by Josh Kaplan
Monday, 5
September 2022
Anniversary
16:21

Does Israel still know what it’s fighting for?

Fifty years after Munich its enemies are easily kept at bay
by Josh Kaplan
The iron dome in action. Credit: Getty

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.

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.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
21 days ago

What a remarkably superficial article. Without constant vigilance Israel could be wiped off the map even faster, and killing a higher proportion of the world’s Jews, than ever seemed possible 50 years ago. Most of its neighbours would be delighted, and no other country would do anything about it. There have been millions of people in Gaza and the West Bank “growing angrier by the day” for as long as anyone can remember. Making concessions, in a inevitably fruitless attempt to impress an international community who will never lift a finger to help Israel, would just weaken the security of the Israeli people without reducing that hatred in the slightest. Israel, then as now, is fighting for the survival of the Jewish people. If they ever get bored with that task, they will not survive.

Last edited 21 days ago by Stephen Walshe
John Tyler
John Tyler
21 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Very well said! We’re we to learn from Israel we would have reduced the likelihood of the Ukraine war, the Iranian nuclear threat etc. But no! we wend our merry way choosing to believe that all will be well, everyone is as peace-loving as ourselves and everything can be sorted out by talking. Wake up, the West! Israel, as it has been before, is a beacon.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
20 days ago

Israel is watching carefully as the US weakens in its power to ensure its enemies don’t take advantage of that fact by building up more internal strength (including nuclear weapons) and new allies. That is the great threat Israel faces now

Brett H
Brett H
20 days ago

Can we really call this an article, when all it does is ask a question then walk away? Is this what journalism is today?

ron kean
ron kean
20 days ago

“…the last existential conflict …”? Everyday is an existential conflict for Israel. 100,000 missiles in Southern Lebanon. Hamas in the South is as ruthless to its own as it is to Israel. Jordan to the East is between a rock and a hard place with Shiites to its East planning invasion of Israel.
Spielberg’s t*t for tat movie denigrates righteous retribution portraying Israel as equal to blood thirsty terrorists. He like this author like the West in general doesn’t understand brutal strength is the best deterrence to a never ending obviously ubiquitous Islamic onslaught.

Last edited 20 days ago by ron kean
R Wright
R Wright
21 days ago

I find defending extrajudicial murder across national borders slightly stomach churning, but then that’s just me. Is it OK only when Jewish people do it? How many more decades can the Shoah be used as a shield?

Last edited 21 days ago by R Wright
MICHAEL LONG
MICHAEL LONG
21 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

Across borders? Such as firing countless rockets at Israel with the sole intention of murder? Such as attempting to murder Rushdie and anyone, anywhere who offends Islam. And it’s not just you. It’s all the other hand-wringing lefties who secretly do so love a Muslim terrorist. How many more decades? Let’s hope it’s forever.