Henry Siegman: Israel's History and Spielberg's Munich

Roundup: Talking About History

... I saw nothing in the movie to justify the claim that it seeks to establish the moral equivalence of terrorist killings of civilians and Israeli retaliations. While the movie includes an emotional exchange between a Palestinian terrorist and the leader of the Israeli counterterrorism team about the moral claims of their respective national struggles, the focus of Munich is on members of the Israeli assassination team and their mounting doubts about their assignment and what it may be doing to their values and personal lives. These doubts are frequently the subject of their conversations, and finally cause the leader of the team so much anguish that he refuses to return to Israel. The Israelis therefore inevitably emerge as more real, personally appealing, and morally attractive than the Palestinian terrorists, whom the viewer never gets to know much about....

In his book Righteous Victims (1999), Benny Morris, the Israeli journalist and historian to whom The New Republic has turned for reviews of books on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, writes that "the upsurge of Arab terrorism in October 1937 triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and buses, introducing a new dimension to the conflict." While, in the past, Arabs "had sniped at cars and pedestrians and occasionally lobbed a grenade, often killing or injuring a few bystanders or passengers," now, "for the first time, massive bombs were placed [by the Irgun] in crowded Arab centers, and dozens of people were indiscriminately murdered and maimed." Morris notes that "this 'innovation' soon found Arab imitators."

During Israel's War of Independence, the Yishuv's defense forces acted not much differently from the way the Irgun or Palestinian terrorist groups behaved. As Morris explained in an interview in Haaretz, documentation recently declassified by the IDF's archives shows that "in the months of April–May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves."[2]

"What the new material shows," Morris stated in the interview, is that during the course of this ethnic cleansing, especially in Operation Hiram, "there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought," including "unusually high concentration[s] of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion." These executions were ordered and overseen by the IDF. When asked about the number of occasions on which they were carried out, Morris replied,

Twenty-four. In some cases four or five people were executed, in others, the numbers were 70, 80, 100.... The worst cases were Sa-liha (70–80 killed), Deir Yassin (100–110), Lod (250), Dawayima (hundreds), and perhaps Abu Shusha (70). There is no unequivocal proof of a large-scale massacre at Tantura, but war crimes were perpetrated there. At Jaffa there was a massacre about which nothing had been known until now. The same at Arab al Muwassi, in the north. About half of the acts of massacre were part of Operation Hiram [in the north, in October 1948]; at Safsaf, Saliha, Jish, Eilaboun, Arab al Muwassi, Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Sasa.
Morris reports that orders for these executions and expulsions were issued in writing by senior Haganah commanders following meetings with David Ben-Gurion. And in The Guardian, Morris wrote that while a master plan for the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs did not exist before April 1948, "pre-1948 transfer thinking" by key Zionist leaders, including Ben-Gurion, "had readied hearts and minds in the Jewish community [in Israel] for the denouement of 1948."

In justification of the massacres committed by the Haganah, Morris stated in the Haaretz interview that "without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here." He added that the only fault he found with Ben-Gurion's actions is that the Haganah's ethnic cleansing was not carried out on a scale large enough to have prevented the "demographic problem" Israel faces today.

In other words, Morris seems to be arguing that when the establishment of a Jewish state hangs in the balance, there is no such category as innocent Palestinian civilians; their very existence constitutes a mortal threat to the state, and therefore to the Jewish people. That threat transforms innocent civilians into legitimate military targets.

Of course, Israel's resort to ethnic cleansing and the massacre of civilians in its War of Independence does not confer any legitimacy on the morally indefensible atrocities committed by terrorists in the Palestinians' ongoing struggle for their independence—atrocities that discredit and diminish the Palestinian national cause. But it exposes the double standard of commentators who have had little to say on the subject of Israeli atrocities, yet pounce on any hint of moral equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Because Munich avoids such tendentiousness, the movie may help people to see the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in a more balanced perspective. The same cannot be said for criticism that assumes a moral superiority on the part of the Israelis that so far has been largely unearned. It must also be said that a particularly unfortunate aspect of the accusation of moral equivalence made by some of the movie's critics is that it has distracted attention from what is surely the most important moral issue by far, namely the decades-long occupation that has turned the lives of millions of Palestinians into a daily hell. Those in Israel who have come to view the shattering of an entire people as an acceptable condition of their own national normalcy will certainly not agonize over the "collateral damage" caused by Israel's retaliations.

comments powered by Disqus