From The Guardian, January 17, 2006:
By Yossi Melman and Steven Hartov
Steven Spielberg’s new film is based on the Walter Mitty tales of a former El Al gate guard.
In 1984 the blood of the Israeli intelligence operatives and the Palestinian terrorists they hunted in “the war of the spooks” was still congealing in the back alleys of Europe when a young Israeli named Yuval Aviv teamed up with the Canadian George Jonas, a budding journalist. Aviv claimed to be a freshly defrocked Mossad assassin with a true tale to tell, and the game began.
Their resulting bestseller, Vengeance, was a detailed account of Israel’s response to the Munich massacre. In September 1972, PLO terrorists introducing themselves as the hitherto unknown group Black September stormed the Israeli dormitories at the Olympic village and took hostage a dozen members of the Israeli team. They demanded the release of their comrades from Israeli prisons. After two days of negotiation, a failed rescue attempt by German police left 11 Israelis and five terrorists dead. Israel’s prime minister, Golda Meir, summoned General Zvi Zamir, the head of Mossad, and instructed him to kill all the PLO operatives directly and indirectly involved.
Seen through the eyes of “Avner”, Aviv’s undercover persona, the story told by the book seemed to marry well with factual newspaper accounts of how Israel eliminated the Black September killers. It was made into a film – Sword of Gideon – and Jonas and Aviv reaped substantial rewards for their “scoop”.
However, our investigations show that Aviv never served in Mossad, or any Israeli intelligence organisation. He had failed basic training as an Israeli Defence Force commando, and his nearest approximation to spy work was as a lowly gate guard for the airline El Al in New York in the early 70s. The tale he had woven was apparently nothing more than a Walter Mitty fabrication.
How, then, did Steven Spielberg and his producer, Kathleen Kennedy, choose Aviv’s tale as the source for their film Munich? Last July, when we approached the film’s producers, the Spielberg PR machine denied any connection to Aviv. But the film’s opening scene states that it was inspired by real events, and at the end it gives a credit to Jonas’s book.
During shooting, numerous offers to provide the production team with the facts of the case were rebuffed. More than 30 years had passed since those days of deadly cat and mouse (which now seem quaint compared with the daily horrors of the war on terror) and participants on both sides were ready to talk. Yet the men who held the secrets were never contacted. The phone never rang at Zamir’s house, though he could have clarified the myths in an hour. Mike Harari, who supervised the hit teams as head of Mossad’s operations, did not receive an inquiry from Spielberg’s team. The women who represent the families of the murdered Israelis were disappointed not to be approached. Even Mohammed Daoud, the former Black September chief widely accepted as one of the Munich masterminds, was dismayed no one spoke to him.
So far, reactions to Munich have been predictable and essentially emotional. Some find it balanced, while others view it as overly sympathetic to one or other side. But what we find disturbing is that it is substantially a fiction – which, given Hollywood’s influence, may soon be regarded as a definitive account. The troubling question emerging from the film is whether there should be an obligation to historical accuracy in a work of art that portrays real-life figures such as Golda Meir and uses documentary footage to support its thesis. We believe that the answer is yes.
Fearing that influential US Jewish organisations and Israeli public opinion will criticise the film and brand it as anti-Israeli, Spielberg hired two prominent lobbyists: Dennis Ross, a former assistant secretary of state, is trying to persuade the Jewish community in America that Spielberg and his film are not hostile to Jewish and Israeli sensitivities; and Eyal Arad, a powerful PR man from Tel Aviv who works as a special strategist to Ariel Sharon, says that even if Aviv is a charlatan (Aviv himself refused to comment), the film is a piece of art and that’s how it has to be judged, like Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar.
Spielberg is a man of artistic power, and with that comes responsibility. For a director who delivered such historical works as Schindler’s List, his conduct in this case resembles that of a cub journalist who chooses to run a great story rather than confuse us with the facts.
· Yossi Melman specialises in intelligence affairs with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz; Steven Hartov is editor-in-chief of the US quarterly Special Operations Report