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Mail on morality and 'Munich'

Kathleen Murphy's review of "Munich."

A reader writes:

In your article "Spy vs. Spy" you said that the phrase moral equivalency "is the first refuge of a con-artist," meaning, I suppose, that it is only ever deployed to stunt empathy in service of some nefarious goal. From my view of things, the tendency towards moral equivalency refers to something concrete, especially as it relates to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

What it amounts to is the refusal of many Palestinian advocates, such as yourself, to denounce the intentional murder of civilians of various Palestinian terrorist organizations, without concomitantly mentioning some sin of the Israeli government. There are a variety of motives for this, ranging from a reluctance to weaken one's own argument to an honest dislike of Israel, but it's a genuine habit, and it's worth combatting.

Why did you feel it was necessary to mention the bombing of the King David Hotel, including a casualty report, while neglecting to mention that the occupants of the hotel were warned of the attack to limit those casualties, not to mention the fact that it was an attack on the British, not on Palestinians? Why do you refuse to distinguish between the intentional murder of civilians and their unhoped-for death as "acceptable collateral damage"? Palestinian terrorism does not implicate all Palestinians, or deligitimize their desire for a homeland, but neither does any act of Israel's excuse it. The unintended consequence is to lessen the culpability of those who, in an age that has already seen the successes of Gandhi and King, resort not just to violence, but to violence that maximizes casualties, and pain. And the anxiety that many feel in the face of recklessness like yours is caused by a concern that no matter what steps the Israeli government takes to limit the pain that they inflict in their own defense, their actions will always be seen as a mirror of the worst of the Palestinians'.

I haven't seen "Munich," and I have no idea what it accomplished. There's a difference between trying to see both sides of an equation and the refusal to discern an evil act, and I wouldn't be surprised if the critics of "Munich" you cite are unfairly overreacting. But, in condemnation of Israel, many have been willing to dismiss the continued belligerence of Palestinian terror groups as beside the point, and to leave the condemnation of their behavior to others. If outrage preceded "Munich"'s release, it is in part because the tendency of Israel's critics towards moral equivalence has damaged the credibility of the left on this issue. I hope that next time you are not as snide in dismissing those that disagree with you. They are more than just con artists.

David Hunter New York

Here's why I think most "moral equivalency" arguments are bunk: because what they're really saying is that the very same act (a bombing, a killing) is OK if it's committed by one side and not by another. It is often used to excuse a "reprisal" by Palestinians against Israelis, or by Israelis against Palestinians, to say that the killing of one group of people is permitted in order to "equalize the scales" for the killing of another group of people. I would say this, in itself, is a form of "moral relativism." And, as Spielberg and many others have pointed out, it doesn't take any great historical genius to see that this tit-for-tat mentality has resulted in more than fifty years of war, without any end in sight. As far as the partisans on either side are concerned, the moral scales will never be even. One side is always seen as the greater wrongdoer.

 

My purpose in citing the King David Hotel bombing (in which British, Arabs and Jews were killed) was to remind people today that, even back before the United Nations officially formed the state of Israel in 1948, terrorist tactics have never been exclusive to the Palestinians or the Israelis. The most horrifying aspect of this long conflict, to me, may be that it sends the message to the world that "terrorism works." Bomb enough targets -- civilian or military -- and, eventually, you're going to get some concessions, even if the result (whether it's a Jewish state or a Palestinian state) is not quite what you wished for in the first place. Today, Israel is a firmly established state and large parts of the West Bank have been turned over to the Palestinians -- but neither side is particularly happy about the status quo.

There were a number of Zionist militant organizations -- Irgun, the Stern Gang -- who (as you pointed out) bombed and otherwise attacked and killed Arab civilians and fighters, and British and Americans, as well. Today, most Americans are familiar with the Palestinian anti-Israeli terrorist groups, such as Hamas, Fatah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and so on.

