Fifty years after Munich its enemies are easily kept at bay
There’s a moment in the opening five minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Munich that always turns my stomach. An Israeli wrestling coach is woken up in the middle of the night by a noise at the door. He goes to investigate and sees a group of armed men peek around the corner. Instead of running, instead of hiding, he throws his weight against the door, to allow his teammates time to escape. They charge in anyway. He’s killed in cold blood on the floor of the Olympic village.
Over the next few days, as the West German police bungled their way through misstep after misstep as 11 Jewish athletes were beaten, castrated, stabbed, shot and eventually massacred. Once again, just 30 years after the Holocaust, unarmed Jews were being killed in Germany, just because they were Jewish.
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But unlike the aftermath of WW2, what happened next was different. This time, Jews had a country, an army, and a Prime Minister in Golda Meir that would stop at nothing to ensure justice was done.
The understatedly-named Operation Wrath of God began in earnest in October of the same year. Wael Zwaiter, who Israel considered to be an architect of the attacks, was shot 12 times on the way back from dinner in Rome. Mahmoud Hamshari was blown up in his Paris apartment and across Europe over the next decade, slowly, methodically, Israel took revenge.
Revenge, although technically speaking prohibited by Jewish law, became an Israeli value. The myth of Jewish weakness, the image of being innocent victims of hate, of being a scrappy underdog state surrounded by enemies began to erode with every killer eliminated in Wrath of God.
Israel in 1972 could still conceivably claim to be fighting for its survival. It was barely five years since Jerusalem was retaken and the Sinai held, it was a year before the Yom Kippur war, the last existential conflict Israel faced.
50 years later, though the circumstances may be different, the myth persists. Indeed, this idea of the Sabra against the world runs through every aspect of Israeli defence policy. Take, for instance, the Iron Dome, which has saved thousands of Israeli lives from rocket attacks.
But what next? No amount of military hardware changes the fact that three million people living in Gaza and the West Bank don’t want to be controlled by Israel, that the population is young, growing and getting angrier by the day. The legend of the warrior Jews that started in the wake of Munich doesn’t hold any answers.
That legend owes much to Spielberg’s Munich — the greatest Jewish revenge film other than Inglorious Basterds. It’s been quoted by American Jews in romantic comedies, was praised by the Israeli families of those murdered, and debated to death by the Israeli press, alternatively called “heavy handed” and an “apologia for Arab terrorists”. For a film written in the Diaspora and acted by gentiles, it has an outsize place in the Israeli imagination.
The same goes for Munich itself. But unlike in the movies, for Israel there is no clearly defined ending. Fifty years after Wrath of God, Israel hasn’t worked out what comes next.