Jeff Spencer on Munich

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I saw “Munich” with Jeff Spencer while at home in Stockton for the holidays. There is nothing to do in Stockton except catch up on reading, go to the local multiplex, and watch “The Surreal Life” on my mother’s basic cable. After I got home in L.A., Spencer sent me his thoughts on Spielberg:

“Spielbrat finally did a great film—no sentimentality, nothing easy. All the press I’ve read is bunk—from the Left, from the Right, from Israel, from the Palestinians—in other words, it is a work of art and no political group will be pleased. Didn’t draw any easy equivalency parallels between the Palestinian terrorists and the Israelis. If anybody came off looking bad it was the CIA for allegedly playing both sides of the street. Cinematically excellent. Spiel has reason to be proud of himself. If no other U.S. film is made in the “War On Terror” period, Spiel has covered the waterfront.

“Essentially a story about ex-soldier agents of Israel who were used badly by their country which expended them in an attempt to convey a message to the enemies of Israel (the price of attacking Israeli civilians is death) while the soldiers operated in a legal (they were no longer officially agents of the Israeli government, they no longer had any official existence at all) and moral void (they were not told exactly what their targets had done to merit execution). If anything, the film demonstrates the consequences of asking people to kill without establishing clear reasons for killing. Overhanging the whole film was the atrocity of Munich which Spielberg unambiguously presented as uniquely barbaric, and he saved the depiction of the most wanton act for the last minutes of the film, thus, the audience was not “primed” to accept extreme measures for the designers of the Munich plan as one would be in a typical American “hero” film of the ‘80’s or ‘90’s with Arnold or Willis.

“The protagonist, the group leader of the avengers, was psychologically damaged by the end of the film. He was exhorted to accept what he had done was a justifiable act of war, as it, indeed, was,  but he had lost faith in the mission of Israel, and only wanted to remain with his family in the U.S. away from the constant violence of living in his homeland. Brilliantly, the film ends in 1973 with the shattered protagonist in the foreground against NY harbor in the background with the haunting images of the twin towers in the haze. We are left to understand the time has come in the present when there is no place to hide from terrorism—the towers were knocked down in our time.

“Bunuel’s OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, from 1977, has truly become a prophetic film. Bunuel depicted a world in which the lives of people must always be lived with terrorism constantly happening—a ferocious absurd explosive punctuation of daily life which makes no more sense than a shaving cut. Death is just a bad joke on the imbecilic stage of political theater. Like it or not, all of us are just boobs like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who walk into things they have no idea are happening and whose only affect is to kill them meaninglessly. In MUNICH the Israeli avengers are expended fighting a nebulous enemy which operates in the open and in the shadows, both public and clandestine, political and criminal, glamorized as freedom fighters and, in truth, are savage killers of innocents. Their eradication is the solution of an equation that seemingly defies rational resolution.

“As Thomas Pynchon put it “back in the bad old ambiguous world.” The Dragon Saint George must slay in THE FAERIE QUEENE is Error. Evil takes many forms. The Knight heroically triumphs by defeating ambiguity and doubt. The Knight in MUNICH is laid low by these very weaknesses. The advantage the terrorist has is his conviction his cause is righteous and the belief that the entire society he opposes is a target. The need to discriminate between combatant and noncombatant, guilty and innocent, and all the qualifications states must make is eliminated. The Israeli agents sent to kill the Munich terrorists found their quarry highly motivated and determined young men who perceived the conflict in black and white terms, charming middle-aged intellectuals, family men with children who love them, and beautiful girls. In the film, the Israeli agents craved opportunities to take part in genuine military operations against terrorist bases where they would have a straight-up fight against armed antagonists. The killing of apparently ordinary people was undermining their belief in their mission. Until the West is as certain of its mission as the terrorists, the terrorists will have a propaganda and real advantage, and the West is likely to be unable to respond effectively to terror. The film demonstrates this with a clarity which is rare in this ambiguous old world.”

After this review, Spencer forwards an article critical of Munich and writes that he agrees with everything in it. He seems to be backtracking: “I had no idea how tainted the source of the film was or how ridiculous the politics of Kushner were. Appears the lamentable film was a appeaser fantasy.” My reply to him follows the article.

