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Munich 1972: What Spielberg left out

Published Feb 16, 2006 9:55 PM

Do you think that John Wayne fought at the Alamo, or that Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom took up arms at Troy?

Of course not. But many people think the John Wayne character in “The Alamo,” the Texas Ranger, was the true hero in that battle, or that, as in the film “Troy,” the Greeks waged a 10-year war over a love affair. In the current culture, films “inspired by real events” and TV docu-dramas carry the weight of history. So it is valid to examine these films from a class point of view, and to ask whose story do they tell, and whose do they leave out?

Steven Spielberg, for example, is a skilled director whose films wow the audience and elicit strong emotions. Spielberg commands vast resources, and his films are widely distributed. What artistic choices has he made with his historical films?

His 1997 movie “Amistad” told of a bold uprising aboard a slave ship of that name in 1839. Many wanted to know who were these captured Africans? How did this her oic and courageous uprising succeed? The actual slave rebellion, however, was over in a few minutes. The rest of the film deals with the attempts of two Connecticut law yers to declare the slaves “wrongfully stolen property” in order to return them to Africa.

“Schindler’s List,” made in 1993, concerns the Nazi Holocaust. But Spielberg did not choose to depict the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or the courageous rebellion at the Sobibor death camp in Poland. Spielberg’s subject of choice is a Nazi, Oskar Schindler, who made his fortune super-exploiting cheap Jewish labor in Poland. When it was clear that the Nazis were losing World War II, Schindler had an 11th-hour conversion and saved 1,100 of his Jewish workers from the death camps, trying to save himself as well. The movie ends endorsing the creation of Israel.

And then there’s “Munich.”

These films examine critical times in history, but the voices of oppressed people—the Africans and Jews—who played key roles in the events are muffled or left confused. The same can be said of Spielberg’s latest endeavor, the $68 million “Munich,” based upon events at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Spielberg claims this film is not historical, rather it is “inspired by real events.” Most of his audience, however, knows little about the real history.

What are the events that “inspired” the film? Palestinians took hostage the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olym pics. All the Israeli hostages were killed (who killed them is dealt with below). A Mossad (Israeli secret police) hit squad then killed Palestinians in Europe in retaliation for the deaths of the athletes. Spiel berg’s cited source is the book “Venge ance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team,” by George Jonas.

Spielberg interprets these events, then draws his own conclusions. The director builds a construct: What could be more heinous then the killing of innocent athletes? What could be more appropriate than seeking revenge for this awful act? In the film, the actor playing Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir reacts with revulsion to the violence at Munich. “We are a civilized people,” she says, “We don’t act that way.” She then authorizes a hit team to kill the Palestinian planners of the Munich action. The Israeli assassins begin to kill, convinced that they fight for a just cause.

Then Spielberg knocks his construct down. As the killing continues, the hit men begin to have second thoughts. They become demoralized, and argue among them selves. “How can we call ourselves Jews and do this?” “I don’t like this any more than you do.” “What we did to create Israel wasn’t very pretty, but we had to do it.” Yet another assassin admits he complains all the time, but always gets the job done. Another says he does not care about those they kill, “I only care about Jewish blood.”

As anguished and divided as the assassins seem to become, not one resigns. They continue to kill, even though they suspect the Palestinian intellectuals and diplomats on their hit list had no connection to Munich. Though filled with angst, the assassins even decide upon some new targets to kill who clearly had no Munich link.

There are Palestinian characters in the film, played by Arab actors. But none is developed. Most of the Arabic spoken in the film is not translated.

The film focuses on the emotional disintegration of Avner, the head assassin. At the end of the film, he dreams about the Palestinians taking the Israeli athletes hostage at Munich, but he sees himself as one of the hostage takers. Spielberg’s message is that violence itself is so corrupting that the Israeli assassins become like the Palestinians. It’s all the same. Violence begets violence, and this endless cycle of violence must stop. There must be peace. That’s the message of the movie, and it’s very well done. But it’s a false message.

What’s false in “Munich”?

In “Munich,” Spielberg says the actions of the oppressed and the oppressor are the same. And that’s why the movie is false. In today’s class-divided society there can be no equal sign between the defensive violence of the oppressed and the aggressive violence of the oppressor.

What really happened in 1972?

A brief look at history shows the difference. In 1948, through mass killings and terror, Zionist forces armed by the Pentagon forced 750,000 Palestinians from their villages and cities. The country of Palestine was erased from the map, and Israel took its place.

