To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s remarkably acerbic critique of Steven Spielberg’s Munich [February 2006] is replete with impetuous and irrational conclusions at best, and slanderous accusations at worst. The first of Mr. Schoenfeld’s political condemnations centers on the film’s supposed moral equivalency between terrorists and their victims. As evidence, Mr. Schoenfeld cites a scene in which he claims that “the names of all those who perished at Munich, Israeli athletes and Palestinian terrorists alike, are read out in measured and doleful tones.”
This, however, simply did not happen. Rather, the scene cuts from a news reporter reciting the Israelis’ names to a Mossad officer listing the names of the terrorists about to be targeted for assassination. If this careful editing of the scene suggests anything at all, it is the contrast between living perpetrator and dead victim—their names are not read together as one equal group, rather as two distinct parties. And though the editing might imply that the terrorists and athletes share the same fate, the scene never suggests that the terrorists’ impending death is unjustified or equivalent to that of the Israelis.
Mr. Schoenfeld also argues that the film never presents “a reasoned argument for striking back. . . . National security? Self-defense? Deterrence? Justified retribution? None of these considerations is invoked in all the film’s talk and debate.” Again, this is simply untrue. Mr. Schoenfeld may have chosen not to include them in his piece, but that does not mean they are not in the film. Golda Meir tells her audience, “Forget peace for now. We have to show them we’re strong.” This surely fits under the deterrence category, if not the self-defense category as well. Ephraim, the Mossad case officer, says: “We kill for our future. We kill for peace.” It seems that he is arguing for striking back in the name of Israel’s national security and self-defense.
Mr. Schoenfeld says the film suggests that “there has been a systematic killing by Jews of innocent Arabs.” His proof lies in a few quotes from the doubting Mossad agents who demand to be shown evidence that their targets do in fact have bloody hands. Yet, at no point in the film are we told that the terrorists they are seeking to kill are innocent. To conclude from these brief quotations that the film actually means to portray the Israelis as terrorists, killing innocents, is reckless and rash.
Finally comes Mr. Schoenfeld’s most egregious accusation: “a kind of bloodlust, we have been given to understand [by the film], is a default feature of the Israeli mentality.” His evidence here is supplied by two quotations from supporting characters who rejoice after killing Palestinian terrorists. Yet Mr. Schoenfeld himself tells us that the protagonist Avner is “a man so wracked by guilt that he rejects Israel.” One is left wondering what Mr. Schoenfeld wants from our Israeli heroes. He does not like that certain agents have doubts and are not bloodthirsty, but he also does not like that other Israeli agents are proud, sure, “heartless,” and “methodical” in their actions.
Why, in the end, would Steven Spielberg, who has done so much to preserve the memory of murdered Jews, make a film portraying the Israelis as “evil”? And if he really felt they were evil, why shroud it in so much ambiguity? I believe Spielberg accomplished a remarkable feat in producing a balanced film that also honors the memory of murdered Israeli athletes. Mr. Schoenfeld’s scathing attack is dangerous, irrational, and unjustified.
Alon Shevut, Israel
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld writes that Avner, disaffected with his mission and living in New York, “begins to suspect that he and his family are being targeted for death by the Mossad.” This is a complete fantasy, totally unsupported by anything in the film. Avner is in fact shown telephoning the French anarchist contacts he had dealt with because he is afraid that they had sold him out.
Mr. Schoenfeld also never acknowledges that in the viewer’s experience of the film the Israelis are the good guys and the terrorists are the bad guys. Whatever moral complexity may be present in the script does not change that fact.
Montclair, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld seems bothered that Munich was not conceived as a work of propaganda for Israel. Every scene or action that does not present Israel and Israelis as if in a tourist brochure is taken as evidence of the film’s “pernicious” anti-Israel bias. But is it really so implausible that a Mossad agent assigned to avenge would be gripped with feelings of guilt, that he could feel mistrust and bitterness toward his government, that a superior could be fastidious about expenses, that another agent could say “The only blood I care about is Jewish blood!”? By taking these perfectly plausible occurrences as evidence of the bias he imagines, Mr. Schoenfeld seems to forget that this is not the way a dramatic film operates. Colorful, interesting characters cannot be drawn to pass Mr. Schoenfeld’s or anyone else’s ideological test, unless one prefers Stalinist art.
Besides, it might be said that Spielberg cleaned up the story of Munich, omitting those aspects of it that are less flattering to Israel. As the critic Steve Sailer has pointed out, Munich skips the 1973 mistaken-identity fiasco in Lillehammer, Norway, where Mossad agents gunned down an innocent Moroccan waiter, and also does not dwell on various plausible ways, including torture, that the Mossad might have obtained leads into the whereabouts of wanted Palestinians.
In the assassinations we do see, the movie makes clear the pains the agents take to refrain from killing innocent life.
All in all, I thought the movie was pretty balanced.
