Munich: a fantasy view of the Middle East

spiked-film: Steven Spielberg's 'prayer for peace' suggests that if only the Israelis and Palestinians would talk, everything would be okay. He needs a history lesson.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics

Steven Spielberg’s Munich, a film about Israel’s assassination squads of the 1970s, should be judged primarily as a political statement rather than a conventional movie. Spielberg is implicitly making a point about the Israel-Palestine conflict today rather than the past: he is promoting reconciliation rather than violent conflict as the way forward (1). In his words, the film is his ‘prayer for peace’ (2).

Munich focuses on Israel’s response to the attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics by Black September, an offshoot of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), in which 11 Israeli athletes were killed. The story of the Munich events is told more straightforwardly in One Day in September, Kevin Macdonald’s 1999 documentary (3). In contrast, Spielberg’s film focuses on the aftermath, on Israel’s decision to form assassination teams to punish those responsible for the attack, and their mixed success in achieving their objectives.

As a thriller, the movie is successful. Anyone who wants to watch it purely as a spectacle is likely to find it gripping. However, after a while, with one graphic killing after another for almost three hours, a sense of relentless grimness sets in.

However, we can’t just judge Munich by the standards of a conventional movie. Spielberg is not simply making another thriller: he is trying to make important points about the Israel-Palestine conflict, while making some claims to historical veracity. At the start of the film it claims to be ‘inspired by’ real events. In reality, this means it combines actual events, half-truths and outright fiction. And given that the subject matter is covert and riddled with disinformation it is hard to work out exactly where to draw the line between myth and reality.

It is easy to criticise Munich: the accuracy of the book on which it is based, Vengeance by George Jonas, is contested by many experts (4). Some question whether Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence service, only operated a single assassination team in Western Europe (with others operating in the Middle East). And Spielberg’s story is evidently not even true to the book in which it is based. In the film the leader of the assassination squad suffers from profound moral doubt, while the book claims he had ‘absolutely no moral qualms about anything he did’ (5). In addition, Munich includes a made-up scene in which Avner, the Israeli squad leader, has a heart-to-heart with a Palestinian terrorist leader about the need for peace.

But the problem goes beyond factual accuracy alone. Spielberg is twisting the story to make a simplistic moral point about the Israel-Palestine conflict: It’s Good To Talk. He apparently believes that Israel and the Palestinians should reconcile their differences through dialogue rather than engage in an endless cycle of gruesome violence. In this sense the moral of his film fits perfectly with the drive towards Western diplomacy in the Middle East. Both assume that if only the two sides were willing to have a dialogue their differences could be resolved through sensible compromise. The point is rammed home at the end of Munich with an image of New York’s Twin Towers. The clear implication is that if the Middle Eastern conflict is not settled it threatens to engulf the West in conflict too.

Unfortunately the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is more deep-rooted than such an approach implies. If simple dialogue were the solution the problem would have been solved many years ago. There are fundamental structural reasons – to do with the role of the West and the character of Israeli society – that maintain the conflict. Although its form has changed, the tragic conflict between an embattled Israel and a dispossessed Palestinian population looks set to continue for many years.

In fact, if the attack on the Munich games and the Israeli response are put into their proper context, they help explain why a solution is so difficult to achieve. For Israel’s turn to assassination in 1973 – a policy it has maintained since then – reveals much about the changing character of Israeli society. It also shows that simple dialogue or Western-backed diplomacy cannot provide solutions to the conflict.

Israel is what could be called a warrior-victim state. On the one hand, it is a highly militarised society in which the army plays a central role. On the other hand, it is a state that is defined by victimhood – it sees itself as the only rational response to the age-old scourge of anti-Semitism. Although these two elements coexist in Israeli society they are often in tension with one another.

The events of the 1970s helped precipitate a change in emphasis away from the traditional warrior towards a more victim-oriented approach. Whereas Israelis had emphasised their character as tough fighters, their identification as victims came more to the fore following the Munich attacks. Indeed, the importance attached to the assassination of enemies – a key characteristic of contemporary Israel – brings together the warrior and victim elements in their most brutal form.

The warrior character of Israeli society emerged as a reaction to the experience of anti-Semitism in Europe. Early Zionist leaders, from the late nineteenth century onwards, consciously set out to create a class of Jews who were the opposite of the Jews of the shtetl (the traditional Eastern European Jewish ghetto). Whereas the traditional Jews of the diaspora were frail, the New Jews were to be physically strong. Traditional Jews were intellectual, whereas New Jews engaged in manual and agricultural labour. Shtetl Jews were passive, whereas New Jews were willing to fight to defend themselves.

Terms used included the New Jews or the New Hebrews (6). Max Nordau, one of the early Zionist leaders, called for the development of ‘Muscle Judaism’ (7). Jews who were born in Israel were known as sabras, after the desert cactus pear, for their prickliness on the outside (although they were also supposed to be tender on the inside).

Such warrior values were institutionalised in underground military organisations before the foundation of the state in 1948 and in the Israeli army afterwards. The army ensured that Israelis were trained to be warriors who would fight against all odds, and if necessary kill, to ensure their survival. And since the army had such a central place in Israeli society its ethos permeated the whole of the country.

