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Monday, February 20, 2006

POLITICS: What Lies Beneath MUNICH

This might be illuminating.

A while back, I slugged it out in the pages of American Theatre magazine with Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels in America and Steven Speilberg’s screenwriter on the film Munich.

Mr. Kushner and five other playwrights had written a series of short essays grouped together into a feature entitled On the Road to Palestine. I wrote a counter essay published a short time later in the same magazine. The essay had the pungent title of How to Eat Yourself, a reference to the blind and ultimately self-destructive impulse I find in those whose mantra, when it comes to assessing global conflict, always seems to be Blame the West First. The editor of the magazine informed the six playwrights of my effort, and published Tony Kushner's rebuttal to my essay on the same pages.

I bring this up now, two and half years later, because I think it might clarify some of the controversy now swirling around Munich. As Oscar night approaches, I can’t improve on Gabriel Schoenfeld’s thorough skewering of the movie in the pages of this month’s Commentary, but I can make my own supplementary contribution.

I thought it might be instructional to take another look at Kushner’s response to my essay, apply some long-needed Fisking to it, and reveal the true thinking that lies at the heart of what’s in Munich, or at least, in the head of its writer.

Tony Kushner wrote:


Russell Reich’s article proceeds from a peculiar assumption—namely, that because we are playwrights, what we wrote should have been guided by the principles he feels should govern good plays.

Mr. Kushner found it odd that I might judge him according to the standards of his art. But he and the others were writing as playwrights in a magazine about theatre. What would he have preferred? To be judged as a journalist? An historian? A diplomat? He is clearly none of those things, and if I or anyone else were to have judged him by sound principles of those professions, he would have failed them as well.

But we weren’t writing plays. We wrote short essays. They weren’t complete. They were short.

I wasn't evaluating the essays as plays, I was evaluating them for the insight they provided into the thinking patterns of Leftist artists.

Mr. Kushner's statement sounds to me a lot like, “I would have liked to have been honest, but I didn’t have the space or time.”

We wanted to focus on the injustices done to the Palestinians because this is a far less familiar, less universally acknowledged situation among Americans than the deaths of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings.

Equal time for murderers then? Terrorists have rights, too?

What should be familiar and universally acknowledged by now (as well as two and a half years ago) is that Palestinian society is completely dysfunctional in nearly every area one can name, but none more so than in the area of morality. Yet that is one standard to which Palestinian apologists like Mr. Kushner refuse to hold them, as if morality is irrelevant if one has a claim to any kind of victimhood.

The other standard made irrelevant by Mr. Kushner is personal responsibility. Mr. Kushner seems congenitally disabled from actually considering, let alone stating, that the so-called “injustices done to the Palestinians” might often be self-inflicted. It’s much easier—and beneficial to the self-promotion-minded—to infantilize the Palestinians than to deal with the complexity of a morally, politically, educationally, economically, and judicially corrupt and broken society.

Blaming the "parent," in this case Israel and the U.S., is the modus operandi of the adolescent mind.

Everyone except monsters grieves over these Israeli civilian deaths, and to argue that the suicide bombings go underreported in the press would be insane.

He can call it insane if he likes, but if Mr. Kushner takes a look at sites like camera.org and honestreporting.com, he will find clear and frequent evidence that, in fact, there is often bias in favor of the Palestinians. He should know; he's generating some of it.

More to the point, though, is the horrifying sense of, “Yea, yea, we know a lot of innocent Israelis have been killed, but let’s look at what’s really happening, what’s really important. And I’m just the one to show that to you…”

The deaths of Palestinians, the suffering they endure, are far less thoroughly represented in this country’s reportage.

So balance is important to Mr. Kushner? Then why, as I asked in the original essay, did he make no attempt to examine any viewpoints contrary to his own preconceptions? Later, we'll see him criticize balance as a legitimate value in seeking out the truth.

We all read a lot of books and magazines and so we formed opinions, as intelligent people will, and we traveled with our opinions.

