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'Munich' and moral equivalence

By Colin Andersen - posted Thursday, 2 February 2006

There have been claims Speilberg's Munich is not an accurate portrayal of the War of the Spooks that followed the Munich massacre of 1972; that the Mossad agents involved were not given to crises of conscience regarding their “work”; and that the organisation's modus operandi was quite different to that portrayed in the film.

The main complaint of the critics, however, is that Munich commits the crime of moral equivalence between the actions of the Palestinian Black Septembrists and their Israeli nemeses, the Mossad hit team. One such critic described the film as "a simple-minded morality of 'When good guys kill bad guys, they're as bad as bad guys" ("Hunters and hunted", Sydney Morning Herald, (21/1/06).

The accusation of moral equivalence was spelt out most forthrightly by Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic: "[Munich] is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness,"  he charges. "Palestinians murder. Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience. Israelis show evidence of a conscience. Palestinians suppress their scruples. Israelis suppress their scruples. Palestinians make little speeches about home and blood and soil. Israelis make little speeches about home and blood and soil. Palestinians kill innocents. Israelis kill innocents. All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence ..." ("A self-important film afraid of itself", The Australian,(20/1/06).


While I would agree that Spielberg's frame of reference is one of moral equivalence between Palestinians and Israelis, i.e. a form of fence sitting, and that this is what makes Munich more of a thriller than a serious treatment of the issue, I part company with these critics as to which side of the fence Spielberg should be on. What they would like from him is essentially another Zionist fairytale in the mould of Exodus (1960) with Israelis as freedom-fighting heroes and Arabs as fanatical, throat-slitting villains, the kind of movie where the only good Arab is a dead one. So, to the extent that Spielberg's presentation of the issue differs from such an obviously propagandist scenario, I suppose we can be thankful.

Unfortunately, however, by putting the two sides on the same level all Spielberg succeeds in doing is obscuring the fundamental, asymmetric hammer-anvil dynamic which has always characterised the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis. Anyone who takes the trouble to do a little reading on the subject (David Hirst's comprehensive The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East would be a good starting point) can see that we're dealing not with a level playing field, but another variation of the clash between a European colonial-settler movement, in this case Zionism, on the one hand, and an indigenous non-European people, the Palestinian Arabs, on the other.

As Bobby Gillespie of the UK band Primal Scream put it so tellingly: "Most people can see what is taking place on the ground in the Middle East (except perhaps Spielberg and his other, Israel First critics). And they can see who needs our support. Everyone knows who is under the boot and who's got the mouthful of broken glass. The Palestinians are a prisoner nation, refugees and exiles treated like ghosts." For Spielberg to remain on the fence and suggest an equivalence between the ethnic cleansers and the cleansed, the occupiers and the occupied, Israeli hammer and Palestinian anvil is both historically false and morally repugnant.

Likewise, to pretend as he does in his film that there is some kind of numerical equivalence or balance in relation to the War of the Spooks - for 11 Israeli victims, just 11 Palestinian alleged perpetrators are killed - is another falsehood: not only was the toll on Palestinian lives in Europe (most of whom, according to a forthcoming book by Aaron Klein, Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response, had nothing to do with the original massacre) far higher, but the Israelis didn't hesitate to wreak revenge by bombing refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria within days of the events in Munich.

Journalist David Hirst writes in his aforementioned book:

When Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics ... Syria bore the brunt of Israel's eye-for-eye reprisals. It was, of course, more like twenty eyes for one. For at least 200 people, many of them women and children, and possibly as many as 500, died in simultaneous air attacks on nine separate targets. The Phantoms and Skyhawks swooped on the suburban Damascus resort of al-Hama; the bombs fell indiscriminately on Palestinians in their hillside dwellings and on Syrians, in their cars or strolling by the river Barada on their weekend outing. Survivors recounted how they were machine-gunned as they ran for cover.


Although Spielberg has spoken of the need to "pay attention to the causes" of Palestinian terrorism, his film offers few clues when it comes to those causes.

"The construct of Palestinian violence", wrote Palestinian writer, Fawaz Turki 33 years ago in response to the Munich massacre, "has roots in private terrors contained in that encapsulated world of non-being to which Palestinians have been relegated and still inhabit after 25 [now 58] years. Indeed a world where voices were silenced whenever they were raised, and heads were hit whenever they were lifted ... The private terrors that shadow the everyday life of the exile, the refugee, the occupied, the stateless would have forever remained private were it not for the fact that from these terrors an occasional outcry of fathomless anger is emitted, spilling over to the outside world."

The private terrors of the Palestinian people are simply not on Spielberg's radar. Munich is, he has told us, "a tribute to the Israeli athletes who were murdered in 72 ... because they seem to have been forgotten ( "Spielberg takes on terror", Time, (12/12/05)."

Even more forgotten are the countless victims of Israeli state terrorism: "I still do not understand", wrote Fawaz Turki in 1974. "Maybe I never will. How can I be expected to understand that innocent people live only in the West? That the victims of violence become tragic figures only if they are of European stock?" Their filmic tribute is yet to come.

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About the Author

Colin Andersen is a retired teacher with a long-term interest in the Middle East. He is the Sydney Director of Deir Yassin Remembered, an international non-sectarian network dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948-49, and in particular its most infamous component, the wholesale massacre of the inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin by Zionist forces in April 1948.

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