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Life Arts    H2'ed 9/12/22

Munich 50 Years On: Never Again and, Yet, Again

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The 11 Victims of the 1972 Munich Massacre
The 11 Victims of the 1972 Munich Massacre
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"But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

- Exodus 21:23-25

Recently, I watched Stephen Spielberg's Munich (2005) again. This summer is the 50th anniversary of the massacre that took place at the 1972 Olympics, in which 11 Israeli athletes and a West German police officer were slain by Palestinian terrorists calling them Black September. It's an eye-for-an-eye flick. Revenge rules. The Israelis won't take any sh*t, and, if you f*ck with them, they will come a-hunting for you. Eric Bana, who once said, as the green shitkicking Hulk, to moviegoers, Don't get me mad. You won't like me when I'm mad, here plays Avner, a conscience-stricken assassin who puts together a team to go after the Arabs who did the deed. It was a pleasurable genre flick that way. A bit long, maybe because one of the leader of the terrorists, Ali Hassan Salameh, is being protected by the CIA, but Israelis aren't certain. (Wink.)

The film includes the likes of Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech) as Mossad handler Ephraim and Daniel Craig (James Bond) as Steve, a South African driver, as well as Lynn Cohen as Golda Meir, who gives the go ahead for the ultra-secret Operation "Wrath of God." Mehdi Nebbou plays Salameh. The entire ensemble works well together to establish a complex mood. The Palestinians speak little or no English and seem "ignorant" and set-into-play, while some of the Israelis rationalize and are conflicted and smitten with moral quandaries about the operation -- seemingly dragged down by the need to exact revenge -- none more so than Avner. The crew go after Black September, from Rome to Paris to Cyprus to Beirut back to Paris to Athens shooting and blowing up baddies as they go, and almost killing innocents a couple of times, their moods darkening as they go.

Their first revenge-kill is a poet who has recently translated A Thousand and One Nights into Italian. This suggests he has humanity and is not merely a terminal cancer cell waiting to wake for a metastasizing adventure in terror. I have mentioned the near-hits on innocent children. The Black September killers live among real everyday people; they are not loner-monsters; some have families. Further, the Yanks seem to be following their own agenda, protecting Salameh, the Black September leader, because he may be an asset to the US. Israel's revenge agenda is secondary -- just like at the end of WWII, with Operation Paperclip, which saw dozens of war crime-eligible Nazi scientists slip into the US, including Werner von Braun, the father of the V2 rockets that devastated London and who would later help America get a rocket to the moon. Israel has many enemies, and its friends can be love-withholding at times -- or worse.

There is one scene that really brings home the absurdity of the cloak-and-dagger set. Louis, a man providing the whereabouts of targets to the assassins, leads the men to a "safe house" in Athens. Avner and his men are awakened in the night by strange noises which turn out to be four members of the PLO, who've also been given a key to the apartment. Only quick thinking averts a shoot-out, as the Israelis pretend to be fellow Arab radicals. The freedom fighters and terror extinguishers are forced to spend the night together as brothers-in-arms and resolute enemies of Israel. This is the only scene in the film where there is a direct reference to Palestinian resistance to Israel's occupation and outright theft of much of the disputed former Mandatory Palestine. I read on entry last night that pointed out that back a hundred years ago, in 1922, Arabs outnumbered Jews in Palestine significantly.

Population State Mandatory Palestine 1922
Population State Mandatory Palestine 1922
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What a difference a century can make. Today, according to the CBI, there are 6,982,000 (73.9%) Jews compared to 1,995,000 Arabs (21.1%). But the CBI refers to Israel not Mandatory Palestine.

What's missing in Spielberg's account of the events of Munich remembered 50 years later is greater context of the cause for the Black September motivation and the traumatic response to place for many Jews. Munich is the place where Hitler, with his castrato paint brush mustache, first rose to power, or at least to his feet, in his famous beer hall putsch (which became a shove into Poland). It was where the Nazi Party had their headquarters. Richard Wagner's Bayreuther Festspiele was just half day's ride away in your Volkswagen, where you go to enjoy some blonde-and-blue mythopoesis loin-aching for Siegfried and Brunnhilde and sob in dein bier over the Twilight of the Idols brought on, some say, by the gold-hoarding Jews from Act 1. What's more, just up the strasse from Hitler's old bier hall haunt was the notorious Dachau death camp where thousands of Jews died screaming, while liebfraumilchlich MÃ dchens served up suds and bands oompah-ed merely 10 miles away. That's the kitsch left out. That, and it was the first trip back to Germany by descendants of Holocaust survivors. Bana's a decent actor, but he wasn't carrying that weight.

Also missing from the Spielberg flick is the dispute over homeland that some say gasoline-fired as a result of the Six Day War, in June 1967 between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Robert Bowker, in Palestinian Refugees Mythology, Identity, and the Search for Peace (2003) notes that about 400.000 Arabs (most of them Palestinians) were driven out

Bringing it home to America -- in what we've grown accustomed to referring to as blowback -- just a day before the first anniversary of the Israeli war victory, Sirhan Sirhan allegedly shot Bobby Kennedy in the back and head as he reveled in his 1968 California primary victory that might well have seen him ascend to the presidency later that year. Sirhan has cited Kennedy's support for Israel as motivating factor in the murder at the trial. He told the jury that he loved Kennedy and wanted him to be president until he heard that RFK was a huge fan of Israel. Something snapped. Or a phone rang. Sirhan can't remember.

