“The best baklava is made by the Arabs in Jaffa,” insists the Mossad case officer to his chief agent in charge of assassinating those Palestinians Israel claims planned the Munich operation of 1972. Besides being excellent baklava-makers, we learn little else in Steven Spielberg’s film Munich about Jaffa’s Palestinians, the majority of whom were pushed into the sea by Zionist forces in May 1948. Many drowned while the rest escaped on boats to Lebanon and were never allowed to return. Munich is not about these Palestinians; it is emphatically about Israeli Jews and Israeli terrorism. In the context of Hollywood’s cinematic history, Munich is not the first film to discuss Israeli terror, Otto Preminger’s 1960 film Exodus was in essence a celebration of Jewish terrorism. Like Exodus, Munich poses moral questions about terrorist methods and whether the end justifies the means as it chronicles the pangs of conscience troubling Israeli terrorists while they murder Palestinian poets, writers, and politicians across Europe and in Lebanon. To a considerable extent, Munich is already having the same impact on American audiences and is playing the same role as Exodus did in legitimizing Israeli policies and the Zionist project.
Exodus was the major cinematic achievement of the Zionist movement. The film popularized the Zionist cause and remains inspirational to young American and European Zionists. The film was most effective in staging the determination and desperation of the Zionist leadership, which was depicted as having no choice but to conquer Palestine and make it the Jewish State. Exodus tells the story of the Zionist hijacking of a ship from Cyprus to Palestine by a Zionist Haganah commander, Ari Ben Canaan, who threatens to blow it up with 200 pounds of dynamite killing 611 Jewish men, women, and children. The film depicts the Jewish refugees as in agreement with the plan and vote in favor of it, rendering the terrorist threat a suicide bombing. Indeed Jewish mothers refuse to let the children off the ship when Ben Canaan asks them to, insisting that their children should die with them in the event they carry out the suicide bombing.
Exodus insists that Ben Canaan’s threat of suicide bombing was not an idle one. As in the extra-fictional world, which the film references, the Zionists had indeed blown up a similar ship in November 1940 killing 242 Jewish refugees. When questioned by a young American widow about the purpose of sacrificing so many lives, Ben Canaan tells her “call it publicity, a stunt to attract attention.” He avers that “each person aboard this ship is a soldier. The only weapon we have to fight with is our willingness to die.” While the Haganah is shown in the film as engaging in suicide bombings to achieve its goals, it is contrasted with the terrorist Irgun whose terrorist goals in the film targeted the British specifically (but not the Arabs!) and were not suicidal. Exodus finally reconciles whatever misgivings it has about Irgun-style terrorism with its approved version of Haganah-style suicide-bombings, in the interest of unifying both forces for the purpose of establishing the Jewish State. The Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, stolen as it is from gentile Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poems Má Vlast (the second poem, to be exact), is played ad nauseam in the film to drive the effect home. The major achievement of Exodus besides disseminating the Zionist story was to eliminate the Palestinian people, whose lands and lives were being robbed by the Zionist project, from the equation. Munich need not dabble with such existential questions, as the matter of Israel’s existence on stolen Palestinian lands and at the expense of Palestinian lives has been settled in Exodus. Munich simply wants to update the story. Script co-writer Tony Kushner was clear on this point in a recent article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times: “my criticism of Israel has always been accompanied by declarations of unconditional support of Israel’s right to exist, and I believe that the global community has a responsibility to defend that right. I have written and spoken of my love for Israel.”
When only one Palestinian, Taha, is allowed to speak in Exodus, he is permitted to do so in order to praise Zionism. Taha in fact drinks a toast “Lechaim” to the Zionist conquest of his people’s land and lives. Exodus is invested in depicting Jewish colonists as ultra-civilized compared to the Palestinians, shown throughout the film in Bedouin garb (parading as village and city apparel) as a measure of their backwardness. Munich employs similar cinematic tactics, even though when it shows Palestinians in Western “civilized” garb, it reminds viewers that they are no different from those who live in Arab villages. If Ari Ben Canaan is a cultured man who knows his way around a restaurant menu of French food and wine, Munich’s Avner Kaufman is a gourmet cook and a sensual lover, although he has questionable taste in erotic fantasies. Unlike Exodus’s more protracted focus on a number of characters, Munich focuses exclusively on the character of Avner, exploring his inner conflict, his love for his wife and yearning for his newly born child, as well as his troubled relationship with his parents –the generational connections it makes are illustrative of an established past for Jewish colonists in Israel and an uncertain future to come for their grandchildren.