Tragically, it was the Palestinians, who were in no way responsible for European anti-Semitism or the Holocaust, who suffered as a result of the creation of the New Jew, when they found themselves dispossessed by the growing number of Zionist colonists in their land. The aim of the Zionists was not just that Jews should be able to live in the area but to create a Jewish state (medinat yisrael) in the country. As a result the non-Jewish population suffered.

However, the creation of a warrior Israel was not just a problem for the Palestinians. It is less widely known that Holocaust survivors suffered significant stigma during Israel’s early years. They were seen as having passively accepted their fate rather than fighting in accordance with the ideology of the New Hebrew. They were even derided as ‘sabon’ (soap) by some native-born Israelis – it is hard to think of a more derogatory term for Holocaust survivors. As Klein Halevi, an Israeli writer, notes:

‘When the survivors first arrived, they were received with indifference, even hostility. Survivors were seen as the antithesis of Zionism’s ‘New Jew’, passive victims who threatened the daring spirit on which Israel’s birth and continued survival depended, as if they carried a contagious weakness. Survivors – whom sabras derisively nicknamed sabon, soap – were even accused of having been collaborators, their very survival suspect.’ (8).

However, the Zionist enterprise never fully broke away from its identification with victimhood. The rationale of the Zionist movement was that Jews would always be victims of anti-Semitism in non-Jewish society. As Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, wrote: ‘The nations in whose midst Jews live are all, either covertly or openly, Anti-Semitic.’ (9) Jews could not rid themselves of their victim status entirely but they could escape, in Herzl’s view, by establishing a Jewish state.

Ultimately Zionism was always about running away from anti-Semitism rather than fighting it. Both Zionists and anti-Semites shared the assumption that Jews and non-Jews could not live together in peace. However flawed this response, it would be wrong to blame it primarily on Jews. It was the failure of broader radical movements before the Second World War to tackle anti-Semitism – and transform society more generally – that left Jews open to the arguments of the Zionist movement.

Over a century after Herzl’s death the emphasis on victimhood in Israel has gone far further. In this sense, Israel has moved on from the Zionist vision of the New Jew to the post-Zionist Jew as victim. For instance, the new Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem which opened last year – part of Israel’s official Holocaust memorial centre -gives far more centrality to individual victimhood than older parts of the complex (10). In earlier times the emphasis was much more on the collective suffering of the Jewish people. Before 1973, as Halevi notes, Israel’s official Holocaust commemorations even focussed ‘obsessively on partisans and ghetto fighters’ in line with the ideology of the New Jew (11).

Today’s individual victim orientation has even permeated the Israeli army. This was most apparent in last year’s withdrawal from Gaza when Israeli troops evacuated settlers from the Gaza strip. Israeli soldiers, even officers, were openly seen weeping in front of television cameras. Such behavior would have been anathema to earlier generations of Israeli army officers who prided themselves on toughness in all situations.

Many Israeli combat soldiers, including members of elite combat units, have expressed unease at what would normally be considered a core part of their job. Some 13 members of Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s equivalent of Britain’s Special Air Service, including a major, have even signed a letter declaring their refusal to serve in the West Bank or Gaza strip (12). In addition, an officer and sergeant of Duvdevan (cherry), an elite undercover and assassination unit, were recently dismissed after refusing to carry out an arrest mission in the West Bank town of Jenin (13). Such incidents probably help explain why in recent years Israel has increasingly used helicopter gunships rather than ground troops for assassination missions.

Clearly both warrior and victim elements still coexist to some extent in contemporary Israeli society. But the theme of individual victimhood has come to the fore at the expense of the ideology of the tough New Jew.

It was the events of the 1970s, beginning with the attack on Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics in 1972, which increased Israeli society’s sense of victimhood. The October 1973 Yom Kippur war, in which Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria, helped to strengthen its sense of vulnerability much further. After the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel had destroyed the surrounding Arab armies in less than a week, there was a feeling of near invincibility in Israel. In contrast, six years later an acute sense of anxiety began to develop in the popular mood.

Subsequent events have heightened Israel’s feeling of insecurity still further. Its invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982 was first followed by many years of indecisive conflict, and then by a humiliating withdrawal. The Palestinian first intifada (uprising) of 1987-88 and the second intifada that broke out in 2000 also played a role.

But Israel should not be examined in isolation from the rest of the world: the growing emphasis on victimhood and vulnerability in Western society has also influenced Israeli culture (14). In a sense, everyone nowadays wants to identify with the most tragic aspects of the Jewish historical experience – a trend that was evident in Spielberg’s previous film, Schindler’s List (1993). This is why the term ‘Holocaust’ is increasingly used to apply to all kinds of conflicts.

In contrast, the qualities associated with the New Jew are seen as repellent. Anyone who is willing to stand up for themselves, with force if necessary, is viewed with hostility. Much of the popular hostility to Israel nowadays is based on its willingness to fight. At the same time, little credence is given to the idea that the Palestinians should have the autonomy to determine their own future – as witnessed by the frequent demands for Western diplomacy to solve the conflict.

