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News and Op/Ed

 The new film Munich by Steven Spielberg opened to mixed reaction in the Jewish community. Read below praise by Ron Bihovsky and criticism by Calev Ben-David.

Dear Steven Spielberg: Unsolicited advice regarding Munich

Munich by Steven Spielberg 
I hope you will not think me presumptuous, but given our long relationship I feel entitled to offer you some unsolicited advice regarding Munich, your new movie scheduled to premiere later this month.

Our relationship began of course back in 1971 when I saw your first feature film, the thrilling made-for-TV movie Duel, and later enthusiastically described it in detail to my friends. It continued during my years at the NYU film school, when I defended Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. - and yes, even 1941 - as the works of a true cinematic artist, and not simply the proficient technician some of my fellow movie mavens initially took you for.

I felt vindicated when you deepened the range of your creative palette by tackling such darker and more complex material as The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Amistad. And how personally gratified I felt when you finally grappled with your own Jewish background by making the brilliant and wrenching Schindler's List .

Now you are preparing to release Munich, which focuses on the Mossad operation that set out to track down and assassinate the Palestinian perpetrators of the terror attack on the 1972 Olympics that left 11 Israeli athletes dead. Sight unseen, the movie is already raising serious concerns - and no wonder.

It was certainly surprising that in preparing for the film you chose not to personally speak with any of the surviving participants, both Israeli and Palestinian, of the events your film describes. This is even more disturbing in light of reports that one of your source materials is the George Jonas book Vengeance, whose account of the Munich massacre aftermath has been largely discredited since it was first published. No wonder that former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, who oversaw the operation, has publicly taken your research methods to task.

Also disturbing was your choice of American-Jewish playwright Tony Kushner, an outspoken left-wing critic of Israel, to co-write the screenplay of Munich. Kushner has gone on record in declaring that "Zionism is an unappealing and problematic heritage" and "Zionism aimed at the establishment of a national identity is predicated on a reading of Jewish history and an interpretation of the meaning of Jewish history that I don't share."

Nor, Steven, was I reassured by your one official media statement issued during the filming of Munich last summer: "Viewing Israel's response to Munich through the eyes of the men who were sent to avenge that tragedy adds a human dimension to a horrific episode that we usually think about only in political or military terms. By experiencing how the implacable resolve of these men to succeed in their mission slowly gave way to troubling doubts about what they were doing, I think we can learn something important about the tragic standoff we find ourselves in today."

Steven, I can't imagine who in the world you believe thinks about the Munich massacre "only in political or military terms." Nor is there any real evidence that the Israeli agents who carried out the retaliatory attacks "gave way to troubling doubts."

One such agent was the Mossad's legendary blonde femme fatale Sylvia Rafael, who took direct part in the most undeniably tragic episode of that mission - the 1974 killing in Lillehammer, Norway, of an innocent Moroccan waiter mistaken for Ali Hassan Salameh, the Black September's operations chief in Europe. Even though Rafael expressed deep regret for that error after she and five others were subsequently caught and jailed in Norway, she went to her grave last year in her native South Africa never having expressed any doubts, public or private (according to her husband, the Norwegian lawyer who represented her in the Lillehammer case), about the overall worth of her mission.

And what is the "tragic standoff" you are referring to? Surely not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even though that situation may still be far from a resolution, it is equally far from a "stand-off"; there has been in fact tremendous progress made since 1972, when neither the Israeli nor Palestinian leaderships even recognized each other's right to national self-determination.

What I really suspect, Steven, is that you are using Munich as a means of commenting, in your own way, on the situation of the United States in a post-9/11 reality. But by setting those concerns against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you will cleverly sidestep having to contend with the kind of overwhelming backlash you would face if your movie made any direct politically charged controversial statements about America's own current war on terror.

For example, I certainly think it unlikely that you would have made a movie about a terror attack against American citizens without first having consulted, or at least taken into account, the concerns of the surviving family members of the victims. Yet that is exactly what you have done with Munich, earning a rebuke on Israeli television from Ilana Romano, whose husband, weightlifter Joseph Romano, was among those slain at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Perhaps you don't know, Steven, but Ilana Romano has led a struggle for decades to see those victims memorialized by the International Olympics Committee by a proper mention made of the Munich tragedy during the official remarks of the opening ceremony at the quadrennial summer games. Yet the IOC has steadfastly refused that request, citing the anti-Israeli sensibilities of some of its participatory nations (presumably such as Iran, which at the 2004 Athens Olympics deliberately forfeited a scheduled wrestling match rather than have an Iranian athlete compete against an Israeli contender, yet received no penalty from the IOC).

Steven, despite all this, given our long cinematic relationship I'm still willing to go see Munich with an open mind in the hope you prove my concerns wrong, and if not, we will still have Arthur Cohn's superb documentary One Day in September as the definitive film about these events. But frankly, I am already disappointed. Surely the creator of Schindler's List knows that a filmmaker has a responsibility beyond just his directorial duties when he or she decides to tackle a real-life tragedy fresh enough to still have survivors living among us.

I notice, according to several reports, that in preparation for Munich you have retained the services of Allan Mayer, "a crisis P.R. specialist with Los Angeles-based Sitrick and Company who has advised Spielberg for several years."

Well, I'm no "Hollywood crisis specialist," but for what it's worth, Steven, here's my two cents' worth: Even before your film comes out, you might consider expressing your support for efforts by the survivors of the Munich victims to finally get due recognition from the IOC.

And if not that, at the very least you should pick up the phone and give Ilana Romano the call she, and several others, deserve. I'm sure that bit of advice will sound a little familiar.

By Calev Ben-David. Reprinted with the permission of the Israel Policy Project.

Munich: Powerful, disturbing and balanced 

Stephen Spielberg's new film, Munich, is one of the most powerful films I've ever seen. It's the story of Israeli agents hunting down the Palestinians involved in murdering 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. It is a very intense film which tries to present the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with some balance. It is also very violent, disturbing, difficult to watch, and controversial.

Munich has been criticized for being based on a discredited book, and for faulty research. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has been denounced as a left-wing critic of Israel, and Spielberg has been criticized for not interviewing relatives of the murdered athletes.

But whether or not these criticisms are true, the film has to stand on its own merits. It is not a documentary, but a fictional account that includes possible misgivings which the Israeli agents may have had. While there may be no reason to believe that any agents actually had second thoughts, 
portraying them as questioning human beings with consciences rather than as cold-blooded killing machines puts them in a more favorable light. Likewise, if the film's creators or members of the audience occasionally question some of Israel's tactics, they are not necessarily anti-Semites or self-hating Jews.

Some critics might have appreciated a Zionist propaganda film with a happy ending in which all the Israelis are patriotic and honorable, while the Palestinians are only inhuman murders. But Spielberg's film paints a more complex picture. After watching it, one may still reluctantly conclude that Israel's actions were the necessary and justified response to the brutal murder of its innocent civilian citizens. At the same time, one may pray for peace.

Ron Bihovsky