Soon after watching an advance screening of Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Munich,” journalist Aaron Klein could barely conceal his amusement.
“In the beginning it said it was inspired by real events — I think that’s the understatement of the year,” Klein said about Spielberg’s film, a recounting of the Israeli response to the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. “It’s much more than ‘inspired’ — it’s invented!”
The film, which appears in theaters this week, has already drawn a good deal of criticism from Israelis and defenders of Israel who say that Spielberg relied too heavily on a widely discredited book about the Olympics and their aftermath by George Jonas titled “Vengeance.” But Klein, a reporter for Time, can speak about the issue with the authority born of just having authored his own, exhaustively researched book about it, “Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response.”
Unlike Spielberg, Klein went directly to the Mossad and military intelligence officers who were involved in the reprisals, and ended up speaking with more than 50 of them. What results is a gripping play-by-play of each shadowy maneuver by the famed Caesarea unit of the Mossad, as they sneak up on terrorists in their hotel rooms and bedrooms snuffing them out one after another and then slipping away into the night. The narrative is considerably different from the one offered by Spielberg.
“He’s an artist,” Klein told the Forward. “He’s a great director and I really appreciate him for that. But… the true story is far from what you see in the movie.”
The book arrives too late to be a guide for Spielberg. But it is just in time for Klein’s publishing fortunes, hitting the shelves three days before Spielberg’s film is nationally released on December 23. The editors at Random House presciently assigned Klein to the topic a year ago. When Klein learned about Spielberg’s film three months later, he quickened his pace to have something ready by the date of the movie’s release.
The book opens with a pulse-racing recounting of the hostage crisis itself, in which 11 Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village were captured in the dead of night by eight terrorists from the Black September group — an early offshoot of Fatah, today the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority. Before the attacks, the terrorists had wandered the Olympics as tourists, even taking in a few volleyball matches.
Klein shows that the attack was the result of massive intelligence and security failures on the part of both West German and Israeli authorities. The Israeli Olympic team slept on the ground floor of the Olympic Village and the terrorists reached them by stepping over a trampled down fence that circled the Olympic Village perimeter. A tipsy crew of American athletes helped the terrorists, who were disguised as athletes, over the fence.
It is with his telling of the attack’s aftermath, though, that Klein version begins seriously to depart from Spielberg’s. As Klein began talking with former Mossad officers, he said, he quickly realized the holes in Jonas’s book, whose central theme is that Mossad operations were driven by a desire to avenge the Munich deaths. Interviews led Klein to a different conclusion, he said. Revenge was a factor in planning the Caesarea operations, but it was much less important than calculations about how much of a threat a specific target would be in the future. In the end, Klein’s research showed that two of the Munich plot masterminds were never hunted by the Mossad aggressively and one is still alive today.
“I grew up with this myth of revenge,” Klein told the Forward. “It was amazing for me to find out it was almost not true at all.”
On a smaller scale, Klein said he discovered that Israeli agents never bought intelligence from French citizens, as Jonas asserts and Spielberg accepts. And the Mossad agents whom Klein interviewed admitted to none of the soul searching found at the heart of Spielberg’s film.
Klein’s book does chronicle some of the Mossad’s blunders along the way — most notably the killing of an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway, whom the Mossad mistook for a Munich planner. But overall the book reads like the telling of a former Mossad agent, a telling that is not uncritical but one that evinces an underlying faith in the rightness of Israel’s course of action.
This makes sense, given that Klein, a native Israeli, spent six years in Israeli military intelligence before becoming a reporter. Today he has the thick build and shaved head of a Mossad man. Klein said his background helped him win the trust of Mossad agents who have never spoken before and may never again.
“Some of the people were waiting to take it off their shoulders,” Klein said. “They realized this may be their last chance to have their voice heard.”