The Post-Holocaust Jew in the Age of "The War on Terror": Steven Spielberg's Munich

VOL. 40


No. 2
P. 77
The Post-Holocaust Jew in the Age of "The War on Terror": Steven Spielberg's Munich


The Post-Holocaust Jew in the Age of "The War on Terror"   Steven Spielberg's Munich

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By Yosefa Loshitzky

As a film about “terror” spilling over from its local context (the struggle over Palestine) into the global arena, Munich transcends the specificity of the so-called “Palestinian question” to become a contemporary allegory of the Western construct of “the war on terror.” The essay explores the boundaries and contradictions of the “moral universe” constructed and mediated by the film, interpreted by some as a dovish critique of Israeli (and post-9/11 U.S.) policy. Along the way, the author probes whether this “Hollywood Eastern” continues the long Zionist tradition seen in popular films from Exodus onwards, or signals a rupture (or even latent subversion) of it.

In his globally acclaimed Schindler’s List (1994), Steven Spielberg, an American Jew “perceived by many as the formative representative of American popular culture,” allegorized his own journey “from a ‘nondidactic’ popular entertainer to his much publicized ‘rebirth’ as a Jewish artist.” More than a decade later, he continued this journey with Munich (2006). But whereas Schindler’s List ended on a note of triumphant Zionism, Munich appears to cast doubts if not on the moral core of Zionism itself, then at least on some of its tactics and modes of operation as carried out by its embodied political incarnation, the State of Israel. This essay explores the boundaries, limitations, and contradictions of the moral universe constructed and mediated by Spielberg’s Munich, probing whether this “Hollywood Eastern” continues the long Zionist tradition prevalent in so many of Hollywood’s popular films, from Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960) onward, or signals a rupture (or even a latent subversion) of it.

Drawing on and fusing an eclectic array of genres (the war film, the 1970s spy thriller, the travelogue) and wrapped in the contemporary veneer of self-doubt, Munich is a soul-searching journey in pursuit of morality and justice. Described by Spielberg himself as “a prayer for peace,” it was made at the peak of the al-Aqsa intifada as part of his plan to produce what he called “peace projects.” Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland hailed the film as representing “a new departure for the director, his most political movie yet,” and wrote that while Spielberg “still loves Israel” and still “longs for its survival and wellbeing,” he is now “paying attention to the moral costs—the impact not so much on the Palestinians, but on the Jewish soul.”

Munich merits exploration for a number of reasons. Claiming to be inspired by real events and based on George Jonas’s thriller, Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, the film follows a cell of Mossad assassins as they set out across Europe to kill the eleven Palestinians allegedly responsible for murdering eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. As a film about terror spilling over from its local context (the struggle over Palestine) into the global arena, Munich transcends the specificity of the so-called “Palestinian question” to become a contemporary allegory of the Western construct of “the war on terror” that is embedded in the film’s underlying ideological project. Moreover, in an ironic twist on “the Jewish question,” the film connects the emerging discourse on and of the war on terror to the reincarnation of the “Jew” (traditionally perceived as the classical “other” of old Europe) as the “Israeli,” by confronting him with the “Palestinian.”


Even before its Tel Aviv premier in January 2006, Munich was criticized for its perceived sympathy for the Palestinian cause in Israel by commentators who had not seen the film and by Israeli officials in the United States invited to advance screenings. Concerning its critical reception in the United States, Ha’Aretz chief U.S. correspondent Shmuel Rosner reported that all the American Jewish critics (most notably Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic and David Brooks in the New York Times) argued against the film. The underlying (yet open) assumption uniting the American reviewers, regardless of whether they praised or criticized the film, was the unquestioning acceptance of Israel’s moral superiority; the anger leveled at Spielberg was based on what Zionist critics saw as his “chutzpah” even to attempt to equalize the two sides in the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What still remained a taboo within the framework of the American debate, even among its more liberal participants, was any acknowledgment of the moral superiority of the Palestinian cause (or not to mention any attempt to explore the possibility of it being so). Furthermore, the debate did not even present the dialectical option offered by what Rashid Khalidi calls “the contrasting narratives regarding Palestine,” but unequivocally presupposed the moral superiority of the “Israeli narrative.”

Thus, Spielberg’s Munich was perceived by many American Jews as betraying both American values and the Schindler’s List legacy, which not only globalized the memory of the Holocaust but also promoted and celebrated the establishment of the State of Israel as the redemption of this historical tragedy. Yet the debate built into the film’s marketing strategy (for which Spielberg had hired Israeli public relations consultant Eyal Arad, whose political clients included Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon) was aimed both at enhancing its publicity and at providing it with ammunition against any serious accusations of being anti-Israeli. The controversy attached to this film, then, played out within the safe boundaries of the “Jewish world.” Palestinian and pro-Palestinian perspectives were strikingly absent from these debates, which were dominated by critics and commentators frantically defining the dangerous “other,” the Palestinian terrorist.

In his introduction to the 2005 edition of Jonas’s Vengeance, first published in 1984, Jewish American journalist and writer Richard Ben Cramer provides the moral imperative for the book (as well as the film) when he describes it as “a cautionary moral tale—perhaps more apt today than it was when it was first published.” According to him, the moral core of this “cautionary tale” is founded on the following questions: “Can a free society descend to murder to punish murder? Does fighting terrorism require terror? Does it inevitably put a nation’s defenders into the world of the terrorists—and onto their level?” In Cramer’s view, Israelis “have been forced to confront these questions for decades—more often in the last ten years. And now, post 9/11, Americans are in the same soup: Our own CIA has politically gone into the business of ‘targeted killing.’” Cramer’s moral imperative, much like Spielberg’s, is disturbed not so much by the morality of the “just revenge” as by its utilitarian ends (“does it work?” he asks in his introduction). Cramer reminds us that at the end of the story Avner, the leader of the commando team and the main protagonist of the book (and film), is “still convinced of the...

YOSEFA LOSHITZKY is professor of film, media and cultural studies at the University of East London. Her most recent books are Identity Politics on the Israeli Screen (2001) and Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema (2010).

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