Monday, January 29, 2007
It is impossible to ignore the burden of history involving Israel and Palestine, in any act that involves these two constantly warring sides, with one fighting for a right to survive and the other fighting for a right to exist in the same few thousand square miles, which is ironically considered to be the most sacred of lands to all the major religions involved - Islam, Judaism and Christianity. With the world polarized about the issue of taking stands of one against the other, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict almost took the shape of a morality issue, where one man's freedom fighter became another man's terrorist. At the root of it all, it is a little more than a clash of cultures or a clash of civilizations - it is about a voice crying out to be heard. The Jews, who have been persecuted over centuries and centuries by one civilization after another and thus exactly know what it feels/how it feels to be a constant alien in one's own land, are looked upon as the same kind of evil perpetrating similar kind of atrocities, squelching the voice of Palestinians, and their right for legitimacy among their peers. On the other hand, Israel views itself as nation under constant vigil - a group that has to keep on fighting for its survival caught geographically amidst a bunch of enemy states, who would pounce upon it and devour it with utter relish, at a moment's notice. Israel's sole defense is rooted in its constant offensive stance. Ever since the declaration of the independence of state in 1948, it warded off one invasion after another by the Arab states all around, dealt with one "Intifadah" (uprising by the Palestinians) after another with crushing blows and brutal feet, all in the name of mere survival. For an outside observer, it thus becomes very difficult, to root against one side at the cost of another, because at the end of it all, it is about one victim fighting with another victim, trying to claim victory. There are no winning sides here and the loss is everybody's.
The issue could not have been any more sensitive to everyone involved. Getting a chance to host the Olympics again after the Nazi's frightening show of pomp and propoganda about shameless display of white power in 1936 the previous time it hosted the same (in which Jessie Owens, a black athlete, trounced pure bred white blood in all the major athletic events, to humiliate Hilter and his ideologue demagoguery), and their subsequent defeat at the end of 1945, the Germans certainly felt the heat of the intense scrutiny it was under. Add to the fact, that Israel sent its own contingent to participate in the Olympics at Munich - the same place which spelled death knell not a few decades ago to millions of its ilk. The feeling prevalent among the Germans at that time was a mix of embarassment, elation, repentance, reparation...and what followed could not have come at a worse time. The abduction of the Israeli athletes by a band of Palestinian terrorists by breaking into the Olympic village, and the intense human drama that followed after, starting from the negotiations with the terrorists by the under-prepared and under-skilled Olympic police officials (the German army wasn't permitted to enter the Olympic village), the live television brodcast of all the operations (including attempts of bursting into the rooms that housed the terrorists and their hostages, which the terrorists were able to thwart at the right time, by merely watching the proceedings on their TV), the deal struck by the police of allowing the terrorists and their victims a safe passage out of Germany to Egypt, and the eventual botched-up shoot out and blow-up action at the airport, resulting in a massacre of the Israeli athletes, and the killing of 8 of 11 terrorists (the remaining were captured, but were eventually released by the German officials, following another hostage drama with a German Lufthansa airplane), was the first time when politics spewed its venom into sports and what happened from there on was just a prologue to what is happening now in Middle East.
Speilberg's setting of the movie at this juncture of fractious history is thus an important one, because it does not merely show the resolve of the Israelities to deliver a swift "eye for an eye" revenge/retaliation, for the massacre of its innocent civilians, by hunting down each of the masterminds of the Munich operation, and delivering justice right at their doorstep, but also calls into question the validity of the very operations, that brew more violence and spew more hatred, than they would bring the everlasting peace, as wished by the everyone involved. This issue of legitimacy of such acts is important that Speilberg constantly calls into question, by showing in even light, both sides of the issue by contrasting the mindlessness of the massacre that happened in the Olympic village at Munich and the operations masterminded by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence wing, to take out all the Palestinian big-wigs involved. By taking a stand by not taking a stand against/for any side, Speilberg comments on the issue in a very non-partisan way, pointing out if all the retaliations, all the repurcussions and all the results of all such operations, would help even in the slightest possible way in bridging the chasm of mistrust and enemity that is fast spreading between these two peoples. If the Oslo Accords, signed by the then Nobel Peace Prize winners Yitzhak Rabin (later assassinated by a right-winger for his soft stance), the prime minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, the head of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), to grant an official status for Palestinian territory in 1993, was heralded by the world as the beginning of the end (of enmity) swung the pendulum one way, the reversal of fortunes in 2000, following the current prime minster's Ariel Sharon's visit of the Temple of Mount (please note the parallel to L.K.Advani's Radh Yatra culminating in the demolition of Babri Masjid) and the subsequent wide-spread fallout in the form rioting and second Intifadah, creating a new wave of animosity between the two sides, swung the pendulum far to the other side, making it a zero-sum "game", at cost of mere thousands of lives.
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If Speilberg's Schindler's List, a few years go, was rooted in nobility about how a sliver of humanity could shine through piles of tyranny and despondency, and Saving Private Ryan, was a testament to responsibility, that in the face of trying odds, the spirit of endeavor for better future marches on, Munich brings into relief the issue of morality, questioning if killing innocent civilians by one side could be balanced by planned assassinations by the other side, leaving behind trails and remains of ill-will, a fertile ground for fostering even more hatred. There are some questions for which no answer could be termed right or fitting. Retaliate an act of aggression - that would sow the seeds for future reprisals. Keep mum without paying back in kind - construed as weakness, it would further embolden the other side. The question that begs to asked in such situation becomes, what is the right response for such acts? In the movie, Golda Meir, the prime minster of Israel during the Munich massacre, makes a very profound and a valid statement - Every civilization finds it necessary to compomise with its own values. If a country like Israel, found on a survival instinct, finds all its democractic principles and fundamental rights of freedom of its citizens seem threatened by constant waves of terrorism, then the society's reflexive action of acting against them, would on the surface seem justified and fitting. But is it truly addressing the issue? Are the citizens going to be totally safe from there on? Is freedom/liberty/peace, not a standstill state, but a constant battle against its foes? Speilberg raises these troubling questions at every step of the operation and concludes it in a brilliant last stroke by freezing on the image of the World Trade Center's twin towers. Whether it is Israel then, or United States now, could terrorism be battled by bloodbath alone? Munich would remain as the best movie in Speilberg's career ranking even more than Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, for its bold stand against popular opinion, making a brave statement that in the current state of relative morality, anything that tries to counter evil would also be perceived as evil.