In the midst of ferocious competition for this year's Oscar nominations (to be announced Jan. 31), Steven Spielberg insists that his contender Munich counts as more than a movie. In a Time magazine interview, the director described his project as a "prayer for peace," suggesting it might even point the way to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this context, voters of the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will inevitably weigh the film's messages along with its camera work, acting and dramatic impact.
In fictionalizing the Israeli response to the murder of 11 members of its Olympic team in 1972, Munich deliberately blurs distinctions between those who commit terrorism and those who combat it.
"A response to a response doesn't really solve anything," the director declares - indicating that he somehow views the slaughter of unarmed athletes by Black September terrorists as "a response." A response to what, one might inquire? Israel's very existence, or its determination to resist bloodthirsty calls in 1948 and 1967 to "push all the Jews into the sea"?
Myth on Golda Meir
In the movie, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir authorizes the Israeli "response" with a line prominently featured in promotional materials: "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." Meir never made such a statement because she explicitly viewed striking back at terror as upholding - not compromising - civilized values.
The primary purpose of the undercover hit squads sent out against the terrorist leadership wasn't punishment, but protection. On Sept. 12, 1972, a week after the Munich massacre, Meir spoke to the Israeli Knesset. "From the blood-drenched history of the Jewish nation, we learn that violence which begins with the murder of Jews, ends with the spread of violence and danger to all people, in all nations," she explained. "We have no choice but to strike at the terrorist organizations wherever we can reach them. That is our obligation to ourselves and to peace."
The leader of the hard-line opposition, Menachem Begin, spoke even more directly of the need to move beyond ancient concepts of blood-for-blood. "Retaliation no longer suffices," he told parliament. "We demand a prolonged, open-ended assault against the murderers and their bases. ... We need to run these criminals and murderers off the face of the earth, to render them fearful, no longer able to initiate violence. If we need a special unit to do this, then now is the time to build it."
Spielberg and his screenwriter (Marxist playwright Tony "Angels in America" Kushner) not only ignore but also distort this crucial context. Instead, they traffic in the hoariest anti-Semitic stereotypes, showing the coldly calculating Jews computing the cost of their operation in dollars ($352,000 for an assassination in Rome) as they demand their eye-for-an-eye, their pound of flesh, to balance the crimes of Munich. The filmmakers remain so focused on their violence-begets-violence formula, they suggest that Israeli killing of Black September leaders produced even more brutal reactions; "I think they're trying to talk to us," says a member of the Israeli hit team, scanning headlines of some new Palestinian outrage.
The historical record shows, though, that tough responses to terrorist provocation sharply reduce violence. In Striking Back, a new book about the real Israeli reaction to Munich, Aaron Klein (of Time's Jerusalem bureau) reports that pursuing terrorists after 1972 led to dramatic declines in attacks on Israelis. If nothing else, aggressive tactics against murderous plotters keep them busy trying to stay alive, making it harder to develop plots. Recently, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's resolute reply to the latest Palestinian intifada, including targeted killings and construction of an anti-terrorism barrier, served to bring that uprising to an end and to produce dramatically enhanced security in Israel. Similarly, most Americans understand that efforts to kill or capture Osama bin Laden serve to protect all of us, not just gratify a desire for revenge.
The widespread criticism of Spielberg's film by Israelis (including the consul general in Los Angeles) and friends of Israel raises serious questions about its prospects for Oscar nominations. Hollywood Jews make up a significant segment of the Academy's membership, so their reaction to the movie's much-debated themes might impact its chances. After all, perceived anti-Semitic elements in last year's The Passion of the Christ helped ensure that Mel Gibson's successful release received only three minor technical Oscar nominations. While The Passion drew criticism for unflattering portrayals of Judean religious authorities 2,000 years ago, Munich slurs current day Israelis and (in a totally fictitious slam) even shows its main character so disgusted with his homeland that he refuses to return.
If, as expected, Munich wins major Oscar nods, it will reveal far more about the nature of Hollywood than it will about the movie. Despite prominence of Jews in the entertainment establishment, Munich represents the first big-budget, big-studio release centered on the Jewish state since Cast a Giant Shadow 40 years ago. This in itself should rebut the tired mantra that "Jews control Hollywood," but nominations for Spielberg's "prayer for peace" will do even more to show the distance between the thinking of today's Tinseltown and traditional Zionism.
The readiness to embrace a leftist message movie such as Munich- with its implicit critique of the Bush administration's harsh, violent response to terrorism - indicates that it's utopian liberalism, rather than any form of Jewish commitment, represents the reigning faith of the entertainment elite.