(photo credit: )
Forty-five years ago, during Israel's brief turn as an object of international sympathy, the film of Exodus opened, presenting a fantasy version of the Jewish State's birth. In the movie, as in Leon Uris's best-selling novel, the hero Ari ben-Canaan was the son of a fictive version of David Ben-Gurion and the nephew of a thinly veiled Vladimir Jabotinsky. Ari's lifelong comrade was the chief of a neighboring Arab village, and his lover a blond Christian. Here was the Israeli creation myth, sanitized of such inconvenient details as the Hebron pogrom, the Altalena, and Deir Yassin. Revisionist, Laborite, Palestinian, shiksa - everybody got to be a Zionist.
With their new film Munich, the director Stephen Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have supplied the antidote, the counter-Exodus, an anti-Zionist epic in which the role of a virtuous Jew is to make not aliya but yerida. Few works of art or popular culture so pointedly convey the anxiety of liberal American Jews, circa 2005, about an Israel that survives by the practice of aggressive self-defense. In Munich, Israel is not the expression of Jewish values but the contradiction of them.
Although it functions with a veneer of journalistic even-handedness, Munich aims to make the scales fall from putatively na ve Jewish eyes. "I'm proud of what you are doing," says the mother of an Israeli agent who leads the secret team assigned to kill the Palestinians who planned the 1972 Olympics massacre. "You don't know what I'm doing," he responds. Since the agent is the one possessed of terrible knowledge, we in the audience are plainly meant to sympathize with him. Indeed, at the movie's end, he takes up residence in Brooklyn, a refuge designated in part by the pealing of church bells.
As with any film claiming to be "inspired" by actual events, Munich invites and deserves a level of scrutiny based on its fidelity to history. I will leave it for others to play truth squad for a film based on a widely discredited memoir, Vengeance by George Jonas. The issue with Munich is less one of its departures from the factual record than its intellectual and aesthetic choices in making a highly political work of art.
Spielberg and Kushner never miss an opportunity to depict the hit team, and by extension the Israeli enterprise, as anathema to Jewishness. Of the five members of the revenge unit, Munich offers its greatest empathy to those with the gravest doubts about the morality of the mission. One of them, Carl, vividly embodies the cosmopolitan Jew with his pipe and cardigan sweaters, his cover occupation dealing antiques. Robert, an erstwhile toymaker who moonlights as a bomb-maker, declares at one point, "We're Jews. Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrongâ€¦We're supposed to be righteous."
Such sentiments ultimately persuade the film's central character, Avner, the one with whom an audience is meant most closely to identify. Both the deaths he exacts from Palestinians and the deaths incurred by his own team, including those of Carl and Robert, turn Avner into a shattered specimen by the movie's final scenes. When he makes love to his wife, he sees images of the execution of the Israeli athletes. Living in exile, he comes to believe that the Mossad itself may be trying to murder him.
THE ONLY characters in Munich to speak favorably of Avner's mission are either willfully ignorant, like his mother, or immeasurably cynical. "We had to take it," his mother says of a Jewish State, "because no one would give it to us." The most compelling of the cynics is an information dealer called only "Papa," an avuncularly amoral specimen straight out of John LeCarre or Graham Greene. By Papa's formulation, because the world "treated your tribe roughly," it is right for the tribe to be just as rough in return.
In Munich, Palestinians rather than Jews who express the deepest feelings for home. At one juncture, Kushner and Spielberg contrive to have the Israel squad wind up in the same Athens safe-house as a PLO cell. Ali, the leader of the Arab group, wears around his neck an ancient key. While the detail is not explained in the film, it clearly refers to the Palestinian practice of holding onto keys from the homes they fled or were driven from in 1948 and 1967. "Home is everything," Ali tells Avner, who is pretending to be a Basque separatist to avoid detection.
Earlier in the film, in contrast, Avner assures his pregnant wife that she is his home. She, for her part, says that his problem as a human being is that he was raised in a kibbutz and thinks of Israel as his mother. Ultimately, Avner joins her and their newborn daughter in Brooklyn. Doing so, Munich wants us to understand, is the quintessentially Jewish thing to do. Exile is what makes the Jew Jewish, because powerlessness makes a Jew soulful and idealistic. The Israelis of Munich are the kind even Edward Said could like.
FOR ANYONE who knows Tony Kushner's life and work, the viewpoint of Munich can come as no surprise. As a gay man who grew up in the Deep South during the segregation era, Kushner has been formed by two social conflicts that genuinely do yield to absolutes of Right and Wrong. Both blacks and gays have been denied equality because of their unchangeable biological reality, and that kind of hatred has no possible defense or rationalization.
Roy Cohn, the villain of Kushner's masterpiece, Angels in America, is the villain primarily because he is a gay man who denies the truth of his own sexuality to enable the forces of homophobia. The emotional center of Kushner's poignant chamber opera, Caroline, or Change, is a clearly autobiographical 12-year-old named Noah, growing up in Louisiana in 1963, the year of the civil rights March on Washington. Over the course of the show, Noah comes to learn that he must treat his surrogate mother, his family's black maid, as something more than an object of pity. The story of Caroline, or Change, one might say, is that of the birth of a conscience.
Kushner's sensibility, much more than Spielberg's, informs Munich. If one sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the collision of two legitimate forms of nationalism, then it cannot possibly be rendered as a matter of moral absolutes. If one sees it, however, as a matter of Western colonialism dispossessing an indigenous people, then Right and Wrong come in very handy. When Kushner has spoken of Zionism over the years, he has often invoked the imperialism narrative. Just to cite one typical example, he told Haaretz last year that "establishing a state means f---ing people over."
Yet Kushner's work has made numerous and loving references to the Yiddishkeit of Eastern Europe and its immigrants to America. All of which makes it entirely logical that the most appealing, sympathetic characters in Munich are those who criticize or even disown Zionism in the cause of being more truly Jewish. And, of course, for winning an audience's heart, nothing beats having a Jew die. Death is the ultimate proof of Jewish virtue.
On the surface, the anguish of Avner in Munich brings to mind another one of Stephen Spielberg's troubled warriors, the American captain played by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. As the captain fights his way through Normandy after D-Day to rescue the title character, his hand keeps trembling, every palsied twitch the evidence of all he has endured. But when Hanks completes his duty, he does not decide to move to Switzerland because war is hell. Then, again, his character's name is John Miller, which sure sounds gentile. Only Jews, evidently, are supposed to turn into basket cases, pacifists, and grateful exiles from the moral burden of defending themselves.
The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His most recent book is Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life.