Opinions, in this case, mean prejudices: Palestinians are just underappreciated victims. Israelis are like oppressive Nazis. Those are the “opinions” he, a self-proclaimed intelligent person, traveled with.

If you’ve done your homework you will probably arrive at sound opinions.

The dog must have eaten Mr. Kushner’s homework since important historic facts were nowhere to be found in his highly unsound opinions. Missing in action were the bombs tied by Palestinians to Palestinian children for use as human missiles against Israeli children, the hate-filled and historically revisionist textbooks from which Palestinian children learn, the propaganda to which the children are exposed, and the murderous "heroes" and "martyrs" they're taught to emulate. Moreover, Mr. Kushner was apparently deaf to the decades of declarations by Arab officials that their opposition to Israel will not end until every Jew is gone from the land, the repeated Arab rejections of offers for statehood, the hateful portrayal of Jews in Arab public life, the historic efforts to "drive the Jews into the sea," the blood libels…

I could go on. All of these facts I pointed out in the original article, yet even on the same page, Mr. Kushner could not bring himself to acknowledge their existence.

Regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Mr. Kushner maintained his “opinions” such that his conclusions matched his hypotheses perfectly: Palestinians GOOD, Israelis BAD. As social science, that stinks. As art, that stinks. As a demonstration of honest inquiry, it’s a total failure. He left nothing to be discovered, no reason to change his mind, no possibility for correction. This is what he calls “traveling with his opinions.” I can’t decide what I would call it. Willful ignorance? Or is it not so innocent as to be mere ignorance?

Keep your eyes open, but don’t be a relativist.

I agree, as in the case of moral relativism, where there are no absolutes of right of wrong. We must keep our eyes open and we must choose.

Relativism is always a way of manufacturing paralysis for the sake of maintaining an oppressive system.

Is that the ghost of Marx or Lenin speaking? Sounds like a manifesto of some sort. Is that what leads someone like Mr. Kushner to make a non-relativist moral choice of murderers over victims? Fascism over democracy? Death over life?

His assertion that Israel, relative to Palestinian society, is an “oppressive system” is downright strange. Does Mr. Kushner—a Jew, an American, a homosexual—think he would be allowed to live for one minute amongst radical Palestinians were he not such a useful propaganda tool to those who would otherwise gleefully slit his throat? What, exactly, is Mr. Kushner's definition of oppression if not that?

“Balance” isn’t the heart of drama. Does Stanley get stage time to justify raping Blanche? Does Willy Loman’s boss explain why it was necessary to use up and then downsize the guy?

My original essay had over 1600 words. “Balance” was precisely one of them. It was mentioned—and easily dismissed—as a possible value animating the playwrights’ advocacy of Palestinians. Clearly, true balance was not their priority.

This was an interesting polemical gambit on Mr. Kushner’s part: If you don’t like the argument posed to you, misrepresent it as the argument you can more easily respond to.

My plea was not for equal time, but for responsibility, for telling the truth, for exercising true morality by saying who is actually trying to annihilate whom.

I would argue the heart of drama has more to do with a strenuous attempt to grasp the truth, which has to do with asking after the origins of things, and sometimes to do with assigning blame.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the absurd implication that Mr. Kushner was strenuously attempting to grasp at the truth. It’s strenuous, all right, but that’s all I’ll grant him.

“Asking after the origins of things” is the same as the old “root causes” approach, which goes like this: “Yes, blowing up innocent civilians is horrible, but let’s have a look at the root causes.”

Inevitably, the search for root causes lands us at an economic model (the ghosts of Marx and Lenin again), which goes like this: Poverty, oppression, lack of education, opportunity and political power are, of course, the real reasons for terrorism. Address those and especially our responsibility for causing them, the thinking goes, and the problem of terrorism will evaporate.

Except it won’t: The majority of the 9/11 terrorists was middle-class and well educated. There are many words we can use to describe those monsters, but poor, oppressed, uneducated or lacking in opportunity are not among them.