Spielberg’s Munich and me
by Rachel Neuwirth
from The American Thinker
January 3rd, 2006

I had deep misgivings about seeing Spielberg’s Munich. The tragedy was too close to my heart.

I was supposed to be with the 1972 Israeli Olympiads as a member of the Israeli women’s basketball team. At the last minute, the International Olympic Committee decided against including a women’s basketball event. (It did not become a regular event until the 1976 Olympics.)

I didn’t go to Munich, but I spent years training with the athletes who did go. We developed a close camaraderie, as people do at training camps where tensions and hopes are high. I knew each one of them personally. They were my friends.  I watched in horror as the massacre unfolded on TV.  I, too, could have been slaughtered by the killers linked to Yasser Arafat.

Instead, I watched them slaughter my friends and saw how callously the world responded. The games went on even as my friends’ bodies were flown home draped not in medals but in burial shrouds.

I feared how Hollywood, even if it was Stephen Spielberg, would depict this tragedy but I finally went to see the film. Munich was worse than I had feared. It left me appalled and enraged. I felt violated. The film debased the memory of my friends. It exploited a horrifying atrocity. It slandered the brave Israeli volunteers who were ready to sacrifice their lives to seek justice and to risk orphaning their children in this dangerous but necessary assignment. Terrorists had to learn they could not murder Israelis abroad with impunity and that the perpetrators of this atrocity would not live to plot another one.

Americans, including Spielberg, have never had to live intimately with war and terrorism in a tiny country surrounded and outnumbered by intractable enemies. My Olympiad friends had. I had. I was born in Israel and have lived my whole life with Islamic terrorism. It began long before the so-called occupation, and has continued without cease. Its goal is to destroy Israel and expel or exterminate all Jews. Most young women like me did military service to defend our country in its never-ending war for survival. We accept this obligation with stoicism and without compromising our ethics or our humanity. That is what reality and our ideals demand of us.

But this film is not about reality or about presenting a truthful account of the aftermath of Munich. It is about Steven Spielberg—his spin on history, his ego, and his arrogance in thinking that he has special wisdom and insights about how to bring peace. He may believe that the ends justify the means so he has license to twist the truth to promote peace. But “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Some in the mainstream liberal media are praising this movie lavishly and, unfortunately, many people with limited historical knowledge may accept readily Spielberg’s twisted version of events and, worse, his political propagandizing (or “morality”).

Spielberg didn’t search for the moral or factual truths. He didn’t spend time in Israel or meet with both Jewish and Arab victims of Islamist terror. Instead, he used the fraudulent book Vengeance. Its author, George Jonas, was exposed years ago as having lied about his contacts with Israel’s Mossad. The book’s title, Vengeance, is inherently biased and pejorative. Israel did not go after the terrorists out of vengeance, but rather as part of its ongoing war against terrorism.

Spielberg’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, was no better an influence than Jonas.  A political ultra leftist, Kushner co-authored the vehemently anti-Israel volume Wrestling with Zion, and is infamous for his comment that “I wish modern Israel hadn’t been born.”

In addition, two of Spielberg’s consultants for the movie were Bill Clinton and his obedient Middle-East negotiator, Dennis Ross—both of whom had their own agendas and both of whom failed to secure peace when they were in power. Spielberg’s reliance on these sources for such an important film is ethically irresponsible. The bare-bones, non-technical term for Spielberg’s spin is lying. Spielberg exploits the respect and betrays the trust of audiences who believe in him.

Spielberg plays fast and loose with history most clearly when he brazenly substitutes his own political voice for Golda Meir’s documented statements. On September 12, 1972, she told the Knesset:

“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. We shall fulfil that obligation undauntedly.”

Golda Meier’s unwavering commitment and sense of duty are moral universes away from the equivocating words Spielberg puts in her mouth:

“...every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate comprises with its own values.”

Meir did not see counter-terrorism as a compromise of Jewish values but rather as submitting to those values. There is nothing in Judaism that requires Jews to “turn the other cheek” to murderers of our people. True, Meir did not want to send Israelis to risk their lives.  Nor did she want Israelis to have to kill.  It was she who said to Israel’s enemies,

“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children but we cannot forgive them for forcing our children to kill their children.”

