Munich Misremembered

By Daniel Gelernter
Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Forty years ago, on September 5, 1972, eight Arab terrorists broke into the Israeli apartments at the Munich Olympic village, murdered two athletes, and took nine hostage.  After a day of failed negotiations, aborted rescue attempts, and a shootout at nearby Fürstenfeldbruck airport, not a single hostage survived.  A month later, the Germans compounded what Simon Reeve, in his seminal book One Day in September, called their “criminally shambolic failure” to rescue the Israeli hostages:  The terrorist group Black September hijacked a Lufthansa jet and demanded the release of the three surviving Munich terrorists; the Germans complied.

Good books have been written about the Munich massacre, but David Clay Large’s recent Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games isn’t one of them.  There is no triumph in this book, and not enough about terror and tragedy.  Unlike Reeve’s book or Aaron J. Klein’s excellent Striking Back, Munich 1972 is about sports, not terrorism.  Large thinks it a great shame that terror ruined the ’72 Games and overshadowed the great sporting events that took place there.

In this respect, Large is in tune with the times.  The International Olympic Committee refused to honor the Israeli dead with a moment of silence at the London Games.  (They refuse at every Olympics.)  IOC President Jacques Rogge said “the Opening Ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident.” The chairman of the Palestinian Olympic Committee thanked Rogge in a letter:  “Sport must not be a cause for divisiveness and for the spreading of racism.”

Large describes the massacre and continues with the Munich Games (just as the Games were continued over Israeli objections).  He doesn’t seem to grasp that America’s loss to East Germany in pole-vaulting (for example) is so unspeakably trivial in comparison to the terrorist outrage that the attention he gives it is embarrassing.

Large regards himself as a historian above history.  He calls the Black September terrorists fedayeen (“self-sacrificers,” their own preferred name) and compares them to Zionists, who “frequently resorted to terror tactics in their own struggle.”  He makes nothing of the Irgun’s having attacked military targets, while Black September targeted civilians.  “Apologists,” Large writes, “will undoubtedly deny the claim [of] ‘innocence’ for the Israeli Olympians on grounds that no Israeli could ever be innocent.” Large does not endorse this view; neither does he reject it.  Faults on both sides, tit-for-tat.

Large assumes the legitimacy of the Palestinian “grievance.”  World opinion—even Israeli opinion—increasingly seems to agree.  Where does the idea come from?

When the Yishuv’s first modern wave reached Israel in the late 19th century, Jews were already living there, along with mostly nomadic Arabs.  In 1922, the League of Nations gave the British a mandate to create a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.  Palestine meant modern-day Israel and Jordan.  In a speech on July 12, 1920, Lord Balfour had said he hoped the Arabs would not “begrudge that small notch” of land, reminding them that Arab sovereignty had recently been declared for the vastly larger Hedjaz (Saudi Arabia).  Saudi Arabia’s 870,000 square miles were for the Arabs; Palestine’s 46,000 for the Jews.

But the Arabs did begrudge that small notch.  The British gave 75 percent of the Jewish “national home” (all of Jordan) to Prince Abdullah, who demanded a kingdom in exchange for his brother Faisal’s new kingdom in Iraq.  They strictly limited Jewish settlement and encouraged Arab immigration to land ostensibly set aside for the Jews.  When the United Nations voted for partition in 1947, the Jewish share was about 56 percent of Western Palestine—an area slightly smaller than Connecticut.

Israel declared her independence in 1948 and was immediately invaded by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and by troops from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  600,000 Arabs left West Palestine, encouraged (and frightened) by the surrounding Arab states.  Slightly more Jews living in Arab lands were expelled and came to Israel.  Jordan, for example, had passed laws forbidding Jews to be citizens or own property.  There were about 850,000 Jews living in Arab countries in 1948; this number quickly dwindled to nearly nothing. 

This should have been a straightforward population exchange, but the Arab states refused to resettle the Arabs.  Syria and Lebanon built refugee camps and denied citizenship to the refugees.  Jordan also built camps, and the UN counts refugees as living in Jordan, despite a Jordanian law guaranteeing the right of return for Palestinian Arabs.  This was not for lack of land, or even available land—even in the 70s Syria offered free land to anyone who would immigrate to cultivate it, as long as he was neither Jewish nor Palestinian.  “Black September” was September 1970, when the PLO, backed by Syrian tanks, attempted a coup against the Jordanian government and was quashed.

The Arabs tried conventional war against Israel in 1948 and 1967, and again in 1973.  It went badly.  They were humiliated militarily and weakened politically.  The Olympic massacre was a new strategy: a fight for Western public opinion.  As surviving Munich terrorist Jamal Al-Gashey said, "A lot of the people of the world who had never heard of Palestine knew then that there was a deprived people with a cause to fight for."  The terrorists' real victory was in creating the new image of Palestinians as a "deprived people"—deprived by Israel.   As the head of the Syrian PLO said in 1974, Palestinian statehood would be "the backbone of our struggle against Israel."

The subtle publicity success of the Arab terror campaign is reflected in most writing about the Munich massacre—and nowhere more strongly than in David Large's book.  The Palestinian terrorists suffered a violently anti-Jewish upbringing.  But their sincerity does not make them less guilty as terrorists and murderers, nor does it make their cause more just.  Any author who assumes the legitimacy of the Palestinian grievance—either because he is afraid to dispute conventional wisdom or simply because he doesn't know history—is giving the Munich terrorists exactly what they wanted.

Daniel Gelernter is a writer and painter living in Connecticut. 

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