If you had fallen into a Rip Van Winkle sleep 50 years ago and woken up this week, you would have thought you had been in slumber for only a day.
The Israeli families of the victims of the Munich massacre were in the headlines, vowing to boycott the official German ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the atrocity in which Palestinian terrorists from the PLO-affiliated Black September terrorist group stormed the athletes village and killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches as well as a German policeman during the 1972 Olympic Games.
Then, only a couple days later, on a visit to Germany, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, when asked whether he would apologize for that attack, not only refrained from making amends but outraged Israelis and Germans when he answered that Israel had committed “holocausts” against the Palestinians.
Abbas’s statement, which he only partially backtracked a day later under international pressure, exacerbated an already potentially explosive situation between Israel and Germany regarding the 50th anniversary of the Munich massacre.
Israel is planning on holding its own ceremony, and it’s unclear whether any official Israeli representative will attend the ceremony in Germany, despite an invitation reportedly extended to President Isaac Herzog.
Before looking ahead at what may occur next month, let’s look back to the event that is still making waves 50 years later.
September 5, 2022, will be the 50th anniversary of the Munich massacre. West Germany was heavily criticized for its handling of the incident. The athletes village, where the initial attack took place and wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weightlifter Yossef Romano were murdered, was reportedly poorly secured. Advice from Israeli security officials was reportedly ignored. A bumbled operation to rescue fencing coach Andrei Spitzer and the other remaining hostages at the airport resulted in the execution of the Israeli athletes with rifles and grenades.
In 2012, Der Spiegel reported that West German authorities had paid no mind to intelligence signals and multiple warnings of an impending attack. Later, they reportedly covered up these failures.
Five of the eight Palestinian terrorists were killed during the attack. The three that were taken alive were released as ransom for the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 615, and were given refuge in Libya. Haaretz wrote at the time that West German authorities had surrendered the murderers quickly, accusing them of seeking to rid themselves of a security burden. Since then, it has been further alleged by some analysts and experts that the hijacking had been staged to further cover up West Germany’s failing and see the terrorists released.
The families of the victims have been paid a total of $4.8 million in compensation by various German agencies, according to an internal memo, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.
Many of the relatives of the victims of the massacre have been insulted by the low amount of compensation offered and by the limited expression of responsibility that Germany has offered.
Compensation thus far has amounted to less than the $9m. allegedly paid to hijackers of Lufthansa Flight 615.
The families have claimed around $21m. in compensation over police misconduct, according to the Associated Press, but this was dismissed due to the statute of limitations. The Times reported that the families’ efforts to seek compensation have been stymied by what they claim are bureaucratic barriers and hidden documents.
Boycott of the Munich Massacre ceremony
While tensions weren’t as high during the 40th anniversary, a source familiar with the event told The Jerusalem Post, relations between the families and the German government have since deteriorated.
In an act of protest, all but one member of the victims’ families have decided to boycott the upcoming 50th anniversary ceremony that will be held in Munich, according to the Times.
“I don’t want some euros to be thrown in my direction. We are not going to accept that,” Ankie Spitzer, widow of Andrei Spitzer and spokeswoman for the families, told Reuters on Friday. “We are not going to the memorial ceremony until Germany takes real responsibility, not only by words.”
A German government official told Reuters that Berlin regretted the families’ decision not to attend, and the Interior Ministry told AP that the “serious consequences for the surviving dependents of the victims in immaterial and material terms” were being reconsidered.
It has been reported by German media that the families were offered another €10m., but this proposal was found to be insulting by the families.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is considering a visit to Israel to solve the dispute with the families, Haaretz reported on Wednesday.
The ceremony will reportedly acknowledge Germany’s failings regarding the Munich massacre, and confront the “questions of historical reckoning that remain unresolved,” according to a memo obtained by the Times.
Jerusalem has remained uninvolved in the disagreement between the victim’s families and the German government, retaining a position of ambiguity. Israeli officials have declined to speak to the Post about the ongoing deliberations.
The families told the Times that the Israeli government has done little to help them over the years, fearing that Israel could damage ties with Germany by helping the families.
