Spielberg's 'Munich' as 'historical fiction'

Published: 5 March 2006
Briefing Number 168

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Summary: This Briefing highlights statements by the makers of Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Munich’ acknowledging that the film is fiction, not fact. The film suggests that Israel’s campaign to assassinate Palestinians following the 1972 Olympic Massacre was motivated by revenge. Below we provide Israel’s own account – that Israel was motivated by the need to prevent further atrocities. This perspective is ignored in ‘Munich’. The Briefing concludes with comments on the film by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, highlighting its lack of historical context, and the use of dialogue for propaganda purposes.

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’

‘Munich’, which opened in late 2005, and directed by Steven Spielberg, is the most widely publicised film ever made about Israel. And Spielberg is the world’s best known film director. ‘Munich’ portrays the operation by a team from Israel’s secret service, the Mossad, to track down and kill Palestinian terrorists following the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Munich – fact or fiction?

The publicity campaign for the film, including large advertisements in the London subway system and in national newspapers, states:-

“In 1972, Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. This is the story of what happened next….”

This statement is not true. The film’s makers admit that the film is not factual, and that it is not “the story of what happened next”. While it is true that the massacre took place, and it is true that Israel hunted for those behind the operation, everything else is either outright fictional or semi-factual: the attitudes of the Mossad team behind the operation; the motivations of the Israeli Government; and the personalities of the Palestinians who planned the massacre.

The makers of ‘Munich’ admit that the film is fictional:-

  • The introduction to the film states on screen that Munich is “inspired by real events….”

  • The joint scriptwriter Tony Kushner states in the Production Notes to the film, which were made available to journalists attending review screenings, that ‘Munich’ is a work of “historical fiction” (a statement reported in the Jewish Chronicle, London, 20 January 2006)

  • Marvin Levy, the Los Angeles based spokesman for Steven Spielberg states: “it’s a historical thriller .…we weren’t making a documentary….. and there’s always a degree of literary or cinematic license…. “ (quoted in the Jerusalem Post, 22 December 2005)

Israel’s actual motivation – preventing further atrocities

From early on in ‘Munich’, the film suggests that Israel was motivated by revenge in its search for those behind the massacre. A speech by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir gives this impression. Dialogue at different points in the film among the Mossad team gives this impression. And at one point one of the assassins admits that the only blood that “matters” to him is “Jewish blood”.

Israelis involved in the actual events following the massacre are unanimous in denying that Israel was motivated by revenge. They maintain that Israel needed to act because it genuinely feared further atrocities in Europe, threatened by Palestinian Black September, the group behind the Munich massacre.

David Kimche: In 1972 David Kimche was a senior Mossad operative. He later became the deputy director of the organisation. He is currently a liberal Israeli commentator on Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Kimche explains that Israel’s response post-Munich was driven by the need to prevent further attacks:-

“There was a lot of intelligence suggesting that Munich was just the beginning and that these people were planning more assassinations of Jewish people and Israelis abroad. We felt we had to do whatever we could to prevent it….” (quoted in Jerusalem Report, 9 January 2006)

Aaron Klein: Klein is the author of the recently published book ‘Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response’. Based on detailed interviews with many Israelis involved with the operation, Klein explains:-

“The Israelis were concerned about the possibility of another, even bigger Munich….. They wanted to prevent and deter…..” (quoted in Jerusalem Report, 9 January 2006)

Israeli journalist Leslie Susser: Susser interviewed Mossad leaders and academics in 2005 about the assassinations (see Jerusalem Report, 9 January 2006). Susser observes:-

“Former Mossad operatives and Israeli researchers unanimously label as “a myth” the suggestion that Prime Minister Meir drew up a hit list of Palestinians involved in Munich, with vengeance as her main motive. On the contrary, the Israelis went after the Palestinians connected with Black September, or other radical groups, whether or not they had had a role in Munich. Targets were chosen primarily for operational reasons, rather than retribution…

…. Under the circumstances, assassination was the only effective response, former Mossad operatives argue. Appealing to the host countries in Europe was futile, as they did nothing to help. The three members of the Black September hit team captured alive in Munich, for example, were released less than two months later, in exchange for hostages from a hijacked Lufthansa plane…..”

Susser quotes a Mossad agent on the post-Munich period: “… Black September terrorists were living in Europe with no sense of fear for their own safety until we started going after them. The targeted killings threw them off balance; they began to fear for their lives. And because there were so few of them, each hit had a tremendous impact. Mossad operations made it difficult for them to run offices in Europe, and eventually the terror stopped…..”

This version of events is completely ignored in ‘Munich’.

