Steven Spielberg's unforgivable 'sin'

What makes 'Munich' a bane to its critics is not that it feminized Mossad, but that it humanized it.

munich 1 298 88 (photo credit: Universal Studios)
munich 1 298 88
(photo credit: Universal Studios)
In 1961 Leon Uris initiated a war of words with Philip Roth over the way Jews should be represented in popular culture. "These writers are professional apologists," the author of Exodus told The New York Post, referring to Jewish writers who conceded weaknesses. "We Jews are not what we have been portrayed to be. In truth, we have been fighters." In response, Roth suggested Uris pick up a copy of Elie Wiesel's Dawn, whose hero, a Jewish fighter in British Mandate Palestine, agonizes over his task of executing a British major who has been taken hostage. "I should like to tell Uris that Wiesel's Jew is not so proud to discover himself in the role of a fighter," Roth wrote, "nor is he able to find justification for himself in some traditional Jewish association with pugnacity or bloodletting... No matter how just he tells himself are the rights for which he murders, nothing in his or his people's past is able to make firing a bullet into another man anything less ghastly than it is." Fast forward 45 years, to the current clamor over Munich, Steven Spielberg's most complex and conflicted film to date, and the battle over Jewish representations is as fierce as ever. One of the more vociferous criticisms of the film is that Spielberg and his co-screenwriter, Tony Kushner, allowed the film's protagonist, Mossad agent Avner, to be plagued by doubts about his mission. Months before the movie's release, Michael B. Oren, author of Six Days of War, launched a preemptive strike against Munich when he told The New York Times: "I don't know how many of them actually had 'troubling doubts' about what they were doing... I don't see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden." True, one would be hard-pressed to imagine Clint Eastwood in an apron, as Spielberg depicts Avner in his first meeting with his team of assassins. One critic sniffed, "Real Mossad agents who hunted the terrorists... were not metrosexual sensitive guys." Indeed, the film revises the myth of the Israeli warrior, described by Oz Almog in The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew as "the polar opposite of the Diaspora Jew: he was self-confident, proud, and brave, knowing what lay before him; a leader, not a subject." But what makes Munich a complex film - and a bane to its right-wing critics - is not that Spielberg has feminized the Mossad. The problem is that he has humanized it. Charges of "humanization" have dogged Munich from the start. The irony is that in this film Spielberg has gone to the greatest lengths in his career to create human beings as opposed to cardboard cutouts as characters. For this he has earned the wrath of those who refuse to concede ambiguities in Israel's history. The criticism of "humanization" is most often leveled at the film's portrayal of Palestinian terrorists who, the critics claim, are given moral equivalency with the Mossad agents. BUT THERE are two meanings of "humanize" - "to represent as human" and "to make humane." Munich does not portray its Palestinians as humane. Even the most well-developed Palestinian in the film is still portrayed as a butcher, and at no point does the film urge its audience to root for the terrorists over the Mossad agents. Rather than making them compassionate, Spielberg has portrayed terrorists as human beings who contemplate, argue and debate. But portraying human characters is not the same as taking their side. But even the literal definition of "humanize" is insufficient for the film's politically-minded opponents. To those who see the Middle East as an absolute struggle of Good versus Evil, it is inconceivable that terrorists might be rational, sentient beings. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any portrayal of terrorists, short of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the aliens in War of the Worlds, that would placate Spielberg's most ardent critics. BUT THE humanization that cuts to the heart of the critics' outrage is arguably that of Munich's Mossad agents, specifically of Avner. Throughout the film, Avner - and, to varying degrees, each member of his team - vacillates between absolute conviction and paralyzing doubt. In his first job, Avner's fingers are trembling; he insists on repeating the question "Do you know why we're here?" before pulling the trigger. In subsequent jobs Avner goes out of his way to ensure that innocent bystanders are not harmed. He and his comrades engage in heated, albeit sometimes hackneyed, debates about their mission and about Jewish identity and destiny. Finally, Avner is haunted and crippled by various forms of violence: by his obsessive fantasies of the Munich massacre, by his own acts as an assassin, and by the murders, ultimately, of two of his team members. In other words, Avner is a human being. Spielberg and Kushner have advanced the apparently radical notion that an Israeli might possess a trait held by all humanity: doubt. It is this quality that forms a crux of the politically-based critiques of the film. David Brooks of The New York Times chides Spielberg because "the real Israeli fighters tend to be harder and less sympathetic [than Avner], and they are made that way by an awareness of the evil implacability of those who want to exterminate them." ONE IS left to wonder: Do we really want to glorify Mossad officers as unthinking automatons or trigger-happy Dirty Harrys? Are these the new Jewish ideals? What's especially odd is that the same critics who defend Israel's army as the most moral fighting force in the world are shocked at the portrayal of a Mossad agent as morally conflicted. Among these filmgoers only a cartoonish representation of Jewish history, identity and existence will suffice. Just as terrorists must be portrayed as supernatural demons, Mossad agents must be otherworldly superheroes not bound by mortal (or, worse yet, Diaspora) emotions. In other words, their depictions should verge dangerously close to Socialist Realism. The film's greatest blow to Israeli mythology comes at the end: Avner is so haunted by his experience that he leaves his country, becoming a "descender," or yored. With such an emphatic ending Spielberg dares to ask serious and often painful questions: Must devotion to the state take precedence over individual needs? How has the Jewish psyche been affected by decades of violence and war? It is not anti-Israel to ask these questions. In light of our collective history of debate and soul-searching it is anti-Jewish to deny that the questions should even be asked. Although it is by no means an anti-Zionist film, Munich punctures the contention, popular in the Jewish community, that Israel has brought nothing but unadulterated goodness to the Jewish experience. While defending both Israel's right to exist and its response to terror, and while plainly indicating that violence has been thrust upon Israel by its enemies, the film nonetheless concedes the human toll that a lifetime of violence has begotten both on the individual and on the Jewish nation. We are in a sad state of affairs if, almost 60 years after the creation of Israel, we must banish this topic as taboo and deny discussion of our all-too-human experiences of pain and moral doubt. The writer, based in New York, is the author of The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe.