In recent days, several pundits have criticized "Munich," the new film by director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, for drawing a "moral equivalency between the Israeli assassins and their targets -- both explicitly ... and implicitly." Furthermore, they argue that it has inaccurately portrayed the Israeli avengers as morally conflicted about their mission to eliminate the perpetrators of the Munich massacre.
As long-time community advocates who have dealt with Hollywood's often-ambivalent images of Jews and Israel, we are sensitive to the overt and sometimes covert themes that can send a message that delegitimizes the world's only Jewish state. We are also aware of the risks of taking creative license with recent history that is still playing itself out in current events.
"Munich" does not present these problems.
"Munich" probes the motivations of the Black September terrorists who commit the heinous crime of the Munich Olympic slaughter (portrayed in haunting and unambiguous scenes) and even affords one of the terrorists an opportunity to state his attachment to the land. The terrorists, however, stand in stark contrast to the Israeli avengers who were forced into action by a shocked, but ultimately indifferent world, yet sought to avoid harm to innocents at every turn.
Despite the fact that the Israeli mission was a violent one, it was clearly not animated by the callous evil that permeated the Palestinian onslaught. The debates, ambivalence and anguish that the Israeli avengers reflected on the screen as their mission wore on are no different than today's vigorous dialogues in Israel that grapple with similar life-and-death issues.
Even before the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, Palestinian Jews practiced a doctrine of tohar haneshek, the purity of arms. They recognized, as the movie's protagonist, Avner, does, that while arms may be necessary, violence not only inflicts damage on the enemy but also wounds the actor.
The film quotes Jewish tradition, which itself wrestles with the question of the death of one's enemy. At the Passover seder, Jews diminish the cup of wine they drink to remember that even those who enslaved them in Egypt were human and God's creation.
In fact, Jewish commentaries on the Bible have God rebuking the angels who were celebrating the destruction of the Egyptians: "The fruits of my hands are drowning in the sea, how dare you sing songs." This is not a mandate for nonviolence, it is an acknowledgment of a reality that must be weighed and measured whenever violent action is contemplated.
What "Munich" presents is not moral equivalency or mechanical symmetries, it is the real world. Had this been a two-dimensional thriller with clear cut and uncomplicated good guys and bad guys, controversy could have been avoided. It still would have been a compelling and exciting film.
"Munich" deals with the ambiguities, ambivalences and compromise that inevitably crop up in real life, even when responding to undistilled evil visited upon innocents.
As the film ends, Avner walks along New York's East River, absorbing all he has been through. Some critics claim that it is unclear if he returns to Israel or remains in America. That uncertainty is not a commentary on Zionism or its vitality; Avner needs a time out, a long time out. (Israelis routinely go to Nepal or India, far away from the Middle East and far away from the news of the Middle East after their military service. They, too, need a time out.)
In the background of this climactic scene are the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, a reminder that by 2005, with the towers gone, we all inhabit a world in which terror is a reality and the response to it poses uncomfortable and vexing challenges, especially for democracies. No one is insulated, no more time outs.
Critics can quibble with this colloquy or that juxtaposition in "Munich," but the impact of this moving film is profound. It forces the viewer to ponder how best to deal with terror and evil in a world in which every action, no matter how justified, has consequences.
David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations agency. He served as the Anti-Defamation League's director in Los Angeles for 16 years, dealing with Hollywood-related issues. Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
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