We Israelis do not celebrate when we kill our enemies though our enemies celebrate when they kill us.  Instead, it is a grim duty imposed on us by relentless racism and hate. Meir knew this.

The manufactured quotation is sheer moral relativism and parrots the Left’s favorite theme that “violence begets violence.” It is also the key message of Spielberg’s turgid movie. Munich also contains graphic violence, tasteless gratuitous sex scenes, and frequent profanity that numb the mind and serve no constructive purpose. A central theme is to make the audience believe that retributions against savage and barbaric slaughter do not deter terrorism. This concept is part of Leftist anti-war appeasement and a defeatist philosophy that blames victims of aggression.

But he offers no proof that this is true. The West made a major mistake in Munich when it appeased Hitler and failed to stop him before he became more powerful. We do not hear Spielberg argue for post-9/11 negotiations with Osama bin Laden. Spielberg, typical of so many “progressive” liberals, would like Israel to adopt his appeasement philosophy while he sits safely and comfortably thousands miles away in his Pacific Palisade mansion, far from danger.

Spielberg told Time magazine that Munich is “a prayer for peace.” But if he is truly seeking prayers for peace, he need look no further than the Jewish liturgy and the Hebrew Bible for both wisdom and balance. America’s Founding Fathers said: Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God. There is also the truism: “He Who is Compassionate to the Cruel Will Ultimately Become Cruel to the Compassionate.”

I was particularly upset when Spielberg’s Israeli agent said that he cares only about Jewish blood and not about Arab blood. Anti-Semites often put such a comment in the mouth of a Jewish character, which, by association, defames all Jews. This grossly misrepresents Israeli morality and values. Spielberg contradicts this image himself when he shows Avner, the leader of the Israeli hit-team, horrified that the innocent daughter of one the targets is present and he quickly acts to stop the attack until she is safely gone. This is just one example of the lack of coherence, morality, and clarity that pervades this movie.

The opening movie credits informs us that Munich was “inspired by real events.” One of the last scenes of the movie shows Avner making love to his wife as he envisions the spectre of dead Israeli athletes lying on a bloodstained Munich runway. This obscene perversion of the truth and decency could only have come from a sick mind that egregiously twists facts and has the chutzpah to promote his movie as “inspired by real events.”

In the last 45 minutes of the movie, Spielberg depicts Avner as haunted by paranoia and guilt. In truth, those who sought out and terminated the Palestinian terrorists were determined and resolute Israelis who proudly defended their country against those who had ruthlessly slaughtered innocent civilians.

To further his pacifist political message, Spielberg invents a scene where the Arab terrorist and the Israeli agent encounter each other by accident in a safe house in Greece. In this contrived scene, each side argues their own perspective as Spielberg attempts to insinuate a degree of moral equivalence on both sides. This does justice to neither side, nor to the truth. It serves only to misinform the public. The Middle East has a long and complex history, and movie-goers with little knowledge of that history will drift even further into Hollywood fantasy than they did when they sat through E.T.

The moral equivalence message is illustrated by a statement made by the Council of American-Islamic Relations, (CAIR),  an anti-Israel organization which asserts moral equivalence between victims and terrorists. In a 12/26/05 FoxNews interview, CAIR spokesman, Ahmed Bedeir, had this to say:

“The viewers who see this movie will find that both sides are seeking and fighting for the same thing and have the same desires … which is a homeland. Ironically [they both have] similar motives and desires…. The only difference between what these so-called Mossad-sponsored assassins and other terrorists—they both use a similar means—they make bombs and they blow up people and they kill innocent civilians and, in the meantime, violence begets violence. The policy has not worked, and I’m glad people like Steven Spielberg have produced a movie to raise questions about these certain policies of killing individuals, especially without due process [or] without providing the evidence and many of the assassins that were in this movie question the legitimacy of these targets.”

Hussam Ayloush, Southern California’s executive director of CAIR praised the film saying,

“This film moves the issue closer to a more neutral stance. It shows the Palestinians are not fighting Israel because they hate Jews or because they are intrinsically violent.”

