Upon my first visit to Munich in the summer of 1992, I immediately proceeded to the infamous apartment block of the Olympic village where the 11 Israel athletes were kidnapped 20 years earlier. I was shocked to discover that only a small, stone monument, stood to commemorate their slaughter, erected not by the German government, but by the Israelis.
The almost callous disregard for Israeli life that was exhibited – and continues to be exhibited – by the German government is one of the lasting legacies of Munich. The Germans launched an astonishingly mediocre rescue attempt to free the hostages that directly resulted in their eventual massacre. At the Furstenfeldbruck airbase where the haphazard rescue was attempted, the German police force demonstrated almost comic incompetence.
Against eight heavily armed terrorists, they deployed only five German police officers as snipers, chosen not because they had training in sharp-shooting, but because they shot competitively on weekends. Their rifles were rudimentary, without automatic capability or even scopes. This outrage, of course, came after an even more inept rescue effort within the Olympic village itself, which was conducted in full view of the world’s TV cameras and was watched by the terrorists themselves on television.
Funny, isn’t it, that when it came to murdering Jews, the Germans demonstrated an astonishing efficiency. But when it came to rescuing them, they couldn’t even shoot straight.
It gets better. The bodies of the terrorists who were killed on the tarmac at Furstenfeldbruck were then sent by the German government to Libya, where they received a hero’s funeral and were buried with full military honors. All of this would be tragic enough had the German government not subsequently decided to free the three captured terrorists after a Lufthansa jet was hijacked.
One would think that any country that had slaughtered 6 million Jews a quarter of a century earlier would be that much more sensitive to Jewish life. But the German government has yet to erect a proper monument for the 11 innocent victims and it is for this reason that, whatever flaws exist in Spielberg’s enormously compelling film, he is first and foremost to be lauded for finally doing justice to the memory of those 11 brave men.
The world mistakenly believed that Munich was a Jewish tragedy when really it was an international one. It was the first time that terrorism was brought front and center on the world stage. The Jewish people have often been like a canary in a coal mine. And what afflicts them later becomes a world affliction. All too often, however, Jewish life has been treated with such callous disregard by the rest of the world that the affliction itself is disregarded.
When the Jews were first persecuted by the Catholic Church, no one foresaw that religious oppression and religious war would become a driving theme of European history. When Hitler began to persecute the Jews, no one expected he could suck the entire world into his homicidal vortex. And when world terrorism began to afflict Israel, no one foresaw 9-11 and the terrorist attacks against European capitols.
As for the criticism on the part of many Jewish commentators that Munich establishes a moral equivalency between the cold-blooded murder of 11 innocent men and Israel’s hunting down of the terrorist leaders, I did not see that comparison strongly emphasized in the film. On the contrary, Spielberg shows very accurately how Israeli agents are never allowed to take a life until they’ve clearly established the identity of the person in question, very often risking their lives to even compare the intended victim with an actual photograph. He also shows how careful Israel is never to create collateral damage.
It is true that Spielberg makes the point, particularly in the speech given by the Israeli Mossad bomb-maker, that Jews are the peaceful people of the Book who ought not to become like their enemies by taking life. This is, of course, an absurd argument. It would have us believe that not only should the world see Jewish life as worthless, but Jews themselves ought to see it that way as well, i.e., one ought to be able to take a Jewish life without repercussions because the Jews are way too moral to strike out against those who plot their demise. The Talmud clearly establishes that one who comes to murder you must first be killed themselves. The man or woman who has devoted their life to killing innocent people has erased the image of God from their countenance and has therefore erased their right to life.
I have been a rabbi since I was 21-years old, and I would like to believe that I have devoted my life to a Godly calling. Yet, I have absolutely no compunction in saying that the killing of a terrorist awakens in me not a single pang of conscience. I do not celebrate his demise, nor do I revel in it.
We Jews have never rejoiced in the death of even the most wicked of men. Israel has no military parades to celebrate its many victories. We do not fight because we choose to be a warring nation or because there is glory in war. We fight out of sheer, moral necessity. Human life is precious, and if we do not stop those who wish to take it, we thereby unwittingly declare our contempt for this most precious of all gifts.
Well-meaning people like Steven Spielberg must understand that there are three, rather than two, moral categories: the good, the bad, and the necessary. Killing terrorists is not a necessary evil, it is simply necessary.
Spielberg tries to make the argument that the killings after Munich did not change anything because more people just joined the ranks of the terrorists, just as people say today about Iraq that there will never be an end to the fighting, because whatever terrorists America eliminates, 20 more take their place. But this is a hollow argument because it overlooks the fact that so many innocent lives are saved when terrorists masterminds are neutralized for an even limited period of time. Their plans are disrupted, and until they regroup, attacks cannot be carried out. The fact that more terrorists later come and kill other innocents does not in any way contradict the fact thousands of lives are saved in the interim.
Just because we still can’t cure cancer, today, does not mean that the effort 10 years ago should not have been made. Just because we may never stop terrorism does not mean that we should ever fail our moral imperative to never disengage from the battle. And just because evil continues to stalk the earth, we dare not lesson our resolve to continually fight it, even if as yet we cannot completely defeat it.