The moral dilemma of fighting fire with fire

January 27, 2006

Munich (15)

In cinemas nationwide from Friday, January

"The best baklava is made by the Arabs in Jaffa," insists the Mossad case officer to his chief agent in charge of assassinating those Palestinians whom Israel claims planned the Munich operation of 1972.

Besides being excellent baklava-makers, we learn little else in Steven Spielberg's film Munich about Jaffa's Palestinians, the majority of whom were pushed into the sea by Zionist forces in May 1948. Many drowned, the rest escaped to Lebanon and were never allowed to return.

Munich is not about these Palestinians. It is emphatically about Israeli Jews and Israeli terrorism. In the context of Hollywood's history, it is not the first film to discuss this - Otto Preminger's 1960 film Exodus was, in essence, a celebration of Jewish terror. Like Exodus, Munich poses moral questions about whether the end justifies the means as it chronicles the pangs of conscience that trouble Israeli terrorists while they murder Palestinian poets, writers and politicians across Europe and in Lebanon.

If Exodus 's Ari Ben Canaan was a cultured man who knew his way around a French restaurant menu, Munich 's Avner Kaufman is a gourmet cook and a sensual lover, although with questionable taste in erotic fantasies.

The film explores Avner's inner conflict, his love for his wife and yearning for his newly born child, as well as his troubled relationship with his parents. It also describes the moral conflicts of the other members of Avner's terrorist cell.

As we know from documentary accounts about Mossad agents' determination to kill enemy Palestinians with little moral questioning, it is some of the Diaspora Jewish supporters of Israel who infrequently feign these ethical dilemmas.

Munich is a film in which these Diaspora supporters, and not Israeli Mossad agents, may recognise themselves.

Exodus celebrated a Haganah commander threatening British authorities in 1947 with a suicide bombing that would blast a ship with 611 Jewish refugees on board unless allowed passage to Palestine. Even though it flinched slightly from the terrorism of the Irgun that included blowing up the King David Hotel, Exodus ultimately recognised the necessity of Jewish terrorism to support the establishment of the Jewish state. Munich need not dabble with such existential questions. The matter of Israel's existence on stolen Palestinian lands and at the expense of Palestinian lives has been settled in Exodus .

The moral questions that Munich poses have to do with the souls of Israeli Jews. Unlike Palestinian terrorists who seem to have no conscience, Israeli terrorists are humanised in the film. We see them laugh, cry, make love, kill, regret, question authority. But we also see them lose their souls.

It is the Palestinians who force the choice of terror on Israel, Munich insists, but the film also argues that Jews, having a morally superior code, need not respond in kind.

In both movies, Palestinians ventriloquise the worst that Zionist propaganda says they say. If the good Palestinian in Exodus was the collaborator Taha, Munich offers the terrorist Ali, who is killed by the Israelis, confirming that the only good Palestinian is a dead Palestinian.

As for the rest of the Palestinian people, Munich , like the Israeli authorities, hopes that they stick to making baklava rather than resisting Israeli oppression, resistance that forces Israel to kill them, which in turn forces moral dilemmas on some of Israel's supporters in the Diaspora.

Joseph Massad is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. The Persistence of the Palestinian Question is to be published by Routledge next month, £19.99.

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