The film also describes the moral conflicts of the other members of Avner’s terrorist cell, inspired by what Robert, the explosives expert, presents as Jewish ethics. Robert, who learned his expertise at the hands of the Israeli secret police, the Shin Bet, is unable to reconcile his Jewish ethics with his Israeli training and finally quits the killing spree. He is reminiscent of Dov Landau, the young Irgun explosives expert in Exodus who had learned his skills from the Nazis in Auschwitz when he had to dynamite the ground to make trenches for the burial of exterminated Jews. Unlike Munich’s Robert, Landau had no qualms about killing Jews, Arabs, and Britons when he blew up the King David Hotel. Landau’s major trauma as presented in the film was not his internment in Auschwitz or his witnessing the gassing of Jews and participating in burying them, the only thing that made him cry was his rape by the Nazis (“they used me as you would use a woman”), which impelled him to join the Irgun as a restorative act of his lost manhood. Robert in contrast has little problem sharing a homoerotic moment of dancing with Steve in celebration and rejoicing after they murder Wa’il Zu’aytar in Rome. The sexual politics of Zionism have certainly progressed, or so we are led to believe watching Munich.
The moral qualms that Robert and other members of the terrorist cell express strike the educated viewer as uncanny, since documentary accounts of and interviews with Mossad agents show them to have strong ideological commitment and determination to kill enemy Palestinians with no moral questioning. It is some of the diaspora Jewish supporters of Israel who infrequently feign moral dilemmas (on occasion, also, Israelis feign them when called upon to perform before the international media). Spielberg being one of them expressed his dilemmas in clear terms to the London Times, namely that he and his family “love Israel, we support Israel, we have unqualified support for Israel, which has struggled, surrounded by enemies, ever since its statehood was declared … I feel very proud to stand right alongside all of my friends in Israel; and yet I can ask questions about these very, very sensitive issues between Israelis and Palestinians and the whole quest for a homeland.” Munich is a film in which Spielberg, Kushner, and similar-minded diaspora supporters, and not Israeli Mossad agents, may recognise themselves.
The moral questions that Munich poses have more to do with the souls of Israeli Jews. In that, it does not deviate much from Zionist propaganda, which has always claimed that Jewish soldiers “shoot and cry.” Indeed, Golda Meir, who is depicted in the film as a righteous and lovable leader, had once said “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.” It is this racist sentiment which structures the story Munich wants to tell. The fact that Palestinian violence was in response to Zionist conquest and murder is immaterial to Spielberg’s reasoning, nor the fact that many Palestinians are willing to forgive Israeli Jews for the continued theft of their lands and livelihoods, the continued oppression they visit upon all Palestinian communities in Palestine and the diaspora, and for the major role Israeli and diaspora Jews play in the Israeli and Western media in transforming Palestinians from victims of Israeli terror into perpetrators of it. Spielberg, who is at any rate an active participant in such media depictions, humanizes Israeli terrorists in Munich but expectedly not the Palestinian terrorists who are portrayed as having no conscience. It seems that unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinians shoot but do not cry! We see the Israeli murderers laugh, cry, make love, cook, eat, kill, regret, question authority, but we also see them lose their souls. It is true that Munich wonders whether the policy of terrorism that Golda Meir unleashed out of anguish at the murder of Israeli athletes might have been misguided, but the film insists that it is none other than the Palestinians who forced the choice of terror on Israel. Munich’s point of contention with Meir’s policy rests on the film’s claim that because Jews have a morally superior code, Israel need not respond to the Palestinians in kind, a sentiment articulated by Robert, the explosives-expert.
Some of the legitimacy that Spielberg and Kushner hope the film will receive comes from the dissatisfaction of Zionists with it, which to the US media confirms Munich’s “objectivity.” This is hardly different from how Sharon’s policies are presented as “fair” when opposed by Palestinians and Israelis who are to the right of Sharon. While this simple-minded tactic works with naïve US audiences, it has a harder time being persuasive to more savvy ones outside the country.
Like in Exodus, Palestinians in Munich ventriloquise the worst that Zionist propaganda says they say. If the good Palestinian in Exodus was the collaborator Taha, who was killed by the Palestinians for his treason, Munich offers the terrorist Ali who is killed by the Israelis for not being like Taha, confirming that the only good Palestinian is a dead Palestinian. As for the rest of the Palestinian people, Munich, like the Israeli authorities, hopes that they stick to making baklava and stop resisting Israeli oppression, resistance which forces Israel to kill them and which in turn forces moral dilemmas on Spielberg, Kushner, and some of Israel’s other supporters in the diaspora.
Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. His book The Persistence of the Palestinian Question will be published by Routledge in February 2006.