Feb’06 Spotlight

WEIGHING IN ON ‘MUNICH’

By this time, you may well have read all the articles you’ll ever want to read about Steven Spielberg’s new film “Munich.” Wearing my film critic’s hat, I thought “Munich” was just OK. Looked at in purely cinematic terms, I found the screenwriting lazy and the direction uneven. So why so much fuss about a mediocre action flick?

“Munich” is controversial insofar as it attempts to raise “big issues.” Its final moments deliberately invoke 9/11/01, even though the main action is clearly set between September 1972 and September 1973. I have no idea what members of the Mossad actually did or didn’t do in the aftermath of the Munich massacre, but I think there’s a much more fundamental historical distortion. To pick up on Michael Kotzin’s eloquent article on page X: “For Spielberg, the case for Israel is just about exclusively linked to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and the need for a homeland in light of that historic trauma.”

In “Munich,”, politics begins to corrode the plot in the Athens “safe house.” The improbable “safe house” scenes have been constructed solely so that Avner can have a soulful stairway conversation with his Palestinian counterpart, Ali. Thinking that he’s talking to a left-wing radical, Ali tells Avner that Jews are manipulating German guilt about the Holocaust: “My father never gassed anybody!”

What Spielberg and Kushner do in this scene is validate the assertion that Israel is basically a European country whose citizens are primarily Holocaust survivors and their descendants. The consequences of this fallacy are now part of our daily news. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says: “If you [Westerners] have burned the Jews, why don’t you give a piece of Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska to Israel… if you have committed this huge crime, why should the innocent nation of Palestine pay for this crime?,” everyone decries his denial of the Holocaust even while they tacitly accept his basic premise.

But the Jewish citizens of Israel come from many lands, including most of the Middle East. Jews were stripped of possessions, exiled, and sometimes even murdered in almost all of the Islamic countries both during and immediately after the horrific events in Europe. So it’s time for filmmakers, especially Jewish filmmakers, to recognize that Israel as a multicultural, multiracial democracy with a huge Mizrachi component.

Those of us lucky enough to have seen the documentary “The Last Jews of Baghdad” at Spertus last year already know some of the specific details. So do readers of Roya Hakakian’s memoir “Journey from the Land of No.” According to Hakakian, within days after the Shah left Tehran in 1979, swastikas were already visible on the walls of her neighborhood along with the graffiti message: “Johouds [dirty Jews] Get Lost!” Mizrachi history is also reflected in recent films such as “The Ringworm Children” and “Turn Left at the End of the World,” both of which were shown as part of last year’s Israel Film Festival series.

Almost 1 million Jews from Islamic countries emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 2001, many of them penniless refugees airlifted in from cosmopolitan capitals. Ten years ago, Steven Spielberg made “Schindler’s List,” a film so powerful that Holocaust denial finally became disreputable, so it’s somehow appropriate that Spielberg, however inadvertently, should be the director to close this loop a decade later. Worse even than forgetting the Holocaust is allowing our enemies to use it as a weapon against us.

NOTE: I have one final problem with “Munich”: by ending their film sometime in September 1973, Spielberg and Kushner have deliberately ignored what actually happened next, namely the attack on Israel that began on Oct. 6, 1973. The Broadway hit “Golda’s Balcony,” originally scheduled to open this month, has been pushed back, so I’ll have more to say about the Yom Kippur War come June.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (2/1/06)

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