Herzog is reportedly set to attend the September 5 ceremony, but the families have reportedly stated that they want him to cancel the trip.
The President’s Office declined a request from the Post to comment on the boycott.
Abbas and the “50 holocausts”
A new scandal in Germany erupted on Wednesday, overshadowing that of the Munich massacre ceremony boycott.
At a press conference after a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, when Abbas was asked – with the 50th anniversary in mind – whether he would apologize for the Munich massacre, the PA president responded, “If you want to go over the past, go ahead. I have 50 slaughters that Israel committed... 50 massacres, 50 slaughters... 50 holocausts.”
Israeli politicians and Jewish groups quickly rallied to condemn the statement, describing his comments as not just a lie, but a minimization of the events of the Holocaust.
“It was an outrageous statement that shouldn’t have been said any time, but especially not in Germany,” former ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff told the Post. “Germany over the years has developed a strong sense about the importance of Holocaust commemoration,” which has contributed to its positive relations with Israel.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid responded to the Palestinian president’s remarks, writing that “Mahmoud Abbas accusing Israel of having committed ‘50 holocausts’ while standing on German soil is not only a moral disgrace, but a monstrous lie.
“Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, including one and a half million Jewish children,” he continued. “History will never forgive him.”
Scholz did not immediately respond to Abbas’s Holocaust comments, but in a video he was seen to be visibly uncomfortable with the remark. On Thursday, he finally posted on Twitter about the incident.
“I am disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,” Scholz wrote. “For us Germans in particular, any relativization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable. I condemn any attempt to deny the crimes of the Holocaust.”
The German Chancellery later summoned the Palestinian diplomatic representative in Berlin to chastise the representative over Abbas’s remarks.
“I think Scholz realized he couldn’t afford not to respond, because there was such an uproar online,” international relations expert at Tel Aviv University Dr. Emmanuel Navon told the Post. “He probably would have preferred it all died away quietly.”
Navon said that Abbas had made a huge mistake, and that his exaggerated comparisons to the Holocaust had embarrassed Germans.
“You don’t say this in Germany,” noted Navon.
In response to the backlash, the PA President’s Office released a statement clarifying that Abbas’s “answer was not intended to deny the singularity of the Holocaust that occurred in the last century,” and that he condemned “it in the strongest terms.”
“What is meant by the crimes that President Mahmoud Abbas spoke about are the crimes and massacres committed against the Palestinian people since the Nakba at the hands of the Israeli forces,” the statement continued. “These crimes have not stopped to this day.”
According to Navon, the statement did little to help the situation.
“His so-called apology made it even worse – ‘I didn’t mean to call you Nazis, just fascists and killers,’” he said.
Navon said that despite all the uproar, he didn’t believe that Germany would change its policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, according to Issacharoff, “that type of statement in Germany isn’t going to lend to Palestinian-German relations,” and would impact on Abbas’s legacy.
The forgotten scandal
While politicians and media focused on Abbas’s Holocaust comments, his underlying refusal to apologize for the Munich massacre remained largely unaddressed.
“I think [that] because of what he said about Holocaust, people paid attention to that, and it killed focus on his refusal to condemn the [Munich massacre],” Navon remarked. If Abbas hadn’t made reference to the Holocaust, he said, the 1972 attack would have received more attention.
Navon criticized politicians for not addressing that issue as well.
“It has to do with the fact that politics are so shallow, it’s just about what you write on Twitter. That was the tweet of the day, and that was it.”
Adding insult to injury, Abbas has connections to the Munich massacre. As part of the PLO, Abbas is alleged to have provided the funds used to finance Black September’s 1972 operation.
“I think it was very insensitive for the Germans to do” – to receive Abbas so close to the anniversary, which has already been rocked by scandal, Navon said, adding that he could understand why the Munich massacre victims’ families had chosen to boycott the ceremony.
Whether or not the next month will see increased tension between the Israeli and German governments, as the ceremonies marking the Munich Massacre near, it’s clear that the issue is as raw today as it was 50 years ago.
David Brinn contributed to this report.