‘The price of survival’


Lively panel discussion of “Munich” fills Pepperdine Auditorium to right and left.

By Ward Lauren / Special to The Malibu Times

A panel discussion on “The Meaning of ‘Munich’,” director Steven Spielberg’s film, which details the actions of a covert Israeli assassination squad as it targeted organizers of Black September, the terrorist group responsible for the kidnapping (and subsequent massacre) of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, drew an over-capacity audience of 200 people to the Drescher Auditorium on the Pepperdine University campus last week. The event was co-sponsored by the university’s School for Public Policy and the Los Angeles Chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

The film has sparked controversy among many viewers for giving what its detractors deem a humanizing treatment of the killers and a shallow view of history regarding the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The panel was well balanced between those in favor of the film and those against it. The audience, as it turned out during a question and answer period, was not. Those critical of the film prevailed, vocally at least.

Pepperdine Vice Chancellor Michael Warder opened the evening’s program on Feb. 13, followed by Richard Sherman, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who introduced the panel moderator, Joel Geiderman, California chairman of the RJC. Geiderman then introduced the panel members in the order in which they spoke.

Kathleen Wright, Emmy Award winner and author of “Screenwriting is Storytelling,” is a UCLA senior instructor in screenwriting specializing in historical events. She graduated from the Georgetown University of Foreign Service, and recently published an article entitled “‘Munich’ Stands for Appeasement.'”

In opposition to the movie, she said it “presents a secularized version of the conflict between Judaism and Palestine. It’s a historical fiction, with no understanding of the causes.”

Robert Kaufman, professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine, holds a doctorate in international relations from Columbia University and J.D. from Georgetown University. Identifying himself as a historian and political scientist, he acknowledged a definite disapproval of the movie. “It’s a not very well disguised condemnation of the Bush policy,” he said. “Among its many flaws, it gives a distorted view of the conflict. Spielberg ignored the fact that Munich was a criminal act that required immediate Jewish retaliation. Appeasement is not the answer.”

Michael Berenbaum, professor of theology and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, had a different view of retaliation and the film. Former president of the Survivors of Shoah Visual History Foundation, he recently co-authored “‘Munich’ Portrays Real World Issues.”

“As Jews we must get over the ‘purity of victimization,'” he said. “Yes, history shows that an empowered people exercise power, but we must always weigh the necessity of exercising power versus the morality of it. The values are always in conflict. The complaint is that the movie humanizes the killers. Well, there is guilt in killing; we have to determine: Is it worth the guilt?”

Also defending the film was Allan Mayer, managing director and head of the Entertainment Division of Sitrick and Company, noted for its work in sensitive communication situations. For the past two years he has worked with Spielberg as his political and media advisor for “Munich.”

“The movie is a Rorschach test for audiences,” he said, “not as a documentary, not as an allegory, but a story. Steven is storyteller. He made it to ask questions, to try to understand terrorism. Members of the Mossad feel that humanizing themselves is bad. The film is intended to show the price of survival.”

In the brief and rather disorganized question and answer period following the prepared talks by the panelists, several members of the audience expressed negative opinions of the movie, sometimes emotionally in terms of what was not said in the film. This was summarized by one woman who said, “There’s a whole history behind this story that wasn’t even touched in the movie.”

Several people also objected to the humanizing of the assassins in conversations depicted in the movie. The film “was not meant to be a complete retelling of the history of the Palestine-Israel conflict,” was the response by one of the supporters in the audience; “it was based on actual events, which was explained at the beginning and is done in movies all the time.”

“The intent of the movie was to provoke discussion,” panelist Allan Mayer said in summing up the evening. “I think this panel proves it.”