Sadly, the average movie-goer will never know where fact ends and fantasy takes over. As a result, many will no doubt come away confused about the moral issues involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, seeing diminished difference between the barbarity of Arab terrorists and the justice meted out by the Israeli agents who pursued them.

Spielberg is a movie director and a great storyteller. But he is not a historian, a political scientist, or a statesman. If he wishes to meddle in high-stakes international politics, he should first remember that ”fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

Whatever good intentions Spielberg may have had, his “docudrama” serves only the dangerous Islamist propaganda machine and may even inflame Jew-hatred.

I reply to Jeff Spencer:

“Jeff, I’d go with your original interpretation of the film. An artist should be able to legitimately show the dehumanizing effect of war without being called an appeaser by those only interested in polemics. I knew about Kushner’s politics, but this review is an example of what we were talking about last week—criticism of art from a political point of view cannot tolerate ambiguity. The writer would have loved a simple narrative in which Duty to country, admittedly not Vengeance, justifies the actions of the protagonists in the wider context of war. But Munich is essentially an anti-war film in the tradition of classic anti-war films that take a humanist position: war is a brutalizing exercise that involves dehumanizing the enemy. This isn’t news; in the pursuit of a brutal enemy, we must harden out hearts against him. And if we pursue justice, we must often rely on imperfect intelligence to find a perpetrator. Avner wants to know if he might have killed anyone who was innocent. He’s a character in a film, not the ideological mouthpiece of Spielberg.

“I would hate to see a film made by the writer, who no doubt would concoct some kind of agitprop about the nobility of Duty. Also, I don’t think Spielberg takes the moral equivalency route as the writer complains. He’s certainly not saying that the Palestinian terrorists are animated by any elevated, humane values. They’re portrayed as machines of war (“Nations are all that matters” [paraphrased]), hell-bent on perpetual conflict. The Israelis in the film are generally more circumspect, so I don’t see an equivalency being drawn. The fact that some Palestinians are shown as ordinary people going about their lives is not proof that Spielberg/Kushner are soft on terrorism. Ignore this article.”

One of the links from the Rachel Neuwirth article, “Art Needs Moral Vision: Spielberg’s Munich Offers Only Moral Evasion,” by Victor Hanson, is worth reading. However, I don’t really agree with its conclusions about the necessity for art to possess a pristine moral clarity (artists aren’t under any obligation to provide exemplars of human righteousness, only unvarnished truths regardless of how ugly). Why, oh why do cultural critics of the Left and the Right insist on shackling hapless artists with the kind of moral responsibilites better left to governments? An example quote: “The moral evasions at the heart of Munich evoke another Munich, the Munich of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement, that moment in 1938 when moral exhaustion confronted evil and blinked.”

My Noam Chomskyite friend who works at Skylight Books in Los Feliz told me this morning that he was afraid to see Munich. I asked him why. He said he feared that it was just going to be Zionist propaganda. Zionist propaganda—there you have it. From the Left’s perspective, Spielberg can’t be anti-Israeli enough. If you turn on the talk shows this week, most of the talk about the Munich controversy revolves around its wrong-headed politics. It’s either a confused morass of moral equivalency or it’s an apology for Zionism. Imagine the current talking heads transplanted to previous historical eras, throwing down about plays written by Shakespeare and wondering what side the playwright was on. Uh-oh. I used Spielberg and Shakespeare in the same sentence. You can stop reading now and adopt a sneer of superiority or look at some of these links:

The AVS Forum has a discussion thread in which one post asks the question: “I wonder if all this talk of whether Spielberg is pro-Israel enough or too pro-Palestinian is kinda like asking if Shakespeare was pro-Denmark or anti-Norway enough when he wrote Hamlet. (Yeah, I know, Shakespeare and Spielberg in the same sentence…) Seems to me that Munich, like Hamlet, is probably less about taking political sides than it is about measuring the human cost of the cycle of attack and reprisal that comprises revenge.”

The person is aware he used Spielberg and Shakespeare in the same sentence—it’s going around.

Recommended blog on Munich: Captain’s Quarters

Another angry anti-Munich article: Spielberg’s Munich Pact

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