The truth is, extreme elements claiming to represent both the Palestinians and the Israelis in this conflict have long used terrorist tactics in bloody attempts to get what they want. (And in my opinion, a warning, or even several warnings, that a bomb is about to go off -- at a hotel, a military headquarters, a prison, an embassy, a subway, an office building -- does not make it any less of a terrorist bombing than a surprise "suicide attack." If the 9/11 killers had "warned" somebody that they were about to hit the WTC and the Pentagon, would that have excused what they did in any way? I don't think so.) Also remember that the Palestinians justified the kidnapping and killing of the 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics by claiming that because all Israeli males must serve in the army, these men were considered "military targets." I don't know who, if anyone, bought that "logic" -- but they tried it in formulating their own "self-defense" rationale. I wonder if they may actually even have believed it.

What I find most fascinating (and this is not an uncommon argument) is what you see as "the refusal of many Palestinian advocates, such as yourself, to denounce the intentional murder of civilians of various Palestinian terrorist organizations, without concomitantly mentioning some sin of the Israeli government." First, I don't consider myself a "Palestinian advocate" (whatever that means) -- in the sense that I don't think the Palestinians (who, I admit, have suffered from horrendous, corrupt "leadership" for many years) or the Israelis (who have vastly superior military might but haven't been able to protect their own citizens from Palestinian attacks) have anything to brag about when it comes to their political behavior over the last 100 years. Both sides have legitimate grievances, and both sides have behaved abominably at times. I feel no need, or desire, to weigh the atrocities of one against the other to determine which has killed the most people or violated the most laws. That way lies madness.

I agree with you when you write: "There's a difference between trying to see both sides of an equation and the refusal to discern an evil act." That is exactly the distinction I think the "moral equivalency" crowd refuses to make. To me, an evil act is one that you know in advance is going to kill civilians -- whether they're your primary target or "collateral damage." To pretend otherwise is playing disingenuous "moral equivalency" games.

Not that self-defense is not necessary. But acts in the name of self-defense can always be justified in times of war -- sometimes legitimately, sometimes simply as an excuse for retaliation. What I'm saying, and what "Munich" (2005) is saying, is that there are always consequences from these actions that, one way or another, you will have to live with. For those who would quote the bible in their defense, let's remember the Commandment is "Thou shalt not kill." It's not "Thou shalt not murder." It's not "Thou shalt not kill except in self-defense," or "except as part of a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state." (Meanwhile, in the bible and the Koran, there are plenty of contradictory exhortations to smite and slaughter the less-than-devout, or enemies of your people or your religion.) So, I'd say if you're going to kill -- whatever your reason or excuse, or whatever god you worship -- you're going to be held accountable for it, in this life or the next, whether you like it or not. There may or may not be "mitigating factors," but killing is killing whenever the result is a dead person.

That is not to say (as some of "Munich"'s wackier critics have) that Spielberg is suggesting we just roll over and surrender to terrorists and invite them to attack and kill us. (Note to moviegoers: If that's what you get from "Munich" I suggest you talk to your doctor. First an ophthalmologist, then a mental health care professional.) But I don't think it's at all unreasonable or irresponsible to point out the fact that the last 57 years of killing in Israel and Palestine have not been terribly productive or rewarding for either side. As another correspondent wrote:

Old testament beliefs and values lead to old testament solutions. Is vengeange justice? From either side? Is God a God that punishes? And if God is within us, is that what we do, also?

(Signed) Ilze Kampe

- - - -

A "self-hating" Jew?

As a Jew whose father was a Holocaust survivor (he left Germany in 1935 at the age of 7), Israel naturally evokes strong emotions. However, I also recognized that Israel is a modern political state. As such, there are times when policies of the government of the day conflict with my views. I have experienced times when I have expressed my differences only to be told that I was being a "disloyal" Jew or, even worse, being a self-hating Jew. Of course, I consider such criticism to be utter rubbish, but it still hurts to hear it.

There also seems to be a view that Israel is the center of the Jewish faith and that no matter what ones nationality is, a "good" Jew also owes allegiance to Israel. I found this attitude particularly galling when I was in the US Army. I have always considered my nationality, and therefore my loyalty, to be to the United States without condition. That has never stopped me from criticizing government policy when I felt it was wrong. Yet, somehow, Israel can't be criticized without the specter of anti-Semitism being raised.

Judging by what you and others have written about "Munich," Mr. Spielberg explores difficult moral issues relating to terrorism and responses to it. No doubt it makes for thought-provoking viewing. However, as you ably point out, anyone who would question his commitment to Judaism and Israel has no understanding of the man, even after "Schindler's List."

