this, Papa is speaking not just for the French as a whole, or even for all Europe, but for the entire world, addressing the Jews as essentially alien, as belonging to a different family. The French in “Munich” are most representative of the nexus between crime and family, between killing and nurturing, caring for relatives and slaughtering enemies, and putting bread on the table by profiting from espionage and murder. It calls instantly to mind the, if not French then Italian, world of the Godfather cycle, in which family, killing and criminal enterprise are conflated and confused, with disastrous consequences including fratricide. Avner and Papa are both accomplished cooks, who nurture with food, but, as Papa says, neither can be chefs because they share large “butcher’s hands” – their knives are for more than carving delicate roses out of tomatoes. “The world has been hard on your tribe,” Papa tells Avner, “and its right that you should fight back.” Cooking here is a manifestation of the same impulses – love, ethnic identification, tribalism – which inform the voluntary descent these men make into the nether world of violence and intrigue. If this same dynamic could also apply to the Palestinians and their relationship to violence, “Munich” makes no acknowledgement of it.

Few American viewers of “Munich” will fail to note the obvious parallels it draws between the “terrorist threat” facing Israelis in the 1970s (and now) and the United States post-9/11, and similar anxieties about the wisdom of responding to violence in kind, without attending to the political issues that give rise to conflict. This is not Spielberg’s first overtly post-9/11 film. In “War of the Worlds,” released earlier this year, the Martians attack viciously out of the blue sky, like Al Qaeda, but in the end turn out to be behaving more like Israelis in the West Bank or Americans in Iraq: “Occupations always fail,” Tim Robbins’s character helpfully reminds us (the casting for this part was surely not coincidental).

After 9/11, supporters of the Israeli government made incessant pronouncements to the effect that “we (Americans) are all Israelis now.” This tactic did not play well with the public, who were largely offended that foreign powers, no matter how warmly regarded, would claim to have experienced anything similar to September 11, 2001. But there lingered in the popular culture a vague sense that both Israel and the United States faced similar, if not the same, “terrorist threat” and quandaries about how to cope with them. “Munich” must be seen as another reflection of this false equation, although one which essentially counsels against both the Israeli and the Bush Administration’s approaches to the problem of terrorism. The film manifestly serves as a critical commentary on both Israel’s tactics in trying to suppress the 2nd Intifada (mainly by assassinating Palestinian leaders and activists) and American responses to 9/11. The character of Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister from Milwaukee, in particular underlines these supposed symmetries in the film, especially in her observation that “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” “Some people say we can’t afford to be civilized,” she continues, “I’ve always resisted such people. Today I’m hearing with new ears.” This is the siren song of the revenge folly – a clear invocation of the challenge Americans face in trying to stay true to their values and constitutional rights in the face of an amorphous and terrifying threat of attack. “Munich” passionately counsels an attendance to values rather than a willingness to be sucked into a vortex of tit-for-tat violence, although the alternatives to violence are never explicated.

The final shot of “Munich” brings us face-to-face with the specter of 9/11. It features in the background the skyline of New York, displaying and invoking the ghostly shapes of the twin towers. In the foreground, cutting across the bottom of the screen from right to left, runs a small bridge. It’s a deeply evocative image, but “Munich” isn’t fully realized enough to provide a coherent context for it. Is this the bridge to 9/11, linking the Israeli and American experiences of Arab terrorism? Is this the bridge linking both of their failed responses to similar crises? Is it a bridge that could bring Israelis and Palestinians together to stop the cycle of violence so brutally depicted and decried in the film? Spielberg has spoken eloquently of the need to break the “stalemate” between Israel and the Palestinians, but “Munich” is only likely to harden attitudes of audiences on both sides of that divide, not provide any basis for dialogue or reconciliation. There is every danger that the warnings in the film could get lost on a lot of people, and that ordinary film-goers around the country may leave “Munich” with little more than strongly reinforced notions of the threat of Arab terrorism and identification with Israel.

The anger expressed by some Israelis and their supporters against “Munich” is quite understandable, since the film presents itself as constructive criticism rather than the unconditional love and support which has been customary from Hollywood. In “Munich” Israel is no longer assumed to be always right, clean and pure, and Palestinians are more than cardboard villains. To be sure, no film that shows the 1972 Munich Olympic attack in all its horror, especially without any of the broader context in which it took place, can avoid reinforcing the idea that Palestinians are basically just terrorists, and that Arabs attack while Israel responds. It may be too much at this stage to expect that justice be done to Palestinian characters in a film such as this, though they should at the very least have been allowed to express something more than rage and a commitment to total war. Hollywood still has a long way to go before it can produce a serious treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – one in which the Palestinians are represented as more than footnotes in their own history – but Spielberg and Kushner have taken a some serious steps in that direction, for which they certainly deserve credit.

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