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Saturday, January 21, 2006


It's a banner season for movies. Good Night and Good Luck,, Match Point, and Brokeback Mountain are all noteworthy events, though I was deeply disappointed by the decision not to release the new All the King's Men, which looked as if it might actually do justice to one of the greatest political novels ever written. (The casting of Anthony Hopkins as Judge Irwin, a key character who was essentially left out of the original movie, was a tip-off.) But today I'm going to discuss the most controversial, though not perhaps the best, of the new crop, Munich, which had set off a violent controversy on the op-ed pages even before it had opened. Three prominent journalists, indeed, singled it out for special opprobrium: Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Each of their attacks raises some revealing points--as does the movie, which seems based on my experience to be too painful for very many people even to acknowledge its obvious message. (Readers like myself who do not like to know much about a film before they see it, and who intend to see this one, must, alas, defer reading this post--and particularly the final paragraph.)Wieseltier's, Krauthammer's and Brooks's pieces are on line at http://www.jewishworldreview.com/1205/munich.php3, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/
2006/01/12/AR2006011201541.html, and http://select.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/opinion/11brooks.html--the latter requiring a Times select subscription.

Wieseltier's argument is straightforward: the movie is guilty of the sin of "equivalence." Its Israelis--Mossad agents dispatched to kill the perpetrators of the 1972 Olympic massacre--are as ruthless as the Palestinian terrorists, and their victims include some innocents. For Palestinians, he argues, killing innocents is actually a conscious strategy, while for Israelis it is unfortunate collateral damage. (He acknowledges, however, that more innocent Palestinians than Israelis have died during the Intifada.) He argues that the Palestinian agents are portrayed in more humanity than the Israelis--something I did not see in the movie that I watched, which included long conversations between the Israeli hero and his wife, his mother, and his friends and collaborators on all sorts of topics, while the Palestinians (with one exception) make only the briefest appearance. And Wieseltier raises--but certainly doesn't fully develop--the issue of the justice of the creation of Israel in 1948. The Israeli characters in the film, he rightly notes, justify its creation based on necessity--the world needed an enduring refuge for Jews. That actually has been the argument of many Zionists from the beginning and continues to be today. "The necessity of a Jewish State," a recent publication of the Israel Project (a non-profit group devoted to enhancing Israel's image, whose board of advisers includes sixteen Senators and Congressmen), "can only be explained by reviewing the prevalence of anti-Semitism around the world and across the decades." Wieseltier rejects this explanation as inadequate, but he doesn't offer another one.

Charles Krauthammer does. Israel, he points out--rightly--was not simply a response to the Holocaust--the modern Zionist movement had emerged and began sending settlers to and buying land in the Holy Land more than one hundred years ago. Zionists had "fought for" and secured the Balfour declaration in 1917. But he goes much further than that:

"But the Jewish claim is far more ancient. If the Jews were just seeking a nice refuge, why did they choose the malarial swamps and barren sand dunes of 19th-century Palestine? Because Israel was their ancestral home, site of the first two Jewish commonwealths for a thousand years -- long before Arabs, long before Islam, long before the Holocaust. The Roman destructions of 70 A.D and 135 A.D. extinguished Jewish independence but never the Jewish claim and vow to return home. The Jews' miraculous return 2,000 years later was tragic because others had settled in the land and had a legitimate competing claim. Which is why Jews have for three generations offered to partition the house. The Arab response in every generation has been rejection, war and terrorism."

