Saturday, January 20, 2007


Politics is war fought by other means.

I remember this oft quoted axiom (from Prussian general and strategist Carl von Clausewitz) being cited by one of my more intimidating university lecturers in conversation with a colleague of mine at a book launch one Friday afternoon. The colleague had had the misfortune to involve herself in campus politics during a rather savage era and had that bitter emptiness that often ensues. War, the lecturer continued, is easy to make. It’s peace that’s difficult.

Difficult indeed. How difficult? Here we are the world at the brink of a possibly global catastrophe caused by of all things religion. Who’d have thought in this most secular, technological and humanist of ages that the medieval mentalities that prevailed for almost a millennia prior to the dawning of the modern era would reassert themselves in such a fierce and uncompromising manner.

Of course it’s really about territory. When the layers of self-righteousness are removed all wars are about territory (and/or resources). In this case the so-called Holy Land has once again taken centre stage. This article does not pretend to offer magical solutions. There are none. The agreed upon solution – the two state idea - is generally thought to be right one but the parties involved will not stop shooting and bombing each other long enough to give it a chance. When there is a calm moment someone finds a way to sabotage it and snatch conflict from the jaws of peaceful co-existence.

This article seeks instead to illustrate the obtuse attitudes that are pervasive when it comes to this conflict. My way of doing this is to examine the variety of things said regarding the film Munich.

I chose this film for three reasons.

First: the kidnapping and subsequent assassination of eleven Israeli athletes, the film’s starting point, is generally regarded as the watershed in which the Israel/Palestine conflict morphed from conventional territorial conflict to that form of barbaric guerrilla warfare known as ‘terrorism’.

Secondly the film is by a Zionist liberal Jew: Steven Spielberg who made it in an attempt to bring understanding to the terrible cycle of bloodshed and thereby contribute to bringing the whole nasty business to an end.

Third: I haven’t seen it and therefore don’t have an opinion as to the film’s impartiality nor it’s success or failure in accomplishing what it sets out to do. The film for my purpose is not important. What is interesting is the fact that so many mutually exclusive points-of-view have been expressed about it.

For the purposes of this article the term Zionist denotes any person who supports the existence of Israel regardless of their political stance otherwise. Pro-Palestinians are likewise persons who tend to side with the Palestinians.

Are these people watching the same film?
Let's start with Messrs. Massad and Krauthammer:

Charles Krauthammer complains in The Washington Post that the“ … Palestinians who plan the massacre and are hunted down by Israel are given — with the concision of the gifted cinematic craftsman — texture, humanity, depth, history.” (Krauthammer “Munich, The Travesty”,Washington Post Friday, January 13, 2006; Page A21).

Alternatively Joseph Massad argues that “Spielberg … humanizes Israeli terrorists in Munich but expectedly not the Palestinian terrorists who are portrayed as having no conscience. It seems that unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinians shoot but do not cry! (Massad, “Munich or Making Baclava” cited in The Electronic Intifada, 3 February 2006).

Krauthammer says the Palestinians are humanized. Massad says they are dehumanised. Who’s right?

It seems on both sides of the debate there is a problem with the portrayal of the humanity of the ‘other’. Most writers argue either that Munich doesn’t take sides or it takes the wrong side. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, says that “by choosing a story set in 1972, Spielberg allows himself to ignore the core poison that permeates the Middle East, Islamic radicalism. In Spielberg’s Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. There are no passionate anti-Semites, no Holocaust deniers like the current president of Iran, no zealots who want to exterminate Israelis. There is, above all, no evil.” (Brooks “What Munich Left Out” New York Times Dec 11 2005).

On the other side As’ad AbuKhalil thinks that Munich “could easily have been a paid Israeli advertisement for its killing machine. In fact, it could be a recruitment movie for Israeli killing squads. It is a celebration of Israeli murder of Palestinians. When Israelis kill, it is always moral, and always careful, and always on target.” (AbuKhalil “Munich: Spielberg’s lies and cover-ups” For AbuKhalil there is evil, Munich promotes it.

These people are so divided they are incapable of seeing the same film. The film is filtered through an extensive prejudgement process before the thinking starts.

On the blog the writer a self-proclaimed psychotherapist and admirer of Freud, Jung and Adler compares Munich to Hirschbiegel’s The Downfall, a film that depicts Hitler’s last days in the bunker. The blogger objects to this film because it attempts “to portray Adolph Hitler in a human, albeit flawed, light.” Somehow this strategy is supposed to let the German people off the hook for letting the bastard take over.

