Lyndon Johnson once famously observed, "The difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals don't eat their friends." His aphorism is no less apt today in discussing Jews and their treatment of one another. Since early December, there has been a disturbingly venomous campaign directed at Steven Spielberg's new movie, "Munich," by machers, opinion molders and self-appointed pundits in the Jewish community.
Of course, there is room for different opinions about the complex issues raised in the movie, as there is with virtually anything written or produced about the Middle East. We recognize that there are those who may view the questions the movie poses differently than we do. However, many of these critical voices have chosen to assault, not critique, the movie and its director in a series of vitriolic ad hominem attacks on Spielberg.
Here is a sampling of what has appeared:
- ".... Munich is about not upsetting terrorists ... [it is] filled with fakery ... made me sick to my stomach ... thanks for blaspheming these murdered athletes' lives, Spielberg ... the memories of these innocent victims of terrorism are desecrated ... Abu Spielberg -- minister of disinformation." (Debbie Schlussel, syndicated columnist)
- "An anti-Zionist epic ... not the expression of Jewish values but the contradiction of them." (Samuel G. Freedman, Jerusalem Post)
- "By naming his movie 'Munich,' he advances the message of appeasement. It's as if the writers and director were intent upon ignoring the questions of interest in favor of creating a politically correct 'Mein Kampf' for our time." (Kate Wright)
- "No, let's overanalyze 'Munich' for what it is. It's dangerous.... Steven you are naively taking on the role of 'Tokyo Rose,' and you don't even realize it.... Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth...." (Joel Leyden, Israel News Agency)
- "Spielberg smears Israel ... a falsehood at its core ... cinematic manipulation rooted in lies." (Andrea Levin, Camera)
- "Spielberg is too dumb, too left and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival...." (Andrea Peyser, New York Post)
- "It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian." (Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post)
What could provoke such venom against the man who brought the world "Schindler's List" -- as important a film on the Shoah as has yet been made? The man who chronicled the visual histories of 50,000 survivors for posterity, and who, through the Righteous Persons Foundation, supports creative Jewish endeavors throughout America.
Were Spielberg another too-left Hollywood type who cavalierly flirted with the tough issues posed by "Munich" with no previous record of involvement or concern about Jewish matters, one might begin to fathom the nastiness of the attacks and the gratuitous personal barbs. But he comes to the movie with a distinguished, if not unparalleled, track record of achievement vis a vis the Jewish community, Israel and its image.
One has to ask: Why such vitriol?
There is a common subtext in these attacks that betrays a worldview that is anachronistic and fatalistic.
The critics seem to share a view that by portraying ambivalence on the part of the Israeli avengers or by allowing the terrorists to briefly enunciate their claim, the movie will encourage audiences to be equivocal in their understanding of terror and its perpetrators. Filmgoers will conclude, "A pox on both your houses, all you violent fanatics!"
It is hard to imagine that in a post- Sept. 11 world most audiences won't have in their minds and guts a very clear view as to who today's terrorists are and how they brazenly act in violent, irrational and heartless ways. The massacre at Munich is characterized as the original sin, distinct in its wantonness and brutality.
Any thinking American understands that responding to terror, even if violent and brutal, is qualitatively different than indiscriminately and purposefully targeting innocents. If you don't get that message from "Munich," you aren't watching the film.
Equally mistaken, the critics fear that filmgoers will weaken their support for Israel because they will no longer see Israel as a victim. If its avengers commit violence, while betraying some ambivalence about the acts they carry out, the case for Israel, the critics fear, is weakened.
Americans' support for Israel is not contingent upon being perceived as either infallible or as a victim. Israel is one of the world's leading military powers; its armed forces have very few equals, certainly none in the region.
Americans respect its achievements and successes. An honest discussion of the issues surrounding terror won't change the reality of with whom most Americans identify.
Losing the victim label does mean greater scrutiny. Greater scrutiny means occasional self-doubt and open, democratic questioning of how one acts. Israel was created precisely to give Jews power over their own fate, to act and not to quiver. Neither the Israelis nor we are powerless victims.
Like other democracies, Israel has its debates in the open. Anyone with an Internet connection can read and marvel at them. Spielberg hasn't created those debates, he reflects them. The fear of washing our linen in public ought to be gone; Israel is a nation like others.
There is no need for a mentality of fear, for the embrace of victimhood or for the nastiness that permeates much of the anti-"Munich" diatribes. We can ask questions, we can worry about what we do, we can challenge each other in public and we need not fear for Israel's security or our safety.
What we should fear is becoming like President Johnson's former friends and devouring each other.
David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations agency. Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.