Less often discussed is the moral problem with looking for root causes. The moment you find one, you’re in the awkward position of asserting that it is actually worse than the effect: poverty is worse than murder, occupation is worse than blowing up school buses.

Except they aren’t. There are poor, oppressed people in a lot of places but they are not tying bombs to their children. That’s a Palestinian invention. The response of, “Well they must really be angry, then” is the response of someone who is morally blind in the extreme and would stand up to nothing that is truly evil. Since when does anger justify anything?

Nothing—not poverty, not occupation, not anger—can replace personal responsibility and choice as true “root causes” of terrorism.

As for assigning blame, Mr. Kushner has made his choice: The Palestinians are not responsible for their actions in any way. All the blame lies with the Israelis.

I’d like to see Mr. Kushner explain that to the Jewish mothers who have buried the remaining body parts of their blown up children.

Nor, I think, is “balance” a particularly honest plea from Mr. Reich. His tone is Socratic and professorial; but self-promoting, knee-jerk inconoclast theatre-wrecking barbarians and dupes is what he’s calling us (I’ve been called worse), and Palestinians don’t come off much better.

I associated Mr. Kushner with “those who seek to destroy our society and its foundational values.” I accused him of “unquestioning alignment” with those who danced and handed out candy in celebration of 9/11.

He would have preferred something less genteel? Would that have been the price I had to pay to be considered by him an honest man?

Here’s a good principle of drama: Appearances are often deceiving! Look at the map again, the one Mr. Reich mentions. Leaving aside his rather chilly fantasy that Arab countries are “empty…”

That little “chilly” element clearly implies that I wished Arab countries to be emptied of their inhabitants. That’s a convenient demonization of my position, but it’s completely untrue. My meaning in pointing to the map was that Israelis have little inhabitable land available to them. Arabs have a lot. There are a lot of places for Palestinians to go, yet Israel remains the target of Arab conquest, not the reverse.

…the tiny sliver of land called Israel is also a nuclear power with the most powerful army in the region, and, oh, lest we forget, it also has the absolute support of the world’s only superpower.

I don’t think Mr. Kushner is suggesting that the root cause of the conflict in the Middle East is the imbalance of nuclear weapons between adversaries. He wouldn’t promote the idea that Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya and others should acquire and deploy nuclear missiles as a method of establishing equilibrium in the region. He isn’t suggesting that would be some kind of solution.

He’s just not saying that.

Is he saying that?

Somebody please tell me he’s not saying that.

Size ain’t everything. And a state for the Palestinians will not bring about the death of Israel. The state of Israel is menaced by nothing so much as the hopeless statelessness of the Palestinians.

And yet, now that Israel has given the Palestinians the Gaza Strip and everyone agrees in a two-state solution—including President Bush and the Israeli leadership—Israel is indeed menaced by those who are (still) interested in the total destruction of the Jewish State.

Anyone who wants to know more about this situation from what I consider a genuinely “balanced” point of view should go to the website of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom / Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace… In the fall, a book I’ve edited with Alisa Solomon, Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish American Responses to the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, will be published by Grove Atlantic Press.

Public Relations 101: There are no bad controversies. Use every opportunity to hawk your own wares. There is no shame in self-endorsement or in turning human tragedy into personal gain, especially for those who are critical of capitalist systems that do the same. (Their reputation will protect them from claims of hypocrisy.) Call and order your copy my book TODAY!

The hand-wringing over the menace we present to the art of the theatre is silly. Theatre will survive us.

Perhaps Mr. Kushner, unlike me, has never heard the words “theatre” and “dying art form” in the same sentence. Artists can blame philistine politicians, producers, and audiences all they like, but wouldn’t it be refreshing to see artists turn some of the self-critical vitriol they so quickly pour onto our entire society onto themselves once in a while?