It is in the context of the shift from New Jew to victim that the Israeli assassination teams, as featured in Spielberg’s Munich, should be understood. The distinctive character of an assassination team is that it fuses together the warrior and victim elements in a particularly brutal way. Or as a senior Israeli army officer said following the assassination of a Palestinian activist in 2000: ‘We will continue to take action against anyone who tries to harm us.’ (15) If someone defines themselves as a victim, and they have the means at their disposal, it makes sense to kill whoever is seen as the aggressor. Even if your military doctrine emphasises self-defence – as the Israeli army’s ‘purity of arms’ does – anyone can be judged a legitimate target if they are seen as a quasi-Nazi (16).

Anyone who doubts the importance of assassination to Israel should remember that two former prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, along with many other senior politicians, were members of Sayeret Matkal: for years Israel’s prime assassination unit (17). Indeed, Spielberg’s Munich shows Barak, then commander of Sayeret Matkal, leading an assassination operation in Beirut in response to the attack on the 1972 Olympics.

Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of assassination, including high-profile Palestinian leaders among its targets. In 1988 a joint Mossad-Sayeret team killed Abu Jihad (Khalil el-Wazir), then the PLO’s military commander and its deputy leader, in Tunis. In March 2004 an Israeli army helicopter was used to assassinate Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement), with a missile strike. The following month Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, the Hamas leader, was killed in a similar attack (18). It is also widely believed that as part of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 the then defence minister, Ariel Sharon, wanted to assassinate Yasser Arafat, but his move was vetoed by America. In April 2004, Sharon, now prime minister, threatened publicly to have Arafat killed (although he did not pursue it) (19).

Israelis have also learned that once the principle of assassination is accepted it can have unexpected consequences. In 1995 Yigal Amir, an Israeli extremist, assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, for negotiating with the Palestinians.

This is the character of the Israeli tragedy. The original impulse of Zionism was to break away from Jews’ position as victims to create a new warrior Jew. But its inherent limitations meant that it could never fully escape from its identification with victimhood. In addition, the Palestinians, a people with no responsibility for the Holocaust, themselves became the victims of the Zionist enterprise.

However, it is wrong to blame the Zionist movement or the Israeli state wholly for this situation. The failure of radical movements to combat anti-Semitism played an important part in creating the circumstances in which this tragedy could develop. America and Britain have also played a key role in backing Israel in the past, since it has often fitted in with what they see as their strategic interests.

Clearly such a complex and embedded situation cannot be easily resolved – certainly not by simple dialogue, as suggested by Spielberg’s Munich. Perhaps the best starting point is to reject the contemporary trend for individuals to define themselves as victims. For once people identify themselves as victims above all else, then perhaps anything, including assassination, becomes justifiable.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Middle East

(1) Spielberg himself acknowledges this point. See Edward Rothstein, ‘Seeing terrorism as drama with sequels and prequels’, New York Times, 26 December 2005

(2) Richard Schickel ‘Spielberg takes on terror’, Time, 12 December 2005

(3) One Day in September, Internet Movie Database

(4) See, for example, Yossi Melman and Steven Hartov, Munich: fact and fantasy, Guardian 17 January 2006

(5) Quoted in Edward Rothstein, ‘Seeing terrorism as drama with sequels and prequels’, New York Times, 26 December 2005

(6) There was an important exhibition on this theme, sponsored by the German and Israeli governments, in Berlin last year.

(7) Quoted in Steve Israel, Reclaiming the Physical Jew: The Contribution of Political Zionism

(8) Klein Halevi, Israel at 50. The relationship of Israel to the Holocaust is examined in more detail by Tom Segev The Seventh Million New York: Henry Holt 2000.

(9) Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, 1896

(10) See Can you feel a Holocaust victim’s pain?, by Nathalie Rothschild. For more information on the New Museum, see About Yad Vashem.

(11) Klein Halevi, Israel at 50

(12) Amos Harel and Mazal Mualem, 13 Sayeret Matkal reservists join refusal to serve in territories, Haaretz, 22 December 2003

(13) Army chief dismisses commander,, 2 January 2006

(14) On the subject of victim culture more generally see, for example, Frank Furedi, Therapy Culture, London: Routledge, 2004

(15) Yitzhak Eitan, commander of the Israeli army’s central command (which includes the West Bank), quoted in: B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) Position Paper, Israel’s Assassination Policy: Extra-judicial Executions, 23 January 2001

(16) On the ‘purity of arms’ and Israeli military doctrine more generally see the official Israel Defence Forces website

(17) Sayeret Matkal is the Hebrew acronym for General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. It is modeled on Britain’s Special Air Service and operationally part of Aman, Israeli military intelligence, rather than Mossad.

(18) For a useful set of links on Israel’s assassination policy in recent years see the Electronic Intifada website

(19) Sharon: Arafat isn’t immune, CBS News, 2 April 2004. The remarks were originally carried in the Israeli media.

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