Sirhan saw a campaign ad in May 1968 that had RFK celebrating the establishment of the state of Israel, and expressing his love of the Jewish state going all the way back to 1948 and its then tentative existence in Mandatory Palestine. This "bugged" him. He told the jury RFK's televised glee "burned" him up. He told them, something like, "Bobby Kennedy was the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life." But after that stunt, Sirhan turned on RFK faster than Mark Chapman could say "Sell out, Bang." Sirhan said he realized at that point that RFK "was doing a lot of things behind [his] back that he didn't know about." Like promising to deliver 50 jets to Israel if elected. Many pundits and media muppetheads have regarded Sirhan's slaughtering of "another" Kennedy as the beginning of the current Troubles in the region and, according to Sasha Issenberg, the "Slaying gave US a first taste of Mideast terror." Of course, some would argue that this, too, is inaccurate, saying that the Israeli (dressed as Arabs) bombing of the King David Hotel in July 1946 was the first instance of terrorism in the Middle East.

Spielberg might have enlarged Golda Meir's role in the film, as she was instrumental as a Founding Mother in the establishment of the state of Israel and showed her cheops as a commander during the 1973 Yom Kippur war (during which, allegedly, Moshe Dayan urged her to prepare a nuclear option for Arabs who were beating the Israelis in the war before they turned it around.) Spielberg doesn't mention the Black September bombing and kidnapping and executions (including US Ambassador Curtis Moore at the Saudi embassy in Khartoum in 1973. Arafat is not mentioned (unless I got distracted for a second). Spielberg doesn't allude to the Palestinian plane hijackings of 1970 and beyond. All of this bombing is going on because Israel has been begun turfing out territory, expanding its presence and ownership, and driving out Palestinians.

One very recent document in Israeli newspaper Haaretz Haaretz piece includes an embed that is informative and worth viewing and suggests how Israeli generations after the erasure were taught to see the borders of Israel:

In the piece, Labor Minister Yigal Allon makes a proposal:

As Allon explained in one of the meetings, "The logic is the following: The government decided that upon the declaration of the Six-Day War, the armistice agreements ceased to exist, with all that this entails. If there are no armistice lines, there are no borders.... We are sitting on new lines, which have the status of cease fire lines."

The Arabs didn't need to see the Green Line erased to know the Israeli intentions for expansion.

Munich leaves out politics, really. It reminds me of the Oscar-winning film Zero Dark Thirty, which wants us to believe Usama bin Laden paid for his work in the 9/11 massacre in New York. That, too, is a hunt and revenge film -- although its director made a mistake in describing her direction as "journalistic" just because she was made privy to classified information about the raid that killed UBL in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 11, 2011. Kathryn Bigelow and the producers were accused of presenting the public with propaganda, a controversy ensued, and the planned debut of the film in the October Surprise month before the presidential election was seen as a attempt to boost Obama's reelection chances, and backlash saw the film's release rescheduled to December 2012. But Spielberg makes no such claims. Munich is akin to what we call today Creative Non-Fiction, but he never claimed it was journalistic.

Still, the role of such films is troubling, as they make presumptions and show flattering snapshots and reinforce principles of retaliation without fleshing out the fuller context. In Munich, Black September just seems to wake like a sleeper cell and do in Jews. And, give Spielberg credit, he does a really good job of depicting a revenge flick. But it doesn't require much thinking -- one need only presume that Israel has a right -- even a solemn duty -- to avenge the Munich murders. (Exodus, get it?) But this, too, is a cycle of violence that can only subside with adherence to the Rule of Law. Otherwise, it leads to a mafiosization of the world, with turf wars and very limited democracy.

The point is that a remembrance of what happened 50 years ago in Munich -- the massacre of innocent athletes looking to compete in the Olympic games -- deserves more than the melancholy moral conflict of the avengers. It's a one-sided story. There is no justification for terrorism -- not the King David Hotel bombing or the Munich massacre, but when a director essentially glories in the vengeance, which is to say, moral righteousness of exacting revenge, it leaves out other questions. The Palestinian Question, for instance. While the two-state solution seems utterly dead now, it raises the Other Question: It was called Mandate Palestine in 1949, not Mandate Israel.

Palestinians have had their homeland taken away by force and agreements with the US (who allow their Jewish citizens to take ownership of property in the West Bank, sealing the deal). You can see how a Sirhan Sirhan might rise in rage from this and lash out; a reader might even get angry himself when he recalls how the European Jews were treated, placed in ghettos and felt pressure to collapse. An entry from the Holocaust Encyclopedia reads:

During the Holocaust, the creation of ghettos was a key step in the Nazi process of brutally separating, persecuting, and ultimately destroying Europe's Jews. Jews were forced to move into the ghettos, where living conditions were miserable. Ghettos were often enclosed districts that isolated Jews from the non-Jewish population".

What's happening to Palestinians today sounds very much like the description above.

There was a time when a two-state solution that guaranteed the sovereignty of a Palestine and a separate Israel seemed do-able. Maybe the Israelis could have purchased some unused portion of the Great Wall and that would have been the end of it. But greed got in the way. Jews will rightly remember the 50th annivesary as a terrorist act, but far more effort should be put into educating the masses about what led up to the massacre. Just as Americans should continue being angry about 9/11, but also cognizant of the foreign policy of the Empire that continues to make such attacks almost inevitable.

Two Wrongs don't make a right. So sayeth the Three Abes Bible.

. Now turn your cheek.


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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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