Lee W. Michaels
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld is quite right to note that, in Munich, Israel’s campaign to eliminate the murderers behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics is never justified “with a reasoned argument”; that, with the partial exception of their leader Avner, the principal characters in the Israeli hit team are “essentially stick figures” blindly following orders; and that in general Israel’s assassination campaign is portrayed as resting on a deeply equivocal moral foundation. In a key moment cited by Mr. Schoenfeld, Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister, rationalizes her country’s campaign with the line, “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”
In short, the message is that Israel’s actions in fighting terrorism, like the actions of the West today in its battle against Islamofascism, are properly subject to a fundamental and recurring moral doubt. And therein lies Steven Spielberg’s own deadly and disabling delusion. For, when she sent Israelis to kill the terrorists, Golda Meier was emphatically not negotiating “compromises” with her values. She was upholding those values, and no value higher than that of protecting innocent life from wanton political violence.
To the terrorist, violence against the innocent is a deliberate strategy. In the West, violence against the innocent is forbidden. Indeed, it must be forbidden: does not basic liberty require at least this much? Once the category of the innocent becomes subject to doubt, so does Western political culture.
In Spielberg’s world, there are no moral absolutes, no boundaries, no fixed standards, and hence neither practical guidelines nor agreed-upon principles by which to distinguish a terrorist from a freedom fighter, or from a counter-terrorist. There is only praiseworthy doubt—the doubt, for example, of Av-ner, a character sympathetically pictured by Spielberg as beset with introspection and second thoughts, psychologically adrift, a man literally without a home.
In the real world, by contrast, reflection on the principles of one’s civilization can enable one to identify the minimal conditions for its perpetuation, and to act on that understanding. “Our [Western] conception of morality has little power over the terrorist,” writes the real Avner in a foreword to the recent reissue of George Jonas’s Vengeance, and he adds (in words quoted by Mr. Schoenfeld) that “if I had to do it all over again, I would make the same choice I made when Golda Meir approached me more than 30 years ago.”
Avner remains “proud that I was able to serve my country in this way.” In fact he served not only his country but Western civilization itself, which will survive only if it continues to embrace, and to fight for, the value of its own values. Whether the subject is Hitler’s Holocaust, 9/11, Munich, the intifada, or the London bombings, no Western value can be less susceptible of doubt than the inviolability of the innocent. In falsely portraying Avner as tormented by equivocation on this score, Munich shows only the reflexive doubts of Steven Spielberg and those who think like him—doubts that, by diluting the moral clarity of this most basic premise of Western culture, serve ultimately to enable the mindset of the terrorist.
Martin J. Gross
Livingston, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s review should be mandatory reading for those planning to see Spielberg’s Munich. Spielberg’s intention may have been to demonstrate the moral ambiguities involved in seeking revenge against terrorists. But what he produced instead is a film laden with vicious stereotypes. Israelis are depicted as money-grubbing, demonic characters, counting the cost of each kill and performing dastardly deeds by the dozens. The terrorists, on the other hand, are softened and humanized and have little or no connection to actual acts of terror. The movie is also a jumble of cause and effect.
The massacre of the Israeli athletes is made to seem more like a response to Israeli “atrocities.”
Spielberg’s Munich is a false accounting of history.
To the Editor:
Bravo to Gabriel Schoenfeld for his careful look at Spielberg’s Munich. My question is: did Mr. Schoenfeld really expect anything better? Were it not for Steven Spielberg’s bona fides as a conscientious Jew thanks to his production of Schindler’s List and his participation in various Holocaust-remembrance projects, there would be nothing remarkable about the politically correct distortions of Munich. The film would simply stand as yet another example of Hollywood’s contorting history in order to award the moral high ground to the downtrodden victim du jour.
Like so many others in the entertainment industry, Spielberg exudes sympathy for Jews as long as they are incapable of defending themselves and while being maimed and martyred by their enemies. But after living Jews have achieved the power and means to protect themselves, the sympathy is withdrawn.
Lisa C. Feldman
New York City
To the Editor:
The film Munich brought back vivid memories of the massacre that took place 34 years ago. Mr. Schoenfeld’s incisive comments about the movie are directly on point. Steven Spielberg’s film depicts the human side of terrorists while telling us nothing about the murdered Israeli athletes. I, for one, am appalled by Spielberg’s “balanced” view.
Delray Beach, Florida
To the Editor:
I saw Munich with a friend at Christmas. Neither of us is Jewish, or particularly aware of Jewish issues, but I was unhappy with the way the movie petered out in doubt and pointlessness. Then I read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s eye-opening essay. He make the movie’s deceptions and dishonesty very clear. I hope his article circulates far and wide.
To the Editor:
Steven Spielberg’s Munich was billed as a fair depiction of one episode in the Arab-Israeli conflict, ostensibly giving voice to both sides in an unbiased manner. After seeing the film I was satisfied with this assessment—until I read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s illuminating article, which pulls back the curtain and shown us who is pulling the strings. Mr. Schoenfeld’s work represents criticism at its best. Munich has merits as a film, but evenhandedness is not among them.