The George Jonas book – a suspect source of information

Rather than speaking with those involved in the Mossad at the time, and providing a historical context, the film-makers use as their source of “inspiration” a 1984 book by Canadian journalist George Jonas called ‘Vengeance’. The book is based on an account by a supposed former Mossad agent called Yuval Aviv who claimed to have been involved in post-Munich events. Typical of Israeli comments about the Jonas book are the following:-

David Kimche: “’Vengeance’ by George Jonas is based on the story of a Mossad faker. That person [Yuval Aviv] never set foot in the Mossad, never had anything to do with the Mossad. That account is completely false…” (Jerusalem Post, 24 January 2006)

Simon Reeve: Reeve, the author of a 2000 book about the massacre, called One Day In September, states: “I find it very surprising that Spielberg has selected Vengeance as the source material for ‘Munich’. There have always been questions and concerns about that book…. I have read it and re-read it, and went through the whole process of trying to establish which bits were true. But, eventually I turned to other sources.....” (Jerusalem Post, 24 January 2006)

Yarin Kimor: Kimor, described as one of Israel’s leading experts on the Munich massacre, is reported to have been “surprised” by the decision to use Vengeance as the basis for ‘Munich’. While disagreeing with Kimche that Aviv had never been in the Mossad at all, Kimor says that Aviv was “not very senior” and that he “hears all sorts of things about him”.

The makers of Munich have relied upon a dubious source of information provided by a single individual. They did not speak to Israelis actually involved, and ignored Israel’s perspective.

Below we provide a review of the film by commentator Charles Krauthammer, which highlights further problematic features of the film.

Spielberg Makes Case for Palestinian Terror:
‘Munich’ contends that Israel is morally bankrupt

Charles Krauthammer
13 January 2006, The Washington Post

If Steven Spielberg had made a fictional movie about the psychological disintegration of a revenge assassin, that would have been fine. Instead he decided to call this fiction ‘Munich’ and root it in a real historical event: the 1972 massacre by Palestinian terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Once you’ve done that, you have an obligation to get the story right.

The only true part of the story is the few minutes spent on the actual massacre. The rest is invention, as Spielberg delicately puts it in the opening credits, “inspired by real events”.

By real events? Rubbish. Inspired by Tony Kushner’s belief (he co-wrote the screenplay) that the founding of Israel was a “historical, moral and political calamity” for the Jewish people [These words were used in a speech made publicly by Kushner some years ago – Beyond Images]

Munich glossed over

It is an axiom of film-making that you only care about a character you know. In ‘Munich’ the Israeli athletes are not only theatrical but historical extras, stick figures. Spielberg dutifully gives us their names – Spielberg’s list – and nothing more: no history, no context, no relationships, nothing. They are there to die.

The Palestinians who plan the massacre and are hunted down by Israel are given – with the concision of a gifted cinematic craftsman – texture, humanity, depth, history. The first Palestinian we meet is an erudite poet giving a public reading, then acting kindly towards his Italian shopkeeper – before he is brutally shot in cold blood by the Jews.

Then there is the elderly Palestinian Liberation Organisation man who dotes on his 7 year old daughter before being blown to bits. Not one of these plotters is ever shown plotting Munich or any other atrocity for that matter.

But the most shocking Israeli brutality involves the Dutch prostitute – apolitical, beautiful, pathetic – shot to death, naked of course, by the now half-crazed Israelis settling private business. The Israeli way, I suppose.

Even more egregious than the manipulation of character is the propaganda by dialogue. The Palestinian case is made forthrightly: the Jews stole our land and we’ve going to kill any Israeli we can to get it back.

Those who are supposedly making the Israeli case say ….. the same thing. The hero’s mother, the pitiless, committed Zionist, says: We needed the refuge. We seized it. Whatever it takes to secure it. Then she ticks off members of their family lost in the Holocaust.

Director plays on Holocaust

Spielberg makes the Holocaust the engine of Zionism and its justification. Which of course, is the Palestinian narrative. Indeed it is the classic narrative for anti-Zionists, most recently the president of Iran, who says Israel should be wiped off the map. And why not? If Israel is nothing more than Europe’s guilt trip for the Holocaust, why should Muslims have to suffer a Jewish state in their midst ?

It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-semitic Iranian. Jewish history did not begin with Kristallnacht. The first Zionist Congress occurred in 1897. The Jews fought for and received recognition for the right to establish a “Jewish national home in Palestine” from Britain in 1917, and from the League of Nations in 1922, two decades before the Holocaust.

Ancient claim to homeland

But the Jewish claim is far more ancient. Israel was the ancestral home, site of the first two commonwealths for a thousand years – long before Arabs, long before Islam, long before the Holocaust.

The Roman destructions of 70AD and 135AD extinguished Jewish independence but never the Jewish claim and the vow to return to their home. The Jews ‘ miraculous return 2000 years later was tragic because others had settled in the land and had a legitimate competing claim. Which is why the Jews have for three generations offered to partition the house. The Arab response in every generation has been rejection, war and terror.

And Munich. Munich the massacre had only modest success in launching the Palestinian cause with the blood of 11 Jews. ‘Munich’ the movie has now made that success complete 33 years later. ‘Munich’ now enjoys high cinematic production values and the imprimatur of Steven Spielberg, no less, carrying the original terrorists’ intended message to every theatre in the world.

This is hardly surprising, considering that Munich’s case for the moral bankruptcy of the Israeli cause – not just the campaign to assassinate Munich’s planners but the entire enterprise of Israel itself – is so thorough that the movie concludes with the lead Mossad assassin, seared by his experience, abandoning Israel forever. Where does the hero resettle? In the only true home for the Jew of conscience, sensitivity and authenticity: Brooklyn.