We American Jews were particularly giddy when the Olympics began on August 26, 1972. The world was returning to Munich.
But this time, instead of Hitler’s racism, we encountered West German democracy. These were the good Germans, who ran a particularly clean country while waiting to greet the few lucky cousins who succeeded in fleeing Communist East Germany. Who could have predicted that these games would end with Palestinian terrorists emerging as the New Nazis, leaving Jews on German soil once again bound, beaten, shot, blown up – and in the case of one Israeli Olympian, castrated too.
Those were the first Olympics I remember. A boxy black and white TV captivated my brothers and me for weeks. For kids who had never been on airplanes, we were charmed by the cosmopolitan Olympic spirit. We loved watching teams of athletes from exotic places all playing together peacefully. And we were relieved that the Soviet gymnast sensation, Olga Korbut, had a name we could pronounce easily.
True, we cheered for the Americans with extra gusto. Our heroes were real amateurs, while the Soviets and Eastern Europeans were state-funded tools of the Communist dictatorships, cheating in their vain attempt to best the West. Still, the Olympics made the Cold War seem tame. It was spy-versus-spy in spandex. It was hard to fear blowing each other up when everybody was running around in color-coordinated polyester shorts playing strange games no one really cares about except when blanket TV coverage tells us to every four years.
And there was Mark Spitz. We nerdy Jewish kids from Queens cheered as this American Apollo, this hip dental student with a mod-Seventies mustache, racked up a record seven gold medals. We delighted in the healing power of this Jewish swimmer performing so brilliantly where Nazis had goose-stepped and butchered Jews just three decades earlier. But we were mostly in red, white and blue, “you-see-I’m-a-normal-American-kid” mode; the Spitz-related Jewish pride was a small blue-and-white bonus.
Day 11, September 5, we awoke expecting to continue our viewing marathon, with occasional Fungo baseball breaks on 215th Street with our best friends Richard and Marshall. But Palestinian evil shattered our Olympic idyll.
While we were sleeping – at 4:30 a.m. German time – Palestinian terrorists had invaded the Olympic village, and were holding Israeli Olympians hostage.
I don’t think we even knew that Israel had an Olympic team (it would be another 20 years before Israel earned its first Olympic medal). But we already knew about Palestinian terrorism. We had watched the TV footage of Palestinian hijackers blowing up four planes in Jordan in September, 1970.
This crime, however, was different. We were older and – to use the cliché of the times – the whole world was watching. Suddenly, the somewhat silly sportscaster Jim McKay, whom we loved to imitate, started channeling Walter Cronkite, the sober newscaster. McKay was one of those happy-talking sports types who introduced us weekly to off-beat athletes – experiencing the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat – on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Now, he was covering a terrifying hostage crisis with unclear stats. No one knew how many terrorists there were and how many hostages; how many had been killed and how many had escaped.
We spent the excruciating day hypnotized, helpless, hopeless, staring at those images of the terrorists in ski masks – and the cinder-block Olympic housing which became our fellow Jews’ German jail and death camp.
Finally, some movement. The terrorists and the athletes drove to the airport. But the anti-terrorist ambush backfired. At 3:24 a.m. German time, 9:24 p.m. in New York, McKay declared: “Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were 11 hostages.
Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”
The German police had botched the job. You can only imagine the schoolboy sarcasm – “they” could get the murder of six million just right, but couldn’t save nine.
The bloodbath was devastating – the aftermath demoralizing.
We realized that the Olympic brotherhood talk was a sham. We knew the games should be canceled. But Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president declared: “The Games must go on.”
In fairness, some athletes left. The Dutch runner Jos Hermens told Sports Illustrated: “It’s quite simple. We were invited to a party, and if someone comes to the party and shoots people, how can you stay?” As the games resumed, we learned two lasting lessons – defined by the two dramatic images from the Munich massacre. That ski-masked terrorist became the face representing an onslaught. Although Israelis had been enduring Palestinian terrorism for years, for us, the Munich Massacre began a reign of terror that normalized terrorism. The Saudi Embassy takeover in Khartoum killed three including an American ambassador in 1973.
The mass murder of 11 at an apartment building in Kiryat Shmona in April, 1974 was followed by the Ma’alot massacre of 26 – 21 of them children – a month later. And on and on. Nevertheless, the master criminal responsible, PLO chief Yasser Arafat, addressed the UN on November 13, 1974, as the Palestinians became beloved as victims, worldwide.
We had led sheltered childhoods in post-Auschwitz America. Finally, we were asking the questions too many Jewish children have asked too many Jewish parents over millennia: why do they attack us? And where’s the rest of the world? Following history’s patterns, first they came after the Jews, then it became open season on everyone else as terrorism spread – and became normalized.
History shows how enthusiastically Palestinians embraced their role as the Nazis’ heirs. You can’t talk about “the peace process” without examining the scars their barbarism left on the Jewish body politic – and I say “their” because thousands of terrorists killed but millions cheered wildly. It’s been decades now; where’s the Palestinian Gandhi to question their reprehensible techniques, internally? True, the scale was very different. The approximately 24,000 dead defenders of the Jewish state since 1860 equal one particularly busy day at Auschwitz’s peak. But judge intentions, not just actions. Arafat told the journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1970, “Our goal is the destruction of Israel. Peace for us means Israel’s destruction, nothing else” – essentially targeting millions of Jews. Moreover, decades after Haj Amin el Husseini palled around with Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf was required reading in some Fatah training camps. And former Nazis trained Palestinian guerrillas to continue their war against the Jews. (Today, the Hamas charter and the hook-nosed caricatures of Israelis in Arab media and online continue that lovely tradition).
Beyond the killers we encountered the enablers. Avery Brundage became the face of appeasement – and the harbinger of every moral defeat, every cowardly retreat, the West has suffered since. Some suggested he was antisemitic.
To us, his aristocratic name and arrogant bearing pronounced him guilty. But it was Brundage’s “the-Games- Will-Go-Onism” that proved most toxic – and contagious.
The-Games-Will-Go-Onism meant that the final track and field run or equestrian jump were more important than 11 dead Jews. The-Games-Will-Go-Onism meant that much of the world just couldn’t be bothered to be too inconvenienced, as soon as the memorial bells ended tolling.
The-Games-Will-Go-Onism meant that our feelings and fears, our suffering, didn’t matter. And it anticipated the future, whereby the Palestinians would exploit that moral laziness to mainstream terrorism, while most Westerners then and now would prove far too self-involved to get involved, far too busy with playthings to fight for the right thing.
Decades later, I cannot forgive the Palestinians for teaching the world how to perfect terrorism as a tactic.
Clearly, Arafat begat Osama bin-Laden and Islamic State and “lone wolf” attacks too. But I also blame much of the so-called “civilized” world for allowing that tactic to work.
To my parents’ generation, Munich symbolized Nazism’s evils unleashed and the world’s great betrayal exposed as six million burned. To my generation, Munich symbolized the less dangerous evil of Palestinian terrorism – only because we have a Jewish state and a Jewish army for self-defense. And it represented a softer betrayal, the enabling of evil.
In the Seventies, Western sloppiness, laziness, apathy fed terrorism. It would take another event, 10 years later – the first Israel-Lebanon war – to achieve today’s true moral inversion, shifting from not caring about Israel enough to act to always blaming Israel first for daring to be attacked so viciously – which we will examine next week.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.