Kenneth Barr New York, NY

I fully agree. Go ahead and argue with "Munich" once you've seen it (that's what it's there for), but ridiculous, ad hominem attacks on Spielberg's Jew-cred automatically destroy the credibility of anyone who makes them.

- - - -

From an Israeli soldier:

This letter from a 21-year-old recently dismissed Israeli soldier is one of the most illuminating we received, so I'm publishing it here with minimal editing:

First a note about the international point of view. Though we mostly appreciate the good intentions of any outside attention/interference with our problems, and its so called "nautral point of view," Israel was for the better part of the time the side that was criticized for their actions. That's probably simply because until now the Palestinians never had any official territory to be called "Palestine." But we find it a bit hypocritical being preached about morality by the UN which among it's members you have nations who themselves commited even worse immoral acts. If it's the French and their almost never mentioned Armenian holocaust or the Swiss who only less than 70 years ago while most of Europe struggled against the Nazi regime, simply stood aside, easily enough claimed "neutral" and let Hitler take them over, where was their international responsibility then?

The list can go on and on, most european countries have Skeletons in the closets, but surprisingly (maybe not that surprising...). Only the Germans seem to have the decency to usualy keep silent on this matters.

On the other side (of the ocean) the US interference is a right you have rightfully earned for various reasons including a truley international responsibility in the World Wars.

Now, I don't say that the UN (for example) should not interfere, quite the opposite, we need the outside help in negotiating with the Palestinians, but most of time we get blamed for exagerated acts of war crimes by people who forgot their own nation's bloody history.

You very observantly wrote: "Who gets to claim the crowning role of victim is essential to the perceptions that drive this particular war -- and maybe even the key to winning it."

That really seems to be a strange part of this conflict, and it reflects in how many "pity-points" your side can collect through the eye of the international media coverage. Sadly for Israel, the Palestinians win this "match" almost every "round." Why? Simple. The "media war" is basically fought with pictures, people easily react to them, and the principle of "one picture a thousand words" is an every-day problem in the current Israeli international publicity, and is much discussed here. It's fairly easy to take a picture of a Palestinian child with a rock in his hand standing infront of a military tank, and it is very emotionally strong to look at. But on the Israeli side how can you show burnt corpses sitting in a burnt bus, or scattered human limbs? You can't.

While the Islamic religion regards the body as nothing more than a shell, Judaism (as well as Christianity) don't. We have a law called "Kvod Ha'met" and it roughly translates as "respect of the dead", among other things it means that you cannot show dead bodies in the media for any purpose at all, it is morally and religiously wrong, and rightly so.

As a consequence the media can show at most -- though it sounds cold -- blood stains on the ground and "easy" wounded people. We value this rule very much, and not once have traded hundreds of Palestinian prisoners -- some with blood on their hands -- for 2 or 3 bodies of dead kidnaped soldiers only so they could get a decent barial.

About a year ago the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs have gathered news reporters from around the world who cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they were showed in an "off-the-record" session the "lighter" photos of the horrors of suicide bombing, so they will see the side they don't get to see. By the end of it the room was half empty. Most of the reporters were absolutly shocked and some were even sick.

As a soldier I once came across some of these kind of pictures, and they were truly unspeakable. On a different occasion, a friend of mine who was a by-stander in one suicide bombing in Tel-Aviv 3 years ago, horridly described to me how the medical team had to climb a tree to collect a blown-off head in the middle of a main street. With this sensetive material it is no longer a about collecting "pity-points" but about staying human in not collecting them.

When the terrorists came to America and commited suicide attacks on the International Trade Center and the Pentagon, you immediately reacted with all your power and flew your soldiers half-way across the globe in order to defend your self against further attacks, it was justified. But if things get too tough you can always pack your bags and pull your soldiers back to the USA. In israel it is not the case. If Israel loses one war, we lose everything. We cease to exist. Now that gets you cornered doesn't it...

The Israel government declared a state of national emergency 57 years ago, the same year Israel itself was declared a state, and it was never cancelled since. The IDF (Israel Defence Force) is involved in constant fighting since 1948, not a just-for-show army. Yet only in the last 20 years fight against well organized terrorist groups that work as scattered individuals mostly hiding in populated areas and cities. In order to get to them the IDF is forced to perform exteremly local operations with a skill of a surgeon. Sadly innocent people are bound to get hurt in the way. And when they do we have a fierce public descussion of our military actions over the media, effectiveness against neccesity, right against moral.

