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'Munich' Backlash Well Under Way

Steven Spielberg — friend or faux?

Prior to this weekend's opening of "Munich," the award-winning director's latest film, critics were already lashing out after the movie was screened for Jewish leaders in New York.

Based on the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics by the Palestinian Black September group, "Munich" follows a Mossad hit squad assigned to strike back.

"The whole story is fiction. This whole revenge story is fiction," says Ambassador Arye Mekel, consul general of Israel in New York, who saw the movie at a private screening last week. "And it mixes documentary clips in the beginning. How will people know when the reality ends and where the fiction starts? I will be able to tell, but how will a normal, regular moviegoer know? They see the movie, and they think this is what happened."

Mekel says he had a special connection to the 1972 massacre. When he was the consul general in Atlanta, he personally escorted family members of the slain athletes to the 1996 summer games, in what he said was the first time the Olympic Committee publicly acknowledged them.

Knowing the film would be controversial, Universal Studios held private, invite-only screenings for prominent members of the Jewish community in American cities, including New York and Washington, D.C.

In Israel, one of Prime Minister Sharon's top strategists is promoting the movie, and even held a private screening for the athletes' widows.

Mekel admits that the movie does make Israel look good at times, specifically in scenes where Israeli missions are aborted because of their proximity to civilians. But, he strongly urges people who are going to watch the film to remember that it's not an accurate history of the Jewish people in two hours.

Some prominent Jews are also annoyed that Spielberg's main historical source for the movie is the mostly discredited book, "Vengeance," and that screenwriter Tony Kushner is involved.

"I think that people are also very concerned with the fact that Spielberg used Tony Kushner," says Michael Arnold, managing editor at JTA, a daily Jewish news service. "He's very, very far left on Israel and very critical of Israel, and this adds fuel to the fire."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, disagrees. "I could be disturbed with Kushner's past comments and statements, but the important thing to me is that the horror of the brutality of the Munich massacre is there," says Foxman, who saw the film at a screening in Rome last week.

"I'm comfortable that Spielberg made this movie over someone else, because he comes with the baggage of sensitivity and understanding of Jewish history. If anybody should make it, it should be him," Foxman says.

Well, not according to everyone.

"The general fear seems to be moral equivalency, that the people who killed the athletes are no different from the hit squad who killed the terrorists," JTA's Arnold says. "And, that the movie is based on a book that has been discredited is also potentially problematic. Spielberg did not consult with the Mossad or the families of the athletes or even the Palestinians who were involved with the original terrorist operation. It would seem that that would be necessary research, and I find that really odd."

Rebecca Abou-Chedid, government relations and policy analyst for the Arab American Institute in Washington who's seen the film, says she thinks that "Munich" was Spielberg's contribution to the struggle in the Middle East.

"I think he was trying to do something with this movie. I think it's hoping that people will think. And, I think that at the same time he's hoping that people will understand that futility of this ongoing cycle of violence," she says.

Abou-Chedid, an Arab-American, says she hopes that people will walk away and realize that out of all the things that could help to achieve peace in the Middle East, violence is the only thing that won't work. But she has fears over the Spielberg's depiction of the Palestinian characters.

"I would say the only characters that are fully developed are the Israeli characters. And the only characters who show doubt in what they are about to do are the Israeli characters," she says.

"There is no character development in the Arab characters, and it's kind of disappointing because you know that the doubt is a human response and not exclusive to the Israeli perspective. The Arab American audience may feel disappointed with that."

Joshua Neuman, editor of HEEB magazine, says although he hasn't seen the movie, he feels caught in the middle of the debates,

"Jews need to chill out, basically, because they're treating Spielberg as if he's the new Bobby Fischer," he says, referring to the ex-chess champ who has publicly attacked Israel. "The big buzz word is moral equivocation, and that's idiotic. The Jewish community likes to put everything into these two neat categories, 'good for the Jews' and 'bad for the Jews.'"

Neuman says he doesn't expect the movie to be very good, but, as a huge "Jaws" fan, he's sticking by his guy.

"Plus, Spielberg is the man. You don't mess with Spielberg," he says. "He's not going Bobby Fischer on us."