Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Week.

In one cinematic swoop, Steven Spielberg's movie "Munich" has rekindled the fierce debate about moral equivalency - the notion that there is no difference between Palestinian suicide bombers and the actions of Israeli soldiers.

Although Jewish leaders interviewed this week said they had not yet seen the film, which premieres Dec. 23 in New York and Los Angeles, they expressed concern that Spielberg's film would re-ignite an issue that had surfaced at the start of the second intifada five years ago.

The movie deals with Israel's tracking down and killing 10 men behind the 1972 Palestinian massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich.

"We had gotten away from it [moral equivalency] in the last couple of years, and this will bring it back," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Hoenlein stressed that although Spielberg may be dealing with this topic in a movie, the issue is one being confronted on a daily basis today and "therefore the implications are more serious."

On Sunday, Israel's High Court of Justice agreed to hear arguments from a coalition of left-wing groups contending that the Israeli government's use of targeted killings of Palestinian terrorists contravenes international law.

And two weeks ago, Palestinians filed suit in Manhattan Federal Court against Avi Dichter, the former security chief of the Shin Bet, Israel's counter-intelligence and internal security service, for the deaths of 14 Palestinian civilians who were killed when Israel assassinated a senior member of Hamas in July 2002.

In an interview with Time magazine, Spielberg argued that the Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a cycle of violence.

"A response to a response doesn't really solve anything," he insisted. "It just creates a perpetual motion machine."

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said he believed that any attempt to present a moral equivalence "would be both a tragedy and a misrepresentation of reality."

"I've seen enough other attempts at moral equivalence to understand that it is a widespread problem," he said. "It is too facile to simply say that violence begets violence and therefore it is not an appropriate response. Israel is faced with a set of realities and has a difficult and sometimes unpalatable set of choices, but turning the other cheek or otherwise displaying weakness cannot be one of them."

But Dennis Ross, the former U.S. point man in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations who was a consultant for the film, said he does not buy the moral equivalency argument.

'The film does show the context for what the Israelis did,' he told The Jewish Week, and depicts the Israeli hit team members as 'agonizing about decisions, asking themselves questions - something it doesn't show the other side doing.'

He said viewers will draw their own conclusions, adding that 'provking discussion is not a bad thing.'

Cultural critics - some dovish and some hawkish - have also weighed in, mounting a withering attack on the film.

Why Spielberg gets reality wrong...

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  • A Fitting Tribute: Shmuley Boteach on 'Munich'
  • David Brooks of The New York Times suggested that Spielberg's movie is nothing more than a fable. He said that by setting his story in 1972, "Spielberg allows himself to ignore the core poison that permeates the Middle East [today], Islamic radicalism."

    "In Spielberg's Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad ... no zealots who want to exterminate Israelis," he wrote. "Because he will not admit the existence of evil, as it really exists, Spielberg gets reality wrong.
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