AT A RECENT family gathering, my cousin-in-law, Janice, asked me to respond to complaints she’d read over and over again about “Munich,” the Steven Spielberg film I co-wrote with Eric Roth, which she hadn’t yet seen.
The movie is stirring up a lot of controversy, which I anticipated when I agreed to work on it. I even considered it a side benefit that my mishpocheh, my family, an occasionally argumentative bunch, would have fresh subject matter for the discussion part of our next few Seders. Matzo balls might be flung, but arguing is good for the digestion.
In the last month, the co-creators of “Munich” have been accused of being apologists for the Palestinians, apologists for Israel, defamers of Palestinians and of Israel, softheaded Hollywood liberals, dupes of the radical left, dupes of the radical right, even of being anti-Semitic or self-loathing, for showing Jews talking about receipts and handling money. We’re morally confused, overly complicated, simplistic. We’re cowards who refused to take sides. We took a side but, oops! the wrong side.
I wondered which of the charges Janice had in mind.
Is it the case, she asked, that “Munich” is based on a discredited book, “Vengeance”? No, I answered, it’s based on a book, “Vengeance,” that has been challenged but never discredited -- these are not the same things. There is no definitive account of what was, after all, a covert Mossad operation. But no one is challenging the central historical fact in the debate that “Munich” is meant to catalyze: Palestinians were assassinated by Israel, following the Palestinian murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich.
Next question: Why does the movie show Mossad agents having doubts and regrets about killing terrorists when apparently they never have doubts and regrets? Why did you make that up?
I’ve never killed anyone, but my instincts as a person and a playwright -- and the best books I’ve read about soldiers or cops or people whose jobs bring them into violent physical conflict -- suggest that people in general don’t kill without feeling torn up about it. Violence exacts a psychic toll, unless you’re a sociopath, and who wants to watch a movie about sociopaths?
“Munich” dramatizes the toll violence takes. This bothers a few people at both ends of the political spectrum. I understand why those who think Israeli agents are villainous, unfeeling killing machines disparage our conscience-ridden characters. I’m confused by those who think that a depiction of the agents as conscienceless would make them more impressive and heroic.
Janice asked a third question: Why do I, her cousin-in-law, apparently have a secret plan to destroy Israel?
I have indeed been critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza -- well, Janice knew that already. I’m an American and a proudly Diasporan Jew. I believe that the best hope for any oppressed minority is found in the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law, in secular pluralist democracy. I believe that governments -- and our souls -- are nourished by honesty, open-mindedness and public debate, even of scary ideas and uncomfortable truths. But 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.
This inconvenient complication in my views has been carefully edited out of the caricature of me that’s being offered up by people whose disregard for truth has informed their account of “Munich.” The film is neither the simple cartoon their distortions make of it, nor a mirror image of its wicked screenwriter.
Janice wanted to know why I hadn’t responded to my accusers. I explained that I wanted the film to speak for itself. Janice, and about 100 other people, suggested that maybe, in the midst of this storm of opinion, I could venture to speak a little for the film.
“Munich” is not me or my politics masquerading as a movie. It’s been shaped with remarkable generosity by Steven Spielberg into a historical fiction informed by several perspectives, including mine. We have prescribed nothing more specific for understanding the Mideast conflict, and the dilemma terrorism poses to civilization, than that you allow your unshakable convictions a little breathing room.
I think it’s the refusal of the film to reduce the Mideast controversy, and the problematics of terrorism and counterterrorism, to sound bites and spin that has brought forth charges of “moral equivalence” from people whose politics are best served by simple morality tales. We live in the Shock and Awe Era, in which instant strike-back and blow-for-blow aggression often trump the laborious process of analysis, investigation and diplomacy. “Munich’s” questioning spirit is an affront to armchair warrior columnists who understand power only as firepower. We’re at war, and the job of artists in wartime, they seem to feel, is to provide the kind of characters and situations that are staples of propaganda: cleanly representative of Good or Evil, and obedient to the Message.
Contradiction in human affairs, such as the possibility that injustice can drive people to do horrible things, is routinely deplored and dismissed in these troubled times as just another example of the naivete of the morally weak (a.k.a. liberals and progressives). But there will always be pesky people who, when horrific crimes are committed, insist on asking, “Why did that happen?”
This is a great annoyance to the up-and-at-'em crowd, whose unshakable conviction is that the only sane and effective response to terrorism is savage violence commensurate with the original act. To justify this conviction they offer, as so many of the political critics of “Munich” have done, tautologies on the order of “evil deeds are done by evil people who do evil deeds because that’s what evil people do.” If that’s helpful to you as a tool for understanding terrorism, you won’t like “Munich.”
In the film, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is presented not as a matter of religion versus religion, or sanity versus insanity, or good versus evil or civilization versus barbarism or Judeo-Christian culture versus Muslim culture, but rather as a struggle over territory, over geography, over home.
We’ve followed the lead of many Israeli historians, novelists, filmmakers, poets and politicians who have recognized and described the Israeli-Palestinian struggle this way -- as something tragic and human, recognizable. We’ve incurred the wrath of people who reject, with what sounds like panic, an inescapable fact of human life: People do terrible things in the name of a cause they believe is just, even in the name of a cause that actually is just.
“Munich” insists that this characteristic of human behavior is not meaningless in the struggle against terrorism. In other words, we believe that one aspect of the struggle against terrorism is the struggle to comprehend terrorism. If you think understanding the enemy is unimportant, well, maybe there’s a job in Washington for you.
As I write this, Janice is watching “Munich,” to see for herself what all the fuss is about. It’s long, I warned her; pee first. She’ll e-mail me with her reactions. I eagerly anticipate the conversation. Like most cousins-in-law, we agree and disagree about many things. When we agree, there’s joy or consolation. When we disagree, there’s adrenaline -- and occasionally a spark leaps a previously unleapt synapse, and a new idea is made.