‘Munich’: The Missing Conversation

For me, the most telling moment in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” was the final scene, when the young, distraught Mossad team leader,

Avner, takes a walk along the East River with his Israeli case officer, Ephraim, the man who supervised his mission. With the World Trade Center as a background, Avner tells Ephraim that he has had enough of the killing.

While it is true that he may have avenged the Munich massacre of the Israeli Olympic Team by Palestinian terrorists, what has really been achieved? The violence has not abated — other terrorists continue new attacks, and he no longer wants to be a part of that vicious cycle. He tells Ephraim that he will not return to Israel.

But your parents are sabras who helped build the country, and you belong there, Ephraim reminds him. No, I am staying in New York, Avner insists, and then proceeds to invite him over to his house to break bread. Ephraim stares him down long and hard and replies that he cannot come, and that he is immediately returning to Israel.

The film’s sympathy clearly lies with Avner. Ephraim is depicted as sort of a dogmatic Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye Galitzianer. But what bothers me is I wish Ephraim would have accepted Avner’s invitation to dinner — there was much he could have told him.

He could have started by reminding him what he said when he first sent him on his mission: “You are not terrorists throwing hand grenades at buses or machine-gunning people in the theater lobby…. There will be 11 [terrorist] names on your list. If you get only three, we will be disappointed, but you did nothing wrong. If you get no one, your mission would be a failure, but still you’ve done nothing wrong. If you get them all, but you also hurt one innocent person, you will have done wrong. Remember this.” (This is not in the film but appears in the book, “Vengeance,” on which “Munich” was based.)

I would have wanted to pursue the conversation further in light of what has happened since Munich, asking Avner, how should we confront terrorists? Should we wait for the U.N. General Assembly? You know how many times they have condemned Israel, but not a single time have they condemned a Palestinian terrorist organization?

If we didn’t go after the terrorists and their leaders, tens of thousands of civilians could be slaughtered. The late Golda Meir used to say that if that happened to Israel, she was sure that the eulogies would be profound, but she would prefer that the State of Israel live.

And let me say something else. If these terror attacks occurred every day in the United States, France or England — do you think they would have a second thought about going after the terrorists?

You are right when you say that violence begets violence. When British commandos assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis ordered that the town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, with its women and children, to be burned to the ground and sent 1,300 people to the concentration camps.

That was a horrible reprisal. But what should the British have done? Not taken out Heydrich, the man who chaired the Wannssee Conference and drafted the proposals for the elimination of the Jewish people? It’s true that Ernst Kaltenbrunner took over, but he was no Heydrich — it was never the same, and in the end, tens of thousands of lives may have been spared.

And what about Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s invasion of the Normandy beaches, when twice as many French civilians died as Nazis in the first week? Should we have canceled the invasion because it was imperfect? Should we not engage in any more peace efforts just because the Munich Pact between Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 turned out to be a disaster?

One more thing: What if I could look into a crystal ball and tell you that one day, a prime minister of Israel would offer the Palestinians 96 percent of everything they ever dreamed of, and they would flatly reject it without a response. And that another day would come when a Likud prime minister, a founder of the settlements, would unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and leave his party to join forces with a Nobel Peace Prize Winner from Labor. And yet still the terrorist attacks would not stop.

My point is, Avner, I want peace as much as you. I, too, am sick of the vicious cycle of violence, and I believe firmly that the Palestinians should have their own state alongside of Israel. But I don’t have the luxury to wait for long-term solutions. In our imperfect world, I must look for short-term solutions.

After the Holocaust, there are not that many Jews left in the world to sacrifice. I can’t wait for Islamic fundamentalist jihadists to begin treating Jews as human beings.

By the way, from what I know of the Bible, one never loses his righteousness by confronting evil. We learn that from Moses himself: “And Moses turned this way and that way [in our time, its meaning could be to the United Nations and to the European community], but he saw that there was no man, [no one was willing to confront the evil taskmaster] so he struck down the Egyptian….” (Exodus 2:12).

You are a great man, Avner. I am proud of you — you’ve done your part. But now I must go home to continue to do mine.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.