Munich: A Potent Look Through the Looking Glass and Back Again
A Tale of Fundamental Rights and Fervent Righteousness

There is a moment in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, a statement uttered in the climax of a scene, which was featured in the film’s trailer and which is seen by some as the moment for the movie, the point of the entire three hours of film, neatly summed up in a single sentence. It is just before Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, gives the order for Mossad to target and eliminate eleven Palestinian terrorists. She pauses and then remarks, quietly but confidently, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Such a thought implies that the actions portrayed in the film by the Israelis are immoral – immoral and, yet, permissible – unacceptable and, yet, necessary. If this thought were to be considered true then it becomes an excuse for a person to sacrifice his or her beliefs in the pursuit of a supposedly higher cause. Yes, it becomes an excuse for vigilante justice but, eventually, it can be pulled so thin as to become an excuse for the events of the 1972 Olympics. Thankfully, however, this sentiment is not the gist of Munich; Munich is about the exact opposite. Munich is a film about the difficult choices one must make in order to defend oneself without compromising one’s values, the recognition that sometimes that which may appear to be immoral is actually the only contextually moral course of action and that, still, we must be saddened by the fact that we are left with no other choice. Munich is about the thin line that separates the righteous from the self-righteous, a necessary line in an undeclared war that has ravaged the Middle East for too many years. Munich is about the fact that Golda Meir had to pause before giving the order for soldiers to kill soldiers (but still gave the order) whereas Black September’s soldiers did not hesitate to kill civilians.

To many of the world, it seems as if the conflict in the Middle East is very little more than a “sky’s the limit” attack and retaliation game, each side so intent on response that the original source of conflict has been almost entirely forgotten. It is just land, after all. What’s a few acres of desert between twenty-first century global citizens? Munich sums it up in one word: home. Both sides fight for what each considers to be his home, a tiny corner in a large world, that is a nation’s own. Who can understand the longing for home, the despair of exile, as well as the Jews? Maybe no one can, but, then again, maybe the Palestinians can. The irony of the situation would be laughable if it wasn’t so bloody. In a different world, the Palestinians would have found no better ally than the Jewish People, a people who know only too well the plight of the suffering and who have, throughout history, been among the first to champion the cause of the downtrodden. The irony of the situation would be ironic if only the reverse were true. But, it is because the Palestinians do not weep for the pain of the Jews (It must be noted that this is a generalization which reflects Palestinian public policy and the attitude of their various terrorist organizations; it would be impossible to accurately gauge the response of every single Palestinian.) that the comparison between the two sides – while in many ways obvious and accurate – must be cautiously mitigated.

It is the tragic irony of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and its murky limitations that compels me to declare my gratitude to Steven Spielberg for making this film. In doing so, Spielberg has clarified and immortalized the many similarities between the Israelis and the Palestinians and, more importantly, Spielberg has highlighted the minute distinction between Israel and Palestine, a difference that makes all the difference. A difference that Jews must be careful to preserve and that the Palestinians would do well to adopt. For giving the Palestinians a voice, and a (minus the quintessential Yiddish accent) very Jewish sounding voice, some have accused Spielberg of being too pro-Palestinian. After all, the movie is a direct reference to the murder of eleven innocent Israelis by a Palestinian political group for the Palestinian cause. Don’t their methods negate their right to sympathy? No, they don’t. They can’t. Because, as four of the main characters realize and reiterate throughout the film, that would not be the Jewish thing to do. We are commanded to be good to the stranger because we too were once strangers. We must be respectful of our slaves because we too were once slaves. And, we cannot forget, when dealing with the Palestinians, that they fight for something which our nation has yearned for, for centuries. Still, at the same moment that we cannot forget our compassion, we must not allow this to blind us into passivity. Jewish law, while being built on the theme of peace and love for all life, commands us to respond swiftly and violently against anyone who would move to destroy a life. Sometimes a Jew must kill – this is a moral obligation – but a Jew does not rejoice over the fallen body of his enemy. This is what separates a Jew from his enemy. Sometimes this is the only thing that separates a Jew from his enemy, when the cause is identical. But, it is enough.

Munich is based on a book entitled “Vengeance.” The name change is indicative of the complexity of the film. This is not a movie about vengeance; that would make it a movie about the already-dead, about the past. Five Israelis did not undertake a mission to avenge the lives of Israelis who were already dead; the mission was about the Israelis who were still living. This is a film about the future, the years after Munich. Which makes it an exceptionally difficult film to watch because their future is our past. The bloodshed and war they hoped to avoid have become footnotes in our children’s history books. We know as fact what they speculate about and we have an ever-rising body count to support our story. Munich is, at one time, a cautionary tale three decades too late, and a Shakespearean tragedy that only fully culminates in the three decades since it began.  Munich seems to accept this role of pseudo-warning and pseudo-explanation with a calm that belies the horror it contains. Perhaps that is because Munich knows that, as Plato wrote, “only the dead know how the war ends.” As such, it is a film that successfully refuses to be an act of vengeance; it aspires to be an agent of change.

Because Munich is not merely a historical re-enactment, because Munich is directly referencing a battle that continues today, the film becomes invaluable. It is uncomfortable to know one’s enemy (that’s why wartime propaganda is so popular) and it would be much better to be fighting a monster than a brother. However, more often than not, a war is fought on opposing sides of a twisted mirror. That does not mean that a soldier should not fight for the rights of his nation. On the contrary, whereas two wrongs don’t make a right, Munich explicitly indicates that two rights make the Middle East conflict. Still, a just cause does not make any defence of that cause just and not everything that one does in protection of a right is right. It is what one does, while being wronged, that separates the heroes from the terrorists. 

At one point, in Munich, a member of the PLO remarks that he and his people will wait as long as is necessary to get back Palestine and, in the meantime, they will have children and their children will have children. And, he adds, they learnt such patience from the Jews. His point is clear – we are not so different. That is true and it must be remembered. Still, the film is about Israelis who doubt whether their actions are justified, and Palestinians who justify their doubtful actions. It is about Palestinian terrorists who in their dying breaths make certain to take eleven innocent lives with them and Israeli soldiers who, at great risk to their lives and their mission, abort their attempted assassination of a Palestinian rather than take one innocent life. Both sides agree that home is worth dying for and worth killing for but these are not the crucial choices in war. It is how you die and how you kill that makes the difference. Two similar actions, borne from identical motivations can still stand on opposite sides of the line between right and wrong. While the Palestinians are learning patience from the Jews, Munich warns Israel: do not learn desperation from the Palestinians. And, while the Israelis are being forced by the world to face the suffering of the Palestinians, Munich warns Palestine: do not rejoice when your enemy falls. Munich calls to both sides and dares to remind everyone that the dead may know how the war ends but only the living can determine how the peace starts.

Dodi-Lee Hecht