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.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).