Having seen that film and corresponding documentaries covering the same subject I have to say the film is a pretty good portrayal of what was happening in that place at that time. That is that supporters of the maniac Nazi command were confronted with the irrefutable truth that these people were ultra-selfish death worshipping psychos. But yes Hitler in The Downfall is human. Hitler in real life was human. Unpleasant but a fact nonetheless. Terrorists and assassins likewise are also human.

But this is the problem that the writer has. For him “Munich attempts to give credibility to a failed, destructive and evil society and indeed, what is an evil and failed culture.” It is not simply terrorists and/or their acts that are evil but the entire society itself. Palestinian Arabs are evil, their culture and society is evil.

So for Zionists Munich fails because it fails to grasp the inherent evil perpetrated on the Jewish people by Arab terrorism. However on the pro-Palestinian side as mentioned Munich fails for exactly the opposite reason. According to Canadian writer/filmmaker Julian Samuel Munich is racist the way D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is racist: “Palestinians have become [for Spielberg] what blacks were for Griffith: Dark, threatening creatures to be eliminated with extreme prejudice.” (As cited on

I must add that it’s misleading to infer that all the Zionists I canvassed were critical of the film. Heather Robinson believes that “Munich depicts civilized, decent men who can–and do–give the terrorists what they have coming.” (Robinson "What’s Right With Munich" 8/2/06). The overwhelming majority however, did.

Palestine and Israel: Morally Equivalent?
Many on both sides find fault with the film not for its partisan stance but it’s moral equivalency Colin Andersen on the same website argues that in regards to the Israel/Palestine conflict “we’re dealing not with a level playing field, but another variation of the clash between a European colonial-settler movement, in this case Zionism, on the one hand, and an indigenous non-European people, the Palestinian Arabs, on the other.” (Andersen "Munich and moral equivalence", 2/2/06 )

For Andersen the evil is Israeli (read European imperialist) aggression. He calls the Palestinians indigenous but makes no mention of the fact that Jews occupied that territory until Vespasian came along. Nor does he explain how a people who have been displaced, marginalised, enslaved and nearly slaughtered by various European states can be described as agents for European imperialism. Kate Wright argues the same way from the opposite direction. Her article includes a catalogue of associations between Nazism and the Arab world that predate the establishment of Israel and concludes “Spielberg seems convinced by moral relativism, the position that there is no comprehensive moral truth or truth value, that only personal subjective morality, deriving from social convention is truly authentic”. Ms. Wright doesn't consider the possibility that the advocacy of peace can be a cornerstone of moral truth.

And let's not forget: love thy enemy. Who said that? Jewish lad I believe.

Both Wright and Andersen have the same problem with Munich; it, they think, equates the Palestinian and Israeli position each as morally equal and they are not. Mr. Andersen believes it obvious that the Palestinians occupy the moral high ground and Ms. Wright believes the opposite!

So Zionists in general condemn the film because either it’s pro-Palestinian or it sits on the fence. Those pro-Palestinian condemn the film likewise as either an advertisement for Israeli aggression or again because it sits on the fence. What does this demonstrate?

Well as someone who pays some attention to Middle East ‘developments’ it demonstrates the hopelessness of the situation is due to the utter refusal of both parties to understand that the other side might have some justification for their beefs and furthermore the use of violence will precipitate return fire.
On those rare occasions when I see advocates of Palestine and Israel on the same show stating their case the result is always the same. Confronted by draconian measures against Palestinian civilians the Israeli spokesperson will change the subject to Hamas and suicide bombers. Asked about suicide bombers and the anti-Semitic stance of organizations like Hamas the Palestinian always changes the subject to Israeli policy.

It’s always their fault.

Each side believes the only way forward is for the other side to relinquish its stand and take sides with the enemy against the militant parts of their own people. This situation is exacerbated because the unreason is infectious. Throughout the Western world one cannot discuss the subject without someone frothing at the mouth: a situation made painfully obvious in the Munich discourse.

Consider the partisan historical analysis brought into play.