Palestinian refugee tent camps spread throughout the Arab world. There was no sanitation, no protection from the environment, no medical care, no schools.

In 1967 Israel again struck out, seized more Arab land, and forced 400,000 more Palestinians out of their homes.

In 1972, the Israeli Prime Minister was Golda Meir, an American school teacher from Milwaukee. She emigrated to Israel under the “Right of Return,” which states that any Jewish person can automatically become a citizen of Israel. But the Pales tinians who lived there for centuries cannot return. Golda Meir’s most telling statement was, “There is no such thing as the Palestinian people.”

By 1972, the situation of the Palestinians was desperate. Everything had been taken from them, even their identity. They were known as the “unfortunate refu gees,” “the poor Arabs in the camps.”

The Israeli line was, “They’re Arabs, let the Arabs take them in.” Their plight was not told in the press. The world had forgotten them. In marked contrast, in the West, and especially in the U.S., Israel, the oppressor in the Middle East, was portrayed as the brave little David with the slingshot fighting the giant Goliath, the Arab countries.

What really happened
at the Munich Olympics?

In the name of two mostly Christian Palestinian villages in northern Israel whose population was kicked out in 1948 by Israeli occupation forces, Palestinians mounted a bold and courageous action. They seized the Israeli Olympic athletes.

The Palestinians did not conceive of the action as a suicide mission. The goal was not to kill the Israel athletes. They wanted to call attention to the suffering of the Palestinian people and to exchange the Israeli athletes for 200 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails. The Israeli government, however, refused to negotiate.

Who killed whom? Mohammed Dawud, who organized the Palestinian commando action at Munich and escaped assassination, blames the West German police and the Israelis for the deaths of the athletes and the two Palestinians who were killed with them (Reuters, Sept 9, 2005)

“West German police opened fire, according to eyewitnesses,” stated BBC in September 1972.

Workers World Party widely distributed a leaflet in the U.S. soon after the Munich incident entitled “What every worker should know about the violence at the Olympics” (see article this issue). The leaflet explained, “The Israeli government has always stated categorically that it will not negotiate with Palestinians. This time the West German government got its orders from the Israelis, specifically from Moshe Dayan [the general in charge of the 1967 war-JC], who had flown to Munich, and Israeli representatives at the scene of the bloodshed.

“Accordingly, the West Germans flew the Palestinians and their Israeli hostages to an airport on a NATO base, as sure a deathtrap for both the Jewish athletes and the Arabs as a bed of quicksand. West Ger man police and military forces had surrounded the area before the helicopters carrying the Palestinians and Israelis even landed. Almost immediately the police fired directly into the vehicles containing both Arabs and Jews, and in the end 15 persons had been killed.”

It is ironic that the Israeli government worked so closely with the West German gov ernment, whose apparatus was never fully purged of Nazis, and whose police force might not have been so concerned about saving the Israeli athletes. But the Israeli government did not criticize West German police for possibly shooting too quickly.

Instead, all the blame for the death of the athletes was heaped on the Palestin ians, and to this day it is repeated that the Palestinians killed the athletes. Members of the Israeli press were to point out in the 1990s that the West German police never did autopsies on the athletes to see whose bullets killed them.

Arab civilians killed
in Israeli bombing

The day after Munich, the Israelis bombed villages and refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, killing between 200 and 500 people. And they kept on bombing. UN officials report that between 1968-1974 Israeli air attacks killed 3,500 people in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

After Munich, Washington developed a new policy of using its veto power in the UN to protect Israel from international censure for its constant attacks on neighboring Arab countries. The first such veto was cast by then UN Ambassador George Bush senior. From 1972-1990, 32 U.S. vetoes protected Israel from condemnation.

That was, and is the real relationship of forces, then and now. There is no equal sign between the actions of the Israeli state and the actions of the Palestinian resistance. Israel is the oppressor, armed and protected by Washington. The Palestin ians are the oppressed and fight for their legitimate national rights under the most difficult of circumstances.

Through sheer determination and self-sacrifice, the Palestinian people have reclaimed their identity, they have shown the world who they are, and that they have rights, are entitled to self-determination, their own state, and to return to their lands. And even more they have showed their determination to continue the struggle to regain these rights no matter what forces are arrayed against them.

The message of the film “Munich” is “Let’s just all stop the violence and have peace.” In fact, Spielberg calls the film his “prayer for peace.” The film is very powerful, and many who see it leave the theater thinking “peace.” But it is a false peace. There will be no peace until the legitimate grievances of the Palestinians are addressed. True peace can only be achieved through justice.