Spielberg’s List

By J.J. Goldberg

Published December 23, 2005, issue of December 23, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

the debate as it unfolds on screen is an Israeli disputation, framed almost entirely in the words and deeds of Israelis: carrying out their deadly mission, questioning whether it will make things better, wondering whether it squares with their Jewish values, talking endlessly of home and family and the need to defend them. Arabs hardly appear, except to massacre Israeli Olympic athletes at the start and then to be blown up or gunned down in retaliation as the movie unfolds. The French gangsters who sell the Israelis their targets’ locations get more time on screen to discuss their values than the Palestinians do.

Only momentarily do the Arabs in the film get to present their version of the home-and-family speech. The most important of those moments comes during a much-discussed encounter in a stairwell between the leader of the Israeli hit team, “Avner,” and a Palestinian terrorist named “Ali.” The Palestinian, thinking the Israeli is a European leftist, insists that Europeans misunderstand the Palestinian cause. They think we’re fighting for universal values, he says, but we’re fighting for our homes and our homeland. But, Avner asks, doesn’t the mayhem you’re causing give you pause? No, the Palestinian replies, we can keep fighting for 100 years. It’s a chilling moment, and it echoes throughout the film — right up to the closing shot, a panoramic view of the New York skyline with the World Trade Center in the middle of the frame. Yes, the film says, this goes on and on.

The scene in the stairwell didn’t happen in real life, of course. In fact, as the film’s critics archly note, much of the film is fictional, based loosely on a book that is itself said to play fast and loose with the actual events. Many of the assassinations didn’t happen the way they’re shown on screen. No French gangsters were involved, as Israeli journalist Aaron Klein tells our Nathaniel Popper on Page 2. Most important, at least in the critics’ eyes, the Israeli hit teams reportedly did not spend time agonizing over the rightness of their mission. They did what they had to, because that’s what Israelis do.

Historical accuracy is a tricky business in historical drama. Shakespeare probably didn’t moon around the way he’s shown to do in “Shakespeare in Love,” the film that beat out Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” for the best picture Oscar in 1998. For that matter, Julius Caesar didn’t really say the things Shakespeare put in his mouth. And there are serious questions about Caesar’s own depiction of the Gallic Wars.

What’s important about “Munich” is that it portrays one of the essential truths of Israeli society. Whatever went on among the agents chasing down the Munich terrorists in 1972 and 1973, the fact is that Israelis do debate the rightness of their actions. They do so endlessly, and they have done it for years. They base their political campaigns around this debate, sue each other over it in their Supreme Court, occasionally even refuse military orders because of it. It is one of the noblest aspects of the reborn Jewish state. Friends of Israel everywhere should be proud to see that moral sensitivity portrayed on the big screen.

Golda Meir supposedly said once that Israelis can “forgive our enemies for killing our sons, but we can’t forgive them for forcing our sons to become killers.” She isn’t shown speaking those words on screen in “Munich,” but they underlie the entire movie. Killing corrodes the soul, even when it’s necessary. Israelis know that. If their friends have forgotten it, then it’s time to be alarmed.






Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.