Fort Benning, Georgia
Gabriel Schoenfeld writes:
It is possible that Josh Yunis and Emanuel Goldman have seen variant versions of Spielberg’s Munich from the one I saw, but more likely we have seen the same film quite differently. Either way, I am flattered that Mr. Yunis finds my essay “dangerous,” and I sincerely hope that he is right about that. About almost everything else, he is either half wrong or worse, and the single thing he gets mostly right is without consequence.
The names read off at the beginning of the movie are, as Mr. Yunis states, not those of the Arab terrorists who have just died at Munich but those of the terrorist planners who are being marked for death by the Mossad. But viewers cannot learn the identity of the men behind those Arabic names unless they immediately write them down and then match (or rather fail to match) them with the terrorists—or unless they watch the film twice. Moreover, as Mr. Yunis neglects to say but as I pointed out in my article, while the names are being read aloud, we see on the screen “a grief-stricken Israeli family and a grief-stricken Palestinian family; then another grief-stricken Israeli family and another grief-stricken Palestinian family; and so forth.” Could there be a more vivid example of moral equivalence between victims and victimizers? In this respect, Steven Spielberg is indeed, as Mr. Yunis avers, a careful editor of film.
It is true that, as Mr. Yunis also reports, the film has Golda Meir saying, “Forget peace for now. We have to show them we’re strong.” And it is again true that Avner’s case officer says, “We kill for our future. We kill for peace.” According to Mr. Yunis, these brief statements provide a clear rationale for Israel’s retaliatory action. It seems to have escaped his notice that both remarks are saturated with irony—not the irony committed by a speaker for conscious effect but the irony of an author or director whose intent is to discredit the speech of a character before his audience. The assertion that Israel must “kill for peace” is an Orwellian inversion whose ironic significance in the context of this film should be plain to anyone not intent on shutting his eyes and stuffing his ears.
Mr. Yunis argues that my view of the Mossad agents is contradictory. On the one hand, I say that Spielberg has imbued them with a kind of “bloodlust.” On the other hand, I say that they—and Avner in particular—harbor doubts and are increasingly wracked by guilt. I do say both things, but there is no contradiction. The Israeli killers begin their mission full of bloodlust. (“Drink some wine, we’re celebrating,” says one, after their first kill. “I am not celebrating: I am goddamn rejoicing,” responds another.) But as their mission proceeds, and their education in evil deepens, the celebrations cease and the anguished denunciations of Israel and of themselves commence. There is nothing “impetuous” or “irrational” or “slanderous” in pointing such things out.
To Emanuel Goldman, my assertion that Avner begins to suspect that he and his family are being targeted for death by the Mossad “is a complete fantasy.” Yet this “fantasy” happens to coincide with the reality portrayed by the film. Toward the very end, not long after he has been frightened by a limousine that appears to be shadowing him on a Brooklyn street, Avner barges into the Israeli consulate, strides past security guards into the office of the resident Mossad chief, and shouts: “I won’t hesitate to kill other people’s children if you hurt my children. Leave my family alone. . . . I’ll go to the newspapers, I’ll tell everything, I’ll give names, if you don’t leave my family alone.” Somehow, to me, this sounds as if Avner believes the Mossad is out to kill him and his wife and child.
Mr. Goldman complains that I never acknowledge what the viewer experiences: “the Israelis are the good guys and the terrorists are the bad guys.” Yes, the Israelis turn out to be good guys, but only in the sense that, as the film progresses, they come to doubt the morality of their mission. Avner, because he renounces Israel and moves to the United States, is the best good guy of the lot.
And the terrorists? The ones who are killed by the Mossad team seem like very pleasant and engaging types: poetry-reciting, piano-playing, Swedish-teaching, olive-growing, charming, fatherly, and, by the way, wholly innocent of any connection to terrorism. Some bad guys.
Lee W. Michaels is on to something important when he states that Munich could have mounted an even more forceful assault on Israel, either by dwelling on the Lillehammer incident or by emphasizing Israeli brutality and torture. But if Spielberg had gone for blatant demonization, the game would have been up. As it is, with the assistance of the screenwriter Tony Kush- ner (whose repeated ultra- left-wing denunciations of Israel my critics fail to mention), he has put together a movie that makes some Israelis look decent while making the state of Israel look indecent.
Munich is hardly a crude work of anti-Israel agitprop. It was written and produced with a measure of subtlety. This, along with its graphic depictions of violence, is what makes it so powerful—and why I still believe it deserved an Oscar for being the most pernicious film of 2005. Alas for Steven Spielberg, it won neither that Oscar nor any other.
I thank all of my correspondents and especially John Bennett, Lisa C. Feldman, Martin J. Gross, Marty Saepoff, Jenene Stookesberry, and Jocelyn Tomkin for their warm reactions.