Spielberg's "Munich" Revisited

January 8, 2012

8 min read


Israel's bold creation of Silicon Island with Cornell is the best answer to the film's canard.

A Preface in Light of the New Spielberg Documentary

When Steven Spielberg’s film Munich was released in 2005, the director and screenwriter Tony Kushner refused to acknowledge the deliberate message in the movie’s final image of the Twin Towers that assigned partial moral responsibility to Israel for that tragedy. In their view, Israel participated in the “cycle of violence” leading to 9/11 by taking revenge on the killers of the 1972 Israel wrestling team rather than “turn the other cheek”.

However, with the passage of time and the recent documentary Spielberg the director and writer are much more forthcoming.

The documentary discusses at length the final scene which was shot near Roosevelt Island with several versions. Only one contained the Twin Towers. Spielberg decided to use that version and finally admits in this documentary his intent. Spielberg says, “I made that choice because I wanted to say Munich is the context for problems that exist in today’s world.” Kyle Smith writes, “Spielberg clearly thinks Israel should not have hunted down and killed the Palestinian murderers because that didn’t ‘solve anything.’ Supposedly the most mature of his films, Munich is actually the most naive: It is underlain by a childish belief that if only we’d stop attacking them, they’d stop attacking us.”

Rolling Stone writes that September 11th inspired Munich. “The film was a reaction to 9/11 and the Iraq War, two events that had tested the director's left-leaning ideals and Jewish identity.”

The announcement of the Cornell Technion project in 2012 for Roosevelt Island provided me with the opportunity to respond to Spielberg’s film. In essence, I say that Israel answers accusations of participating in a “cycle of violence” by creating a “cycle of value”. The cutting edge project on Roosevelt Island which just opened this past summer will do exactly that in a historic way, leading NYC to become a tech center as well as a financial center.

I recommend you first see the Munich section of the Spielberg documentary, then visit the Roosevelt Island project, and then decide in which cycle Israel is a player and contributor – violence and destruction or value and creation?

The answer is obvious to anyone without an agenda.

One way to fill a hole is to build something out of bricks and mortar. The hole at Ground Zero, the site where the Twin Towers fell, is being filled by a revitalized urban complex which now is rising and testifying to the American spirit of resilience that animates it.

But a hole in the heart is different.

The office buildings and the memorial at Ground Zero will be respectful and successful and beautiful, and even awe inspiring. They will fill a physical space and provide a needed symbol of recovery.

There is physical space and there is emotional space. To a fill a hole in the heart of NYC caused by 9/11 will take something different and eternal which looks forward rather than backward as the United States traverses the competitive, disruptive and miraculous Information Age.

And that is what NYC, Cornell, and Israel's Technion have come up with -- a world tech center which takes NYC beyond a world trade center called the Technion Cornell Institute of Innovation (TCII).

This multiyear, multibillion world tech center will be located on Roosevelt Island on the East river, the same river that Spielberg’s camera panned over in his 2005 film “Munich” before stopping at a haunting final shot of the World Trade Center. The world tech center will attract top scientific minds from around the world and tackle the planet’s toughest problems. It will ultimately encompass 2.1 million square feet, with space for 2,500 students and 280 professors. Classes are slated to start in September 2012. See the unusually laudatory article by the New York Times attached below for more on the TCII.)

This exciting project on what will be a “Silicon Island” will fill more than a physical space, it also will fill the hearts of New Yorkers and all who love peace and progress and knowledge and healing. This is the Jewish way: to create something new and full of life and possibility to assuage and replace emptiness and loss.

Israel's Technion provided the "tech cred" for Cornell's ambitious multi-year multi-billion proposal for Roosevelt Island. Israel plays a starring role in this project of aspiration, building and planning for a better future for the entire world. It’s part of that spirit captured in the Hebrew phrase, “Tikkun Olam,” which means “repairing the world.”

How different this role played by Israel is from the role chosen by those who succumb to hatred and despair by destroying what they envy and what they cannot create.

How different is this creative role played by Israel from the way its “politically correct” detractors try to portray it.

Munich's Infamous Final Scene

The starring role played by Israel in this New York City epic project stands in contrast to the way Israel was cast opposite NYC in the controversial ending to Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s film “Munich." In that film, Israel was implicitly tied to the events leading to the destruction of the World Trade Center as a consequence of its decision to bring justice to the terrorists who murdered the Israeli wrestling team in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

In the final scene, after the terrorists have been brought to justice, Spielberg’s camera moves slowly across the New York skyline and stops and holds on the haunting image of the Twin Towers. Viewers come to realize that those towers still stood when the story told by the film took place, but they had been destroyed by the time the film was released.

The digitally inserted image of the Towers is meant to evoke a visceral, unsettling reaction, and it is very effective. Almost subliminally the image raises the question of what do the events in the film have to do with the destruction of the Twin Towers?

The shot is perhaps a cinematographic nod by the brilliant director to the final scene of the 1968 Planet of the Apes. In the earlier film, Taylor, the astronaut played by Charlton Heston discovers the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, prompting the character’s epiphany that his nation and the entire planet earth had been destroyed by war. He cries out, “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up!” The words “we” and “you” refer to the entire human race, eliding any distinction between attackers and attacked. But that film was made during the Cold War era of nuclear deterrence based on a strategy of mutual assured destruction. The attempted analogy with the imperative to respond to terrorist attacks is a false one.

In Spielberg’s Munich, the towers are filmed looking west from the Queens bank of the East River. To those who know the geography, the Statue of Liberty is hidden just beyond those towers in New York Harbor. The shot suggests a false connection between the quest for justice for the murderers of Israeli Olympic athletes with the destruction of the Towers.

The viewer is meant to understand that “we” are all at fault, even when “we” defend ourselves. It’s all a cycle of violence, you see. But worse, it is perhaps not “we” at all in this case, but those Israelis who defend their country who are at fault here. It is reprehensible and preposterous that Spielberg and Kushner could in this way attempt to link 9/11 to Israel. It is an example of the “cycle of violence” canard so often used to excoriate Israel and exonerate terrorists. And yet, Spielberg and Kushner have not yet dared to suggest that the killing of Osama bin Laden by the United States was part of a cycle of violence to be renounced.

Israel's Response Today

At the time the movie was released, Israel's reaction was righteous anger over the film's implication and seeming indictment, denied as intentional by Spielberg. However, the better response by Israel five years after “Munich” was to help NYC fill the hole in its heart from 9/11 with the life from a state of the art and audacious learning center in high tech. Again, this is the Jewish way and the way of Israel: create something new and full of life and possibility where there is emptiness and loss.

In short, the beginning of this multi year project between NYC, Cornell, and the Technion to establish a world tech center which will be peerless is a fitting new ending to Spielberg's unjust final scene in "Munich". You see, NYC "gets it" but some in Hollywood clearly don’t when it comes to what makes Israel tick and what is so necessary and good and decent and creative about this beleaguered country whose humanity is only matched by the complexity of the problems it faces and the solutions it devises. Like Jacob, whose name becomes Israel after he struggles with the angel, Israel struggles to balance ethics and effectiveness and to create life from loss.

Defending your country or responding to a murderous attack is not the same thing as engaging in a cycle of violence. And if you have trouble telling the difference, pay attention next time when there is a breach. Observe who was there to tear it and who arrives to repair it.

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