Spielberg on Jewish Survival

Yakov Rabkin
March 2006

Published in the Yediot Ahranot (Y-Net) on March 6, 2006

Spielberg on Jewish Survival

by Yakov M Rabkin

MONTREAL. Steven Spielberg begins and ends his Munich with intimate scenes of a married couple. The husband and wife are the same but the man, who is full of love and tenderness for his pregnant wife in the beginning of the film, is overwhelmed by hate and violence by the time the film ends. What happens in between explains, often in graphic detail, why a loving husband almost turns into a brute. It appears as a metaphor for the Zionist dream of transforming “the meek Diaspora Jew” into “the new brave Israeli”. The film focuses on the fundamental difficulty of reconciling this dream with Jewish morality.

The plot is simple. After 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinians at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Golda Meir decided to take revenge for their death and thereby prevent further terrorist attacks. To carry out the plan, she chose Avner, son of a heroic Zionist family, whose mother had given him up as a baby to be educated in and by a kibbutz. The mother’s entire family had been wiped out in the Shoah, which made her a firm believer in the need for a separate state for Jews. The two women, Golda Meir and Avner’s mother, symbolize this firmness, virility and intransigence. Both are convinced that Israel must dominate in order to survive. When deciding the course of action, Golda is shown to overrule a few male generals who recoil from escalating violence.

As the hunt for the Palestinians, identified by the Mossad, gathers momentum, doubts begin to creep in. It is these doubts, and not the violence that engenders them, that the film is all about. The bomb-maker of the hit squad reminds Avner that “we’re Jews. Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong…we’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish…” He later dies in an accidental explosion. It is as if violence catches up with him even as he tries to revert to the Jewish aspiration for righteousness.

The film reminds us that righteousness and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive. “The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood”, says the man with a South African accent, affirming a Jewishness that neither his looks, nor his words seem to suggest. The Aryan looking blue-eyed blond self-righteous man recalls the image of the New Hebrew that Zionist posters used to portray in the 1930s and 1940s.

Avner appears as a tragic hostage of his parents’ Zionist dream, who, like so many Israelis and Palestinians, is desperate to break out of the violence into which he was born. His country is no less desperate: the retaliation is fuelling an infernal circle of violence that has not come to an end to this day. Finally, Avner finds peace in Brooklyn, the quintessential galut where the broken Israeli hero takes refuge. In one episode Israelis and Palestinians warriors end up – by mistake – sharing the same sleeping quarters. One may see it as a hint at possible coexistence, perhaps in the framework of  one “state of all its citizens”.

Violence can only beget violence, proclaims Spielberg in his film. Israeli filmmakers, such as Eytan Fox in Walk on Water and Avi Mograbi in Avenge but One of My Two Eyes, make the same point. What is different about Munich is its origin: American Jews seem to send a message of compassion and hope to their beleaguered brethren in Israel. They show the futility of attempts at domination.

The film goes to the very root of Israeli experience. The founders of Zionist armed units in Palestine recognized, as early as a hundred years ago, the use of force as a way of wrenching the Jew from his Judaic past, above and beyond the simple necessity of self defence.  Spielberg’s recent film brings to the fore the essential conflict between Jewish moral values and Israel’s raison d’État. In the attempt to preserve the people, Zionism has changed the people itself so that in some respects they are unrecognizable—and, furthermore, constiute a source of chronic violence.

The European nature of the Zionist enterprise is obvious in the film: all the Israeli protagonists are of European Ashkenazi stock. In this sense, Munich can be seen as a sequel to Schindler’s List. It shows how extreme anti-Semitic violence in last century’s Europe continues to brutalize men and women, Israelis and Palestinians, how it fuels the incessant violence in the Middle East. If Schindler’s List explores threats to the physical survival of the Jews, Munich is all about their spiritual survival.

It would be wrong to attribute nefarious intentions to Spielberg who voiced his concern in this cinematographic midrash. Several recent books (Prophets Outcast, Wrestling with Zion, the Question of Zion) are concerned with the same essential conflict between Zionism and Jewish values. Spielberg and his team projected this conflict on the screen. It is now out in the open, and we better debate it as honestly and as serenely as we can. The survival of the Jews is at stake.


The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal. His recent book on the history of Jewish opposition to Zionism, which appeared in French as Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition jujive au sionisme (PUL, 2004), is scheduled to appear in English under the title A Threat from Within: a Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism in Spring 2006.

January 20, 2006. Contact: (514) 343 7218; e-mail: yakov.rabkin@umontreal.ca

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