Krauthammer has the self-righteousness of his generation and mine, but this critical paragraph raises two enormous questions. To begin with, it must be obvious that any attempt to redistribute the world's land based upon where various tribes were living 2500 years ago would be, to say the least, chaotic. Surely he does not want to give the United States back to the tribes that inhabited it then, or restrict Great Britain to pure Anglo-Saxons without a trace of Roman, Danish or French blood? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of something much larger, the never-ending struggle of different populations to occupy the same pieces of land. There is none who is righteous, no, not one, in the world's long history of struggles for territory, and thus Israelis can certainly claim with some accuracy that what they have done is not different, for example, from what white Americans did to the Indians. But no one but a devout believer in the Old Testament, it seems to me, can be expected to take the Lord's award of Israel to the Jewish people several Millennia ago seriously as a blueprint for today's map, and Israel must recognize (as most Israelis surely do) that they cannot expect the rest of the world to accept such claims at face value. As for Israeli offers to partition the territory, recent scholarship has shown, alas, that things are not so simple. Ben Gurion and the original generation of Israeli leaders accepted partition in 1948 as a tactical maneuver and always intended to expand the original frontiers, as eventually they did. (This is the conclusion not only of even-handed Israeli historians like Benny Morris, but also of sympathetic outsiders like Conor Cruise O'Brien--because the evidence for it is overwhelming.) And since 1967, Israeli society and Israeli governments have remained ambivalent about surrendering any of the West Bank for good. Ehud Barak did make a very generous offer in 2000. Because Yasir Arafat did not have the will or the courage to accept it, we did not find out whether Barak would have had the political strength actually to make such sweeping concessions. Certainly a strong, vocal and aroused minority of Israelis still wants to hold on to the entire West Bank, and now we will never know whether even Ariel Sharon would have been able to risk it. One of his closest aides, Dov Weisglass, admitted last year that the purpose of the Gaza disengagement was to take the pressure off of Israel to make a broader deal. Israel, he said, had promised to talk seriously about peace with the Palestinians "when they become Finns," which, based on the projections of Hamas gains in new elections, does not seem to be happening.

The movie, alas, made Krauthammer so angry that he apparently couldn't see straight. He refers to one episode as the murder of an innocent Dutch prostitute designed, in his eyes, to show what merciless killers the Israelis are. In fact, the woman was obviously directly implicated in the murder of an Israeli agent--indeed, it is explicitly stated in the book upon which the movie is based that she killed him herself. The movie at least implied as much.

David Brooks, in my opinion, portrayed the movie more accurately than Wieseltier or Krauthammer. It is, he said, the story of an endless cycle of violence for which there is no solution. Brooks states a different view--the problem in the Middle East is Islamic radicals who will never accept Israel, and if enough of them can be arrested or killed--and he praises the Israelis for relying increasingly upon arrests, while ignoring their increased reliance on targeted killings of exactly the kind that the movie portrays--Palestinians and Israelis will live side by side in peace. The Palestinians, he suggests, will be rewarded for renouncing violence. We can all decide whether history suggests that will, in fact, happen.

Brooks's column was noteworthy for another reason--he quoted Spielberg saying that, in his view, the only solution is peace talks that last until a solution is reached. Spielberg may believe this but I certainly couldn't see that in the movie. The movie told me that there was no solution--that, as the hero says, the two sides have embarked upon an endless cycle of retaliatory killings. One can reach that conclusion independently of any opinion of the basic rights and wrongs of the conflict, and I regret to say that I share it. Where that leaves us is a judgment mainly for Israelis and Palestinians to make. In killing each other for the same piece of land, they are playing out one of the oldest dramas in history. The recent example of Yugoslavia shows how hard it is to put some quarrels to rest. The United States at least has a Constitution that allows all religions and ethnicities to live together as citizens, and that remains, in my opinion at least, a huge step forward, however imperfect its application.

(Spoiler--end of movie.)

Krauthammer touches a real nerve at the end of his polemic, when he highlights the message of the hero's decision to abandon Mossad and settle in Brooklyn--that perhaps the attempt to maintain Israel is in itself morally compromising. That is a judgment for Israelis to make. As an American, I feel my own country's main responsibility for the conflict goes back to the immediate postwar period, when we were not willing to welcome every holocaust survivor to the United States, should they have chosen to come. Benny Morris is right--there isn't any moral difference, really, between Zionism and the settlement of North America by Europeans, and we Americans are simply lucky that our greatest crimes took place centuries ago. But Spielberg has the last word, in the final, chilling shot of the movie--a conversation on a Brooklyn hill between the hero and his controller, with the World Trade towers in the background. Because of the United States' own involvement in the Middle East, we have now been drawn directly into the blood feud and have begun our own cycle of revenge and retaliation. And eventually, Americans will have to ask themselves whether we have any stake in the region that really makes this worth it.

p.s. Having made this post, I went to my mailbox and found the new issue of the New York Review of Books, which includes a somewhat similar (but in many ways edgier) piece by Henry Siegman, a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former executive head of the American Jewish Congress. Unfortunately, for the time being it is available only to subscribers to the electronic edition.

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