Sunday, December 25, 2005

Munich Follies

A review of Munich over at Slate magazine has only heightened my apprehensions over the film and what it may represent for the American-Jewish zeitgeist. I personally cannot stand people who condemn films without having seen them, so I am withholding judgment on Munich until I have seen it, just as I have written nothing on The Passion of the Christ and likely never will, since I intend never to see it (mainly because I have no desire to see two hours of a crucifixion, probably the most vile method of execution man ever invented). However, David Edelstein’s review of the film represents one of those truly extraordinary moments of collective dissonance which requires comment.
Rapidly overtaking the "Cinema of Revenge" is the "Cinema of Revenge with a Guilty Conscience"—i.e., "My people got even and all I got was this dumb hair shirt."

What's the reason for this post-9/11, self-critical twist on the thriller genre's beloved scenarios of injury and retaliation? Maybe it's that the recent consequences of such thinking have been so catastrophic: that despite invading two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), quickly overthrowing their governments, and inflicting massive casualties on their populations, the enemy's resistance has, if anything, grown more tenacious; and that our ally Israel, among the world's most reflexively vindictive nations, hasn't managed with its instantaneous reprisals to stanch the flow of blood. At this juncture, to make the movies we always have, the ones that revel in righteous brutality, would not only be socially irresponsible. It would be delusional.
There are two things going on here. One is “delusional” as the author states, the other is morally and spiritually bankrupt. Nor, indeed, can we ignore the unmistakable wretchedness of Jewish self-hatred lurking behind these paragraphs.

The delusional is fairly obvious. For this author, there is only invasion, overthrow and the absurd rhetorical onanism represented by the phrase “inflicting massive casualties on their populations”. There is no mention of the danger of terrorism, the danger of Middle Eastern totalitarianism, the unspeakably brutal nature of the overthrown regimes, nor the obvious and unfortunately inconvenient fact that the lion’s share of the “massive casualties” suffered by the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq were, in fact, inflicted by their own governments. The enemy’s resistance (I have neither the time nor the inclination to parse Edelstein’s ridiculous usage of this term to describe people whose primary method of “resistance” appears to be “resisting” innocent and unarmed people by slaughtering them en masse) has proven so tenacious that Al Queda is now forced to rely on incompetent surrogates to carry out operations in a Europe whose security networks have not, as yet, mobilized to meet its threat. It has, furthermore, completely failed to stop the Iraqi people’s obvious desire for democracy nor their resolution to act upon it. The “resistance”, in fact, has proven to be capable of doing only one thing tenaciously, and that is murder its own co-religionists in large numbers.

I am not arguing here that the War on terror has been a complete success. I am arguing only that to engage in the type of self-flagellating and flagrantly dishonest doom-mongering at work in these paragraphs is to be not merely socially irresponsible and, yes, delusional, but to commit a fundamental violation of that amorphous thing we like to call truth, or perhaps, simple honesty.

I do not wish to engage in armchair psychology, but the description of Israel as “the world’s most reflexively vindictive nation” cannot help but appear amusing to someone who lives in a country which has spent much of the last decade making concessions to its most existential enemy. Nor can someone like myself, who has seen the results of Palestinian terror firsthand, possibly take the assertion that it has “failed to stanch the flow of blood” with any real seriousness. I remember when bombs were going off here every other day. Bombs still go off, on very great and regrettable occasion. But there can be no doubt in the mind of anyone who lives here that Israel’s military policy has been massively successful in interdicting and preventing terrorism against its citizens. The reckless distortion of facts is undoubtedly the homage delusion pays to reality.

But what we are really arguing here is that which is never mentioned, the question of Jewish self-flagellation. Because the true issue at stake is the idea of “an eye for an eye”, “ayin tachat ayin” as the Torah, untranslated, puts it. Edelstein is invoking a Christian ethos against the Jewish, and engaging in the exacting sureties familiar to anyone who has ever been openly Jewish in leftist circles. It is the brand of Uncle Tomism which we have all played from time to time. Namely, the desire to swallow whole the mythos of another and to remake it as our own. In this, we betray our own ignorance of ourselves.

I say this because Edelstein clearly does not understand the phenomenon which he terms “vindictive”, and can conceive of it only as a mythos of revenge. In fact, what we are speaking of here is not vengeance but justice. Or rather, of the role of vengeance in justice. As the great French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas pointed out, the concept of “an eye for an eye”, according to the Jewish commentaries, is one of compensation and thus equalization. As opposed to the Christian metaphysic, which demands forgiveness, Jewish Law conceives of violence as an act of violation and thus domination. As such, it demands a recompense, or the world is lost. Forgiveness in such a situation is simply submission. It is the acceptance of injustice. To say that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” is to miss the point and to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, to forgive one who takes the eye of another is to accept his act. To normalize it. Thus guaranteeing that the world will indeed be blind, except, of course, for the most ruthless, the most cruel, and the most opportunistic among us. Vengeance, therefore, properly undertaken, is integral to justice, and cannot be separated from it. This plays into a further commentary, from the Midrash, to the effect that the world was created three times. Once upon the principle of justice, once on the principle of mercy, and once upon both principles together. Only the third world could stand, the others instantly destroyed themselves. Thus, justice cannot exist without mercy nor mercy without justice. To sacrifice one to the other is to destroy the world. Thus, the existence, the necessity of Law, which, as we are told, is one of the pillars upon which stands the world itself. For, contrary to the ignorant attacks of its critics, the principle of an eye for an eye in fact limits the realm of reprisal. A man whose eye is taken cannot justly take the life of his attacker. The establishment of equal compensation ensures our humanity. This principle meets its limit, of course, only in the realm of murder, because against murder there can be no compensation. Therefore, vengeance is at its height in the realm of murder. It is worth noting that, while Judaism heavily regulates the death penalty, it nowhere rejects it outright, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, even here, in the hinterlands of possible justice, for there can be no true justice for the dead, the Law does not fear to tread.

But those of us who have accepted the negation of our creeds without even knowing them do fear to tread this wasteland. We prefer instead to intone pieties about the futility of vengeance even as, in doing so, we annihilate ourselves. The results are now universally known. It is accepted as obvious, for instance, that the acceptable response to occupation is the murder of children and innocent adults. This is called “an understandable result of…” It is also accepted that to assassinate those who plan and carry out such murders is an abomination. Against this we must raise the apparently shocking assertion that forgiveness taken to its extremes goes mad, and becomes the acceptance of murder. That there is no such thing as a cycle of violence, there is, rather, the man who violates and the man who demands restitution, and that to choose submission is to already submit to the death of the world. Five hundred years of human progress has apparently brought us to an unfortunate and depressing duality. On the one side, an eye for an eye. On the other, the belief that some have earned the right to murder others. You may choose for yourself which of the two represents the delusional.