The aforementioned Ms. Wright for example cites Jerusalem’s “Grand Mufti … inciting violence against Jews through the 1920s, and as Nazism spread through Europe, Jews fled to Palestine.” And the Arab’s “next move … to make overtures to Adolf Hitler”. But she makes no mention of Likud’s overtures to the Nazi high command in the same period to give them client sovereignty over Israel.

Many pro-Palestinian writers cite the Lillehammer affair in which the Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchiki was shot whilst on holiday in Norway because he was mistaken for a PLO operative. They are outraged at the death of an innocent civilian but do not comment on the morality of shooting Olympic athletes.

David Brooks criticises Spielberg for choosing to portray an events that took place in the early 70s because then one avoids the anti-Semitism of modern Arab organizations like Hamas. He fails to mention that that is because these organizations were not anti-Semitic at the time. Until relatively recently there was a clear distinction made between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism which is now sadly forever smudged. He fails also to ponder whether anti-Semitism would be such a feature of contemporary thinking in the Muslim world if Israel’s actions had been different. Indeed by declaring anti-Semitism the Middle-East's "core poison" he is inferring that Arabs are primarily motivated by Nazi ideology. The legitimacy of Palestinian objections is discarded.

The racial politics of Europe are not the racial politics of the Middle East. Arab leaders like Anwar Sadat admired Hitler in the 1930s not so much for his racial theology but because he stood up to the British Empire which controlled Egypt at the time. Sadat also admired Ghandi whose philosophy was mutually exclusive with Nazism. The Holocaust denials and anti-Semitic diatribes of many in the Muslim world might be the very unfortunate result of the simple dictum: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This has become tragically comic with events like Iran's holocaust denial conference attended and addressed by characters like KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke.

Moral relativism again? No, the opposite of moral relativism. Each side is attempting to assert moral absolutism. Iran has conducted a holocaust denial conference in order to undermine Israel's claims to legitimacy. From the other side comes the assertion that the Arab world consists of, in the words of a recent blogsphere commentator, "fascist monsters". Around and around it goes. According to the pro-Israel camp the Palestinians and their alllies are Nazis, according to the pro-Palestine camp it's the Israelis who are the Nazis. If I was visiting Earth from outer space I'd think the whole situation laughable. But I'm human and humans are killing other humans. It's not funny.

I'm not sure questions of moral relativism are constructive. If one excludes the mandate of God one is left with a case of ironic historical tragedy. Jewish people, persecuted in Europe, try to escape this by setting up a country in their traditional homeland. Can one who was not tortured maniacally by the Nazis during the 30s and 40s sit in judgement on the people who migrated to Palestine determined to find refuge from persecution?

I cannot and do not.

However there were people living there and the results are that they have been marginalised and oppressed within their own country. The notion that Palestinians can simply become citizens of one of the neighbouring Arab countries has been rendered nonsense. Most such countries have consistently refused to grant the Palestinians citizenship.

In this case the either/or scenario is simply wrong. The establishment of Israel cannot simply be written off as another case of European colonialism. The problem in the first place was that Jewish people were not accepted as European. Neither can the Palestinians be expected to pay the price for the Holocaust. They were not there, they didn’t do it regardless of whatever contact Hitler may have had with Arab leaders.

Evil deeds may have resulted (by and upon both sides) but one cannot write one side off as completely and irretrievably reprehensible. If that were the case it would be easy. I suspect the reason for so much selective myopia is probably that people want a clear cut case and the simplest way to accomplish that is simply to ignore the wrongs wrought by ‘our’ side and amplify those of the ‘other’ whilst simultaneously ignoring whatever good case one’s enemies might have and emphasising one’s own righteousness.

The reactions to Munich amply demonstrate these phenomena. There were of course praises for the film’s brutal honesty. Mostly these came from writers of the disinterested liberal sort. Persons with no connection to the conflict. But one commentary did give me reason to believe that perhaps peace is not impossible.

Karim Elsahy contemplates the reason for the fighting:

“people on my side are fighting for what they lost. Fighting for a home, a land, and self determination”. [But the] “same goes for the Israelis. If I were a Jew I probably would have been just as adamant about Israel. A chance to live under their own rule after millennia of Diaspora and persecution?”

“What if we (the Arabs and the Jews) were the ones that didn’t get it? Securely wrapped in the confidence of our own self-virtue what if we are the ignorant. What if there really is nothing worth fighting for.” (Elsahy Munich 12/1/06)

Well maybe Spielberg got thru to someone after all.