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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  • 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.

    "In Spielberg's Middle East, the only way to achieve peace is by renouncing violence. But in the real Middle East, the only way to achieve peace is through military victory over the fanatics accompanied by compromise between the reasonable elements on each side. ... Far from leading to a downward cycle, this kind of violence is the precondition to peace."

    Leon Wieseltier wrote in The New Republic that the movie "is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness."

    "Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of conscience, Israelis show evidence of conscience. Palestinians suppress their scruples, Israelis suppress their scruples. ... All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective."

    Wieseltier said that although Israel's response to the Munich massacre "marked the birth of contemporary counter-terrorism, it is not difficult to see `Munich' as a parable of American policy since Sept. 11." Yet he said "the film proclaims that terrorists and counter-terrorists are alike. ... Worse, `Munich' prefers a discussion of counter-terrorism to a discussion of terrorism; or it thinks that they are the same discussion."

    Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that had the movie been made "before the advent of suicide bombers and when Munich was still fresh in the minds of the movie audience, there would have been a relationship between the horrors of Munich ... and a clearer understanding and justification of the consequences."

    Asked if he was concerned that criticism of the film might increase attendance, just as some claim that his criticism of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" increased ticket sales, Foxman said he believes the latter movie was a box-office success not because of his comments but because there was a "Christian crusade to see it."

    "I am secure enough to believe that one needs to speak out and criticize that which is wrong and inappropriate," he said.

    Andrea Levin, executive director of Camera (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), said she has heard that the movie "takes up the Palestinian cause and misrepresents it and romanticizes the Palestinians."

    "To take the Munich massacre, which was ultimately an emblematic episode of Palestinian terrorism against innocent non-combatant Israelis, and to apparently emphasize the misgivings of the Israelis who are tracking down the killers, is really objectionable when there is little or no evidence of that," she said.

    Arye Mekel, Israel's consul general in New York, said he had seen the movie and is concerned that people will believe it. He said the fact that the actors who play Golda Meir and Ehud Barak resemble the real people they portray will add to the confusion.

    The film is based on the book "Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team" by George Jonas.

    Jonas based the book on his interviews with a man who claimed to have been the head of the Mossad team that carried out the reprisal attacks. But those claims subsequently were discredited when it was found that the man was not even a Mossad agent.

    Ehud Danoch, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, was quoted as saying that to equate the Mossad agents and the Palestinian terrorists "is an incorrect moral equation."

    "There is also a certain pretentiousness in attempting to treat a painful, decades-long conflict by means of quite superficial statements in a 2- 1/2 hour movie," he said reportedly.

    David Twersky, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Congress, said he had not seen the movie but only read reviews that indicated there was a "kind of odor of moral equivalency wafting through this thing. I understand how someone would arrive at this conclusion, but I am a bit pained by it."

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