Behind the sophistry (Wait! “Palestinian” is derived from “Philistine,” a Roman insult? You mean these “Palestinians” have merely lived there since the 17th century? Well, in that case, nuts to them, whoever they are, and their bomb-wielding children!)…

No. Not nuts to them. The Israelis have offered them land and deals and accommodations on multiple occasions. What has been the reliable Palestinian and wider Arab response every time? Kill the Jews. Now, for years, they have been arming their children with bombs. Presumably, there is a point at which one realizes that dealing with another has its limits and that it may not be possible to negotiate or accommodate them in any reasonable way. If tying bombs to their own children does not represent that limit, what would? How bad would it have to get before we say, This is not something we are doing or responsible for; it is something they are doing and responsible for? Does Mr. Kushner have such a limit, or is all permissible, even mass murder, for the “oppressed?”

…is an elegantly written apology for brutality.

No. It’s an argument for responsibility. Hold the Palestinians responsible for their actions. Hold them to the standards of civilized society. Do not tell them their terrorism is justified. Do not enable and encourage their sense of victimhood. Tell them that while they have legitimate rights, they risk forfeiting those rights if they do not adhere to basic rules of humanity.

That’s not brutality. Brutality is what too-often results from those who are kind to the cruel, which can almost serve as a definition for extreme Leftism.

Suicide bombings are repugnant.

The next word is going to be “but.” It is always “but,” an indication that there is, apparently, something worse that blowing up innocent people. The only question is, what will the “but” be that elevates some lesser crime beyond the horror of terror and mass murder?

But Palestinian deaths and injuries still outnumber Israeli deaths three-to-one.

So for Mr. Kushner, even though the Israeli deaths are of innocents by muderous bombers, the fact that there are more Palestinian deaths is somehow proof that the crimes are imbalanced and the Palestinians are the more aggrieved than Israelis. Never mind that suicide bombers/murders themselves might be counted in those casualty numbers. Never mind that the Palestinian deaths are largely combatants, not civilians. Never mind that the civilians who are killed accidentally by Israelis were often used as human shields by Palestinians who attack Israelis from within Palestinian civilian areas, in violation of every accepted rule of war. None of this matters to someone who has “traveled with his opinions” about where the truth really lies.

Poverty in the West Bank is 47 percent.

So for Mr. Kushner, terror is trumped on the immorality scale by poverty. Never mind that such poverty is largely the result of an astoundingly corrupt Palestinian Authority as well as the necessity to control passage of Palestinians into Israel who might otherwise blow up innocent people. To acknowledge these facts would be inconvenient to his opinions.

Fifty percent of the Palestinian population is under the age of 15.

While this may be true, what bearing does it have if a 15 year old is wearing a bomb vest into a pizza place? It’s as if Mr. Kushner is effectively saying, “These are children! Can’t you just allow them to kill you and stop making me feel uncomfortable about the difficulty and horrible implications of all this?”

It’s the world’s oldest and largest refugee population.

The Palestinians are the “worlds oldest and largest refugee problem” only if one applies the U.N.’s highly politicized multigenerational definition of “refugee” that is applied to no one else on the planet, thereby assuring the Palestinians of perpetual victim status that no one else can claim. Mr. Kushner readily promotes this absurdity despite the fact that he is no doubt aware of the equivalent number of Jewish refugees who were expelled from their own homes in Arab lands at the same time—with no offers for compensation or return.

Mr. Reich wants to know what principle united the six of us. I can’t speak for my friends, but here’s one possible answer: Horror. Have a heart already.

My heart is intact, but Mr. Kushner conceives that the actions taken to protect innocent civilians are more worthy of denunciation than the murderousness that necessitates those actions.

He arrives at his stance on the basis of some pretty questionable assumptions. Among them: that the strong are always evil; that the voice of protest is always and forever virtuous; that anger is more than an emotion—it’s a legitimizing principle; and, finally, that it is acceptable to promote the sincerity and legitimacy of those who are blowing up innocents.

All this was in service of showing the rest of us how big his heart is.

In Munich, Tony Kushner shows us that he is still traveling with the same abhorrent and self-promoting opinions.

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