January 11, 2012
Opinion: A river runs through it: Answering Spielberg’s ‘Munich’
There is a scene at the end of Steven Spielberg’s controversial 2005 film, “Munich,” that disappointed a lot of Israel’s supporters. Spielberg’s camera caresses the dramatic Manhattan skyline, pans over the East River and ends hauntingly at the Twin Towers, which were still standing at the time of the film’s events.
The reason many of us were disappointed with that ending was the strong implication that Israel’s relentless drive to avenge the 1976 Munich Olympics massacre had something to do with the subsequent 9/11 terrorist attacks that destroyed those very towers.
What is fascinating about that downbeat Hollywood ending is that, many years later, close to where those Twin Towers once stood, reality wrote a much happier ending. That ending — or, more accurately, that beginning — was written last month when it was announced that Technion — Israel Institute of Technology had won a global competition to partner with Cornell University and New York City to create a high-tech international learning center, or what is being called the Technion Cornell Institute of Innovation (TCII).
This multibillion-dollar project will attract top scientific minds from around the world and tackle the planet’s toughest problems. It will be located on Roosevelt Island in the East River, the same river over which Spielberg’s camera panned before stopping at that haunting shot of the Twin Towers. It will ultimately encompass 2.1 million square feet, with space for 2,500 students and 280 professors. Cornell plans to begin offering classes in September 2012 in leased space while construction takes place on the Roosevelt Island facility.
Little did Spielberg know that a few years after shooting “Munich,” which focused on Israel as the brutal avenger, the world would see such a dramatic depiction of another Israel — the tiny Israel of big ideas that can change the world.
This is the cruel paradox of the Israel story: A country that is forced to use its wits to defend itself but would much prefer using its wits to save the world.
Spielberg himself tried to capture that paradox in his film. Mossad agents struggle with conflicting loyalties to their country, their own families and their self-image. How high a price are they willing to pay to avenge the blood of their compatriots? The erosion of their soul? The loss of family connection? The loss of one’s humanity?
This painful and ongoing Israeli dilemma can easily get lost in the round-the-clock media coverage of targeted bombings and terrorist checkpoints. The inner yearning to create is never as visible as the outer imperative to fight your enemies. Bombs falling make for great television.
That is why this new center of innovation is so noteworthy. It will be visible. As visible as those Patriot missiles that Israel deploys to catch incoming terrorist missiles. As visible as tank formations that enter Gaza or Lebanon.
This new center won’t be just a book in Barnes & Noble called “Start-up Nation.” It will be an enormous monument of human accomplishment, like the Statue of Liberty, with Israel’s name on it.
It will be the ultimate human response to an act of ultimate destruction. Near where the Twin Towers were destroyed, a “Silicon Island” of applied sciences will rise on Roosevelt Island that will aim even higher than those towers ever did. Here, humans won’t just trade, they will create. They won’t just build businesses, they will build solutions to better the world.
The downbeat ending of “Munich,” which keeps Israel in the stereotypical narrative of violence, revenge and continued destruction, has been jolted by this Israeli victory. Israel’s enemies won’t be able to easily “spin” this victory out of the news cycle, because it’s not an event, it’s a monument — a permanent living monument to human accomplishment that will answer the loss of 9/11 by giving continuous blessings to humanity.
The cynics will say that the world will always hate Israel no matter what. There will always be something negative to contaminate the positive. Anti-Semitism is not supposed to make sense, it’s a pathology that can never be erased, and so on.
That may all be true, but it’s no reason for the Jews to abandon their role of being a light unto the world, and to answer loss with life, and destruction with creation.