Even before its official release, Munich, Steven Spielberg’s newest movie, was attacked by columnists, and in letters to the editor in leading newspapers and magazines, for allegedly creating the impression that there is no moral difference between Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals.
Both conservatives and liberals, including David Brooks of The New York Times and Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, have criticized the movie and its director, as well as Tony Kushner, coauthor of the screenplay, for failing to distinguish between terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad that deliberately target innocents, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), whose retaliatory strikes—even when they cause “collateral damage” and kill civilians—target only terrorists. In his essay in The New Republic (parts of which were printed in The New York Times), Wieseltier observed that the movie’s treatment of Palestinian terrorists and Israeli retaliations “looks ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective.”
I saw nothing in the movie to justify the claim that it seeks to establish the moral equivalence of terrorist killings of civilians and Israeli retaliations. While the movie includes an emotional exchange between a Palestinian terrorist and the leader of the Israeli counterterrorism team about the moral claims of their respective national struggles, the focus of Munich is on members of the Israeli assassination team and their mounting doubts about their assignment and what it may be doing to their values and personal lives. These doubts are frequently the subject of their conversations, and finally cause the leader of the team so much anguish that he refuses to return to Israel. The Israelis therefore inevitably emerge as more real, personally appealing, and morally attractive than the Palestinian terrorists, whom the viewer never gets to know much about.
The issue of moral equivalence is raised by the critics, not by the movie. But their assertion of the “absolute evil” of targeting innocent civilians, an assertion I fully agree with, does not necessarily justify their conclusion about the moral difference between Palestinian and Israeli behavior. Israeli retaliations are all too often conducted on a disproportionate scale and predictably kill large numbers of Palestinian civilians, an outcome that cannot simply be dismissed as “an Israeli mistake.” Wieseltier himself notes that “over the years more civilians were killed in Israeli air strikes than in the Palestinian atrocities that provoked the air strikes.”
General Dan Halutz, currently Israel’s chief of staff, was asked in 2002, when he was head of Israel’s air force, what he felt when he learned that a one-ton bomb his plane had dropped on a Hamas leader also killed nine Palestinian children—an outcome that should have been anticipated since the bomb was dropped on an apartment building whose residents were civilians. He famously replied that he felt “a slight bump” in his plane when the bomb was released. He added that he slept very well that night, thank you.
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