Robert Fisk : My challenge for Steven Spielberg

The Independent — — 01/21/06

Steven Spielberg’s Munich is absolutely brilliant. I can hear readers
groaning already. It won’t open in Britain until next Friday. But in the
United States, Arabs have condemned the movie about the Israeli
assassination of Palestinians after the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at
the Munich Olympics as an anti-Arab diatribe that dehumanises an entire
people suffering dispossession and occupation.

Jewish groups have suggested that Spielberg has dishonoured his Jewish roots
by portraying Mossad agents as criminal, self-doubting murderers who
ultimately come to despise their own country. There must be something
interesting here, I said to myself, as I sat down on the other side of the
Atlantic to watch the director’s blockbuster of murder and bloodshed.

There’s plenty to be appalled by: the killing of the athletes interlocked
with scenes of assassination leader “Avner” copulating with his wife in a
New York apartment; the Israeli murder of a Dutch call girl who has set up a
Mossad killer for assassination – she walks naked and bleeding across the
floor of her canal barge, trying to breathe through the bullet wound in her
breast; and the Middle East cliche of the year. It comes when “Avner” – in
an entirely fictional scene – talks to an armed Palestinian refugee whom he
will later kill. “Tell me something, Ali,” he asks. “Do you really miss your
father’s olive trees?”

Well, of course, “Ali” does rather miss his father’s olive trees. Ask any
Palestinian in the shithouse slums of the Ein el-Helwe, Nahr el-Bared or
Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon and you’ll get the same reply.
It’s a staged, creepy scene in which Avner’s educated, philosophical
approach is contrasted with the harsh, uneducated Palestinian’s anger.

And there’s a lot else wrong. The same Mossad team’s real-life murder of a
perfectly innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway is deleted from the narrative
of the film – thus avoiding, I suppose, the embarrassment of showing one of
the murderers later hiding in the Oslo apartment of the Israeli defence
attache to Norway, a revelation that did not do a lot for
Scandinavian-Israeli relations.

But Spielberg’s movie has crossed a fundamental roadway in Hollywood’s
treatment of the Middle East conflict. For the first time, we see Israel’s
top spies and killers not only questioning their role as avengers but
actually deciding that an “eye for an eye” does not work, is immoral, is
wicked. Murdering one Palestinian gunman – or one Palestinian who
sympathises with the Munich killers – only produces six more to take their
place. One by one, members of the Mossad assassination squad are themselves
hunted down and murdered. Avner even calculates that it costs $1m every time
he liquidates a Palestinian.

And the film’s ending – when Avner’s Mossad minder comes to New York to
persuade him to return to Israel, only to be rebuffed when he fails to
supply evidence of the murdered Palestinians’ guilt, and to walk away in
disgust from Avner’s offer to break bread at his home – suggests for the
first time on the big screen that Israel’s policy of militarism and
occupation is immoral. That the camera then moves to the left of the two men
and picks up a digitalised re-created image of the twin towers through the
haze was what I call a “groaner”. Yes, Steve, I said to myself, thank you –
but we’ve got the message.

Yet that’s the point. This film deconstructs the whole myth of Israeli
invincibility and moral superiority, its false alliances – one of the most
sympathetic characters is an elderly French mafia boss who helps Avner – and
its arrogant assumption that it has the right to engage in state murder
while others do not.

Perhaps inevitably, the author of the book upon which Munich is based –
George Jonas, who wrote Vengeance – has done his best to deconstruct
Spielberg. “One doesn’t reach the moral high ground being neutral between
good and evil,” he says. What turns audiences off the movie is “treating
terrorists as people … in their effort not to demonise humans, Spielberg
and Kushner (Tony Kushner, the chief screenplay writer) end up humanising
demons”. Yes, but – that’s the point isn’t it? Calling humans terrorists
does dehumanise them, whatever their background. The “why?” question –
prohibited after the 11 September 2001 crimes against humanity – is the very
same question every cop asks at the scene of any crime: what was the motive?

Presumably intended to coincide with the movie, Aaron Klein has come out
with a new book on Munich, published by Random House. As one reviewer has
pointed out, he writes of the same Mossad hoods as cold-blooded hit squads
rather than self-doubting mercenaries. In quite another context, it’s
interesting to learn that Klein, a captain in the Israeli army’s
intelligence unit, also happens to be Time magazine’s military affairs
correspondent in Jerusalem. I assume that august pro-Israeli journal will
soon appoint a Hamas member as its military affairs reporter on the West

But again, all this misses the point. It’s not whether Spielberg changes the
characters of his killers – or whether Malta doubles for Beirut in the film
and Budapest for Paris – but that Israel’s whole structure of super-morality
is brought under harsh, bitter self-examination. Towards the end, Avner even
storms into the Israeli consulate in New York because he believes Mossad has
decided to liquidate him too.
So now the real challenge for Spielberg. A Muslim friend once wrote to me to
recommend Schindler’s List, but asked if the director would continue the
story with an epic about the Palestinian dispossession which followed the
arrival of Schindler’s refugees in Palestine. Instead of that, Spielberg has
jumped 14 years to Munich, saying in an interview that the real enemy in the
Middle East is “intransigence”. It’s not. The real enemy is taking other
people’s land away from them.

So now I ask: will we get a Spielberg epic on the Palestinian catastrophe of
1948 and after? Or will we – like those refugees desperate for visas in the
wartime movie Casablanca wait, and wait – and wait?

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