Audiences have been flocking to Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” since last month, but some media eyes are already trained on his next film — and the possibility that it could anger Jewish and Israeli audiences.
The still untitled film will tell the story of a squad of Mossad hit men ordered to hunt down the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Spielberg has kept most of the details about the film strictly under wraps, and Jewish organizations are not even hinting at signs of trouble.
But that hasn’t stopped the media from essentially trying to set up a sequel to the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” only this time with Spielberg cast as the object of Jewish outrage.
“Next: Spielberg’s Biggest Gamble” proclaimed the headline for a July 1 New York Times article by David Halbfinger that helped fuel the recent wave of stories. Despite having little information about the actual script, Halbfinger asserted, “By highlighting such a morally vexing and endlessly debated chapter in Israeli history — one that introduced the still-controversial Israeli tactic now known as targeted killings — Mr. Spielberg could jeopardize his tremendous stature among Jews both in the United States and in Israel.”
No one else has had any better luck in piercing the veil of secrecy surround Spielberg’s film. But with each article, the headlines — “Spielberg’s Take on Terrorism Outrages the Critics,” “Spielberg Risks Alienating His Own” — become increasingly hysterical.
In predicting a collision of Spielberg and the Jewish community, film industry observers and a handful of Israeli critics have focused on two controversial moves. The first is Spielberg’s reported choice to base the film, at least in part, on the 1984 non-fiction book “Vengeance.” Written by George Jonas, the book — which paints a picture of morally conflicted Mossad agents who increasingly question their mission — has been criticized and dismissed by many Israeli experts on several compelling grounds.
Also drawing scrutiny is Spielberg’s decision to tap Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner to rework the script, presumably with the goal of dramatizing the agents’ moral angst. Kushner, as at least one right-wing Orthodox columnist was quick to point out (with the help of an old quote from this writer), is a harsh critic of Zionism and Israeli security policies.
At first glance it would seem that those hoping for (or fearing) a “Passion” replay can legitimately point to the slow buildup of news leaks and occasional barbs that eventually exploded into a bitter feud between a Hollywood icon and the Jewish community. So far, the argument goes, no body blows have been thrown, but the initial criticism over Spielberg’s choice of sources and script doctor may be the harbinger of a big-time fight.
The problem with making the Mossad movie into a “Passion” sequel is that Spielberg is no Gibson.
Almost from the start, Gibson was dropping clear hints that his film probably would offend Jews, as well as Christians who did not share his traditionalist views. Spielberg, on the other hand, who is beloved by many of his fellow American Jews, especially since the 1993 Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List,” has taken great pains to head off controversy, reportedly consulting with his rabbi, former U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross and former president Bill Clinton.
So, yes, Spielberg’s film might force Jews (and other Americans) to ask some uncomfortable questions about the Israeli and American responses to terrorism. But for the most part, American Jews can tell the difference between Spielberg’s healthy self-criticism and Gibson’s nostalgia for the days before the 1965 Second Vatican Council reforms, which, among other things, cleared the Jews of the charge of Deicide. American Jews know the difference between a director with a Holocaust-denying father and one whose mother owns a kosher restaurant.
All that said, while most Jews will probably be fine with Spielberg’s movie, it could well incite criticism among the small, mostly Orthodox, minority of American Jews that confuse introspection with weakness when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It’s become a stereotype, the guilt-ridden Mossad hit man,” historian Michael B. Oren said in an interview with The Times. Now a citizen of Israel, Oren added, “Somehow it’s only the Jews. I don’t see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden.”
Lamenting Kushner’s harsh criticisms of Israel, Jason Maoz, senior editor of the right-wing Jewish Press, warned that Spielberg’s movie will “affect public perception of Israel — in the U.S. and around the world — for years to come.”
Given the success of “Schindler’s List,” that’s a safe bet. Which is why we can only hope that Spielberg stays true to his apparent vision of portraying his Mossad subjects as tough guys with Jewish hearts.
Israel already has enough people trying to paint it as Dirty Harry.