But the basic deference between the two fighting sides of this conflict is that Israel defines a successful military operation by having the least civilian casualties while the Palestinian side defines it successful when there are the most civilian casualties.

When the British ruled the Middle-East, there were Hebrew terrorist groups who like the Palestinians strived to free their land from foreign occupation, they did make a distinction between civilians and soldiers. They never attacked civilians and almost never attacked soldiers. Instead they fought a strategic battle, involving destruction of bridges and military vehicles. Taking a life is a heavy moral issue that the Palestinians don't seem to stop and question at all.

Now that they have a land of their own (Gaza strip for now), you could hope that it will change, but it won't. The Palestinian government is powerless. While the USA have the luxury to say "don't bargain with terrorists," we have only terrorists to bargain with.

In fact the Palestinians were never a nation until Israel was founded, and their struggle against Israel is what defines them -- they won't give that up so easily.

Examples like these can go on and on, but you probably have notice I did not mention any historical discussion about "who was here first" as you mentioned or any religious discussion (the 72 virgins for killing ANY Jew was never mentioned in the film, probably to make it look better to western viewers), but I'm trying to convey the reasons why I believe Israel is indeed on the moral high ground in this bloodshed.

Peace, O. Shkolnik

I really appreciate your letter. I can certainly understand why soldiers on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be inclined to claim the moral high ground, as they have both been doing for all these years. But, as "Munich" suggests, that line of reasoning is not likely to get anyone anywhere, since it leads only to a head-on collision in which both parties suffer severe injuries.

 

What I find revealing is the Israeli perception (and I've heard this from other Israelis and politically active American Jews, too) that Israel has received more than its fair share of criticism. That may be true in recent years, but I can't help but think it's a form of temporary overcompensation for past bias. As an American who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the coverage in the mainstream media in the United States was overwhelmingly favorable to Israel, which we considered our closest ally in the world (more than anybody in Old Ungrateful Europe, for sure). I was in college before I learned the Arabs and Palestinians even had political grievances, since we were taught that they simply wanted to exterminate Israel because... well, I don't know why, but the implication was it because they were all innately, insanely evil. (I went to public school, K-12, in Seattle.)

Personally, I understand the moral distinction you make between those who intend to attack civilians and those who see them as merely unavoidable "collateral damage" of an action that is focused on terrorists or military targets. But whatever your reasons, I don't think this makes either side less responsible for the civilian deaths they know they will inevitably cause. (That would be "moral relativism.")

This is but one reason why war is, as they say, hell. The overall goals may be clear (Democracy vs. Fascism in WWII, for example), but when it comes to killing civilians (the bombing of Dresden, the London blitz, the fire-bombing of Tokyo) the moral lines are less distinct. Were these things necessary to win the war? And, if so, how do you acknowledge, and take proper responsibility for, the toll taken on civilians? I believe there can be a necessary war fought for just principles; I don't believe that, in the actual fighting of that war, everything that is done can be "just." That's why it's called "war." We need to learn to accept and take moral responsibility for that. It doesn't invalidate the justness of our cause, but it doesn't ignore the real-world consequences of our fight, either.

"Munich" offers questions like these as important matters to consider. In closing, I want to quote critic Kathleen Murphy, writing about one of the film's assassination scenes:

"Munich" is deliberately deracinating, making us feel as though every brand of human community -- from nation to family -- is fragile illusion. From cottage to houseboat, home is just another place to die. Fighting, ironically, for father- or motherland, "Munich"'s armies of patriots (by no means limited to Israelis and Palestinians) seem doomed to murder one another forever until there are no grounds left. [...]

A little girl in a scarlet sweater (recalling that iconographic Jewish child in "Schindler's List") returns home unexpectedly and almost answers a phone rigged to explode when her father picks it up. There's authentic Hitchcockian suspense in Avner's desperate attempt to call off the hit. Once she leaves again, we sit outside with the Israelis, staring at the apartment's bay window, willing the world to explode. Her life saved, a child orphaned. That's cutting morality mighty thin.

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