Message of Spielberg's 'Munich' doesn't square with reality


Steven Spielberg has remarked that he made Munich to promote a dialogue about the nature of terrorism and the efficacy of counterterrorism. His screenwriter, Tony Kushner, said on National Public Radio that he did not feel compelled to portray with accuracy Israel's retaliation against the Munich killers because "an audience has the resources to check" what is real and what is fiction. Well, here's a reality check.

Did Israeli counterterrorism measures after Munich create a "cycle of violence"?

The theme of Munich was dramatically represented by the visual image of the World Trade Center projected on the screen at the very end of the film. Several reviewers and commentators have interpreted this image as an implicit argument that Israel's policy of targeting terrorists for assassination caused, or at least contributed to, the attack on 9/11.

This argument is patent nonsense.

Osama bin Laden cares not a whit about Palestinian terrorists or Israeli counterterrorism measures. His target was the United States, Christianity, capitalism and Western values. He selected the World Trade Center because it symbolized American power.

Neither Mr. Spielberg nor Mr. Kushner had the courage to present this argument overtly because it is so easily refuted by the facts. Instead, they resorted to the kind of symbolism that has a profound impact on the emotions of viewers without an opportunity for logical response.

Why didn't Israel let Germany and other European countries arrest and extradite the terrorists?

Related to the above theme is the argument - this time made openly by Avner, the Mossad assassin who is the film's central character - that Israel should have tried to arrest the terrorists, as they did Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, and bring them to trial rather than assassinating them.

Avner (or the man who wrote his lines) failed to mention, however, that Israel could not arrest even as notorious a Nazi war criminal as Mr. Eichmann; its agents had to kidnap him in order to bring him to trial in Israel because many nations refused to extradite Nazi murderers for trial in Israel.

It was even worse with Palestinian terrorists. European countries routinely turned down Israeli requests to arrest and extradite terrorists. The few that were arrested were invariably released, and many committed additional acts of terrorism.

In the years leading up to Munich, nearly 200 terrorists were arrested outside of Israel. By the end of 1975, only three were still in European prisons. The most shocking case involved Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled, who first hijacked a TWA plane in 1969. She was arrested and released, and only a year later she tried to hijack an El Al jetliner bound for New York.

She was treated like "an official state guest" - her words - by her British captors before she was released after serving less than one month in jail for her second hijacking. Israel tried to get Britain to extradite Ms. Khaled to Israel to stand trial. Britain refused.

Even when Israel managed to arrest and imprison hijackers, this only encouraged further hijackings designed to release the imprisoned terrorists held by the Israelis. Indeed, Munich originally was a hostage-taking in which the demand was to release prisoners held by Israel. Even the three terrorists who survived the Munich massacre and were captured by Germany were quickly released after the German authorities orchestrated a phony hijacking that provided a cover for them to release the Munich terrorists.

This has been acknowledged by the senior aide to Germany's interior minister. When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir learned that even her staunch ally, Willy Brandt, was not prepared to imprison mass murderers whose victims were Israelis, she became determined to respond to terrorism in the only way Israel was capable of doing - by targeting the terrorists for assassination. Since these terrorists were surely combatants in an ongoing terrorist war, it was as lawful for Israel to target them as it is for the United States today to target bin Laden.

A misleading theme.

Mr. Spielberg's movie is concerned with proper homes. A militant member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Ali, lectures on his people's connection to all of Palestine, with no room for a Jewish state of any size. Avner, who is the movie's moral compass, seems ultimately to adopt Ali's view. By the end of the movie he, too, renounces Israel as his home, having moved to Brooklyn.

Presumably the filmmakers believe that a Jew's rightful place is Brooklyn, not Israel.

This is consistent with Mr. Kusher's one-sided political view that he has "a problem" with Israel's very existence and that it "would have been better if it never happened."

The millions of Jews who escaped Muslim oppression in the 1950s and Soviet oppression in the 1970s and 1980s would certainly disagree. So, too, would the thousands of Israeli civilians whose lives were saved by Israel's proactive steps against terrorism disagree with the major premise of Munich - that counterterrorism is always counterproductive.

Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard University. His latest book is "The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can be Resolved." His e-mail is

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