When Reel Life Intrudes on the Mideast Conflict

By Phyllis Chesler and Ariel Chesler

Published December 30, 2005, issue of December 30, 2005.
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People are more than edgy these days. Our careless, civilian ways are endangered — some say by Islamist terrorists, others by Republicans, or by Leftists, or madmen on strike. People are hunkering down; today they talk only to those with whom they already agree.

Among Jews, however, nervousness seems to have been elevated to a national sport. How else to explain why perfectly sane and well-educated people have begun to scrutinize and subject mere entertainment to the rules of evidence more appropriate to a lawsuit than to a movie review?

Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” is only a movie — it is not, despite Jewish hysteria, a fateful battle in the war between life and death.

Based on early reviews of “Munich” and on a hardcore undercurrent of understandable Jewish fears about the film, we had trepidations about watching it. Neither of us, though, could stay away. After all, we became Spielberg fans while watching “E.T.” together in 1982, when one of us was 4 years old and the other a good deal older than that.

“Munich” has been widely anticipated, promoted and reviewed, as would be expected with a Spielberg film. Most of the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Spielberg has been applauded for producing a deft action thriller — and, it is worth noting, for humanizing Israelis.

In the movie, Palestinian terrorists murder in cold blood. They are not shown having second thoughts or doubts. Only the Israeli agents agonize, talmudically, over the ethics involved in killing. And the film keeps returning to the scene of the 1972 massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich by Palestinian terrorists; we are never allowed to forget it, and it remains haunting and awful. We are shown, clearly and graphically, who the victims are in 1972.

The single scene that has been taken to be too pro-Palestinian is one in which a Palestinian character named “Ali” speaks about his “homelessness” and his people’s determination to spend 100 years overpopulating and killing in order to drive the Jews out of Muslim holy lands. Lost in all the criticism of the scene is the fact that Ali is portrayed as being far from a sympathetic character.

The fact that the film is neither accurate nor encyclopedic should not be surprising, though it certainly appears to have been for many. “Munich” is a two-hour fictional movie, not a work of scholarship. Spielberg is a Hollywood filmmaker, and he is very good at what he does.

But we understand why people, especially but not only Jews, have been worried about the film. So much is at stake. People feel so powerless. Everything counts; everything is a clue.

We were upset because Tony Kushner, Spielberg’s co-screenwriter, is known for his anti-Zionist views. He has written that he “thinks the founding of the state of Israel was for the Jewish people an historical, moral, political calamity… I am not a Zionist.” We were afraid that such views might infect the movie. But at least in our opinion, they did not — at least not that much.

The first Palestinian targeted for assassination by the Israeli operatives is a poet-intellectual who is no longer a young man; the second is a bookish and loving father. We have no idea whether these characters are fictional or real, particularly given that Spielberg unfortunately chose to base his film on the hotly disputed book “Vengeance.” The entire operation remains a state secret, so Spielberg seems to have made do with imaginative speculation mixed with a few known facts.

Spielberg’s own statements to the media did not assuage specific Jewish fears. For example, his language of “peace” and “ending the cycle of violence” are taken to be code phrases for the continuation of the war against the Jews and the extermination of the Jewish state. Does Spielberg not know this?

Many Jews are afraid that “Munich” will lead to false moral equivalency, namely that what the Israelis are doing in self-defense will be seen as morally equal to the Palestinian determination to exterminate Jews in Muslim holy lands. This fear should prompt to devise some new rules of engagement.

First, one should not wage war against a film. It is only a film. And second, if one does, one should first see the film.

For those who do bother to get out of their armchairs and head out to the movie theater, “Munich” really lets them decide for themselves. Were the Palestinians justified in massacring the Israeli athletes in order to get the world’s attention? Were the Israelis justified in hunting down these forefathers of Al Qaeda? These questions, and others, are very much on Spielberg’s mind, as was made clear by the film’s final shot: the Manhattan skyline with the newly constructed Twin Towers. Spielberg relies upon us to answer the many questions the film raises.

“Munich” — or any other film, for that matter — is not a political movement or a Supreme Court decision, and responses to it cannot be predicted or programmed. We must be allowed to enjoy politically incorrect or even factually inaccurate films. They are images of reality, not reality itself, and they are meant to entertain.

Jihad has a cultural and propagandistic component, and it is important that we continue to monitor it. And to be sure, many people do confuse entertainment with education, and insist that something is true because they saw it with their own eyes on screen. But we also must remember that once we leave the movie theater, there are very real wars to be fought.

Phyllis Chesler is the author of the recently published “The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle For Women’s Freedom” (Palgrave Macmillan). Ariel Chesler is a matrimonial attorney in Manhattan.

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