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Jewish World Review Jan. 3, 2006/ 3 Teves, 5766

Suzanne Fields

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Turning Munich into a movie | Munich, 1938. Neville Chamberlain compromises with Hitler and declares, in one of history's most breathtaking moments of naivete bordering on simple-mindedness, that he has made "peace with honor." The Holocaust and World War II promptly follow.

Munich, 1972. Germany hosts the Olympics for the first time since Hitler presided over the 1936 games. The president of the Federal Republic of Germany opens the Olympics as "a milestone on the road to a new way of life, with the aim of realizing peaceful coexistence among peoples." Eight Palestinian terrorists of the "Black September" terror cell burst into the Israeli compound in Olympic Village and take hostages, of whom they will eventually kill 11. Most of the terrorists (and planners) get away.

"Munich," 2005. Steven Spielberg, who made "Schindler's List," one of the best movies about the Holocaust, and "Saving Private Ryan," a brutally realistic World War II movie, bases "Munich" on the aftermath of the evil at the '72 games. Gone is the heroic spirit, the do-or-die sensibility on behalf of fighting evil, the recognition of courage for doing right no matter how high the price or how messy the execution. Instead, the director describes "Munich" as a "prayer for peace." He renders the movie as a politically correct piety that is the moral equivalent of Chamberlain's prayer for "peace in our time." (Neither Chamberlain nor Spielberg identifies the gullible deity prayed to.)

The movie's less than subtle subtext invokes the Iraq War, suggesting that the violent American response to Islamist violence, like the violence required of Israel to protect itself, can only beget a circle of blood and death in which nobody wins.

The movie plot is simple. Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, gives orders to a squad of five "foot soldiers" to track down and kill the members of Black September who got away. The aim is not revenge but to prevent the terrorists from killing again, something the German hosts would not or could not do. In the words of Prime Minister Golda Meir: "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." So far, fair enough.

The Israeli avengers start out as tough, cold warriors doing what's right for their country. Like the American soldiers dispatched to save Private Ryan, they can kill up close, looking their victims in the eye, dispatching evil men who intend to kill again. As difficult as it is to watch, we feel safer knowing the avengers are willing to do that.

But Mr. Spielberg can't resist bringing into admiring focus the stereotypical guilt-ridden, agonizing Jew, willing to conspire in his own destruction, the stereotype whom the Israelis long ago replaced. He turns the resolute idealistic Israeli leader of the squad of avengers into a vulnerable, hesitant, self-questioning Hamlet, suffering from what can only be characterized in post-modern terms as "post (paranoid) traumatic stress syndrome." In this scenario, which has no recognizable basis in actual fact, the enemy morphs from the Palestinian terrorist into the Israeli government.

Mr. Spielberg insists he doesn't want to demonize anybody, so to avoid doing that he demonizes the Israelis, ignoring the reality that Palestinian terrorists started all this by bursting in on sleeping Jews. Because we don't see much of the terrorists, except in brief cinematic flashbacks, we don't hear about the murder of civilians, usually women and children, in airports and markets over the years. The movie dispatches the Mossad to operate without context, without precedent. There's no hint that payback, dealt from strength, is meant to inhibit future terrorists.

Curiously, at the end, the camera pans the New York City skyline, with the Twin Towers standing prominently tall. "Had to show them," Spielberg tells Time magazine. The terrorism that began in the Middle East has come at last to our shore. Mr. Spielberg insists he didn't mean for the pan to the Twin Towers to carry "resonance" with the murder of the Israeli athletes. But why else would he put the scene there but to suggest, in a heavy-handed way, that just as Israeli violence begets violence, the violent American response to September 11 will only beget violence?

Mr. Spielberg's movie, which is entertainment after all, can ignore the "clash of civilizations" and its deadly implications, but the rest of us cannot. When warring with evil, the civilized world must be wary of negotiating compromises with its cherished values. It's a matter of life or death.

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© 2005, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate