Identifying With Israel

Olympics memento. Germany, 1972.

Recently declassified German government files confirmed what many had suspected: Palestinian terrorists who massacred Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics had the help of Neo-Nazis. They also reveal just how ineffectual the German security apparatus really was. In more ways than one, Black September was an inside job. My first reaction upon hearing this news? A profound sense of relief.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone. As terrible as the events of September 5th, 1972 were, they have long served to remind the world why Israel needs to be so aggressively vigilant. With each passing year, though, it becomes harder and harder to slot the country into the role of victim. For every act of violence against Israelis, it’s obvious to all but the most ideologically blinded that Palestinians pay a higher price in return. But here was proof that my childhood identification with Israel, however embarrassing it may be for me to confess, had not been wholly misguided.

Where did that identification come from? While I’m sure bias in media coverage of the Middle East played a role, my mother deserves most of the credit. As I struggled to make sense of the confusing events of the 1970s, she was the source I trusted most. Once I started paying attention to the news on the radio and television, I went to her with my questions, asking her to explain Watergate, Vietnam, Patty Hearst, OPEC, the conflict in Lebanon, Gary Gilmore, Jonestown, the assassination of Harvey Milk.

Because my mother was a progressive Democrat, shaped by the Civil Rights Era, the answers she gave me were mostly of a pacifist stamp. When Israel was involved, though, she was suddenly imbued with the spirit of a warrior. I only knew a few Jewish kids in school. And all I knew about their Jewishness was that Christmas posed a problem in their households. The subject of Israel never came up. But I nevertheless felt that it was my duty to root for this nation I could barely even picture.

So how did my mother, who grew up around even fewer Jews than I did, come to identify with Israel? I have often wondered. The most plausible explanation is that the Jewish boy she was dating in college, someone she once described to me as her first true love, had inspired her to remake herself in his image. I suspect that’s where her Theodor Bikel records came from, at any rate.

The irony is that this young man also broke her heart, eventually telling her that their relationship had to end because she could never be Jewish enough for his family. There are many ways to hold a torch. Knowing my own psychological tendencies, powerfully influenced by hers from both nature and nurture, I can imagine her persisting in the quixotic effort to prove her worthiness to him years, even decades, after she had any meaningful contact with him.

Writing about this doomed relationship now, it’s tempting to see it as a proleptic allegory for the one between the United States and Israel. Even now, when public opinion about Israel in the US is as negative as it has ever been, there are millions and millions of Americans who feel compelled to prove their love to a nation that is too preoccupied with its own affairs to love them back. As much as I know about the injustices perpetrated by Israel in recent years, including insights proffered by actually existing Israelis, I still struggle to suppress the impulse to give the country the benefit of the doubt.

When I heard the news of Black September’s ties to German Neo-Nazis, this political reflex I’ve worked so hard to suspend immediately shifted into gear. I can’t remember whether my mother ever suggested a direct connection between anti-Israel sentiments in the Muslim world and Nazi-style Anti-Semitism, but I know she impressed upon me the importance of perceiving Israel as a perpetually endangered place, no matter how impressive its military accomplishments.

This is where the terrible events of September 5th, 1972 loom large. They have long served to remind the world why Israel needs to be so aggressively vigilant. But that task is more arduous than it used to be. As the last Holocaust survivors near the end of their lives and the manifold deprivations of the Palestinian people today stare us in the face, it becomes more and more difficult for those not raised with the injunction to “never forget” to remember why it should be necessary to take Israel’s side over and over, without question or qualm.

Sabra and Shatila massacre commemoration. Beirut, 2003.

That was already true in 1972, to a degree. Indeed, Black September was created in response to this imbalance. But back then both the Holocaust and Israel’s tenuous early years as a state were still fresh in the minds of those who had lived through them, rather than having hardened into history. Even if Israel’s triumph in the Six Day War of 1967 and subsequent refusal to give back the territory it occupied in the process had inspired negative reactions by most global powers, the perception of the country as an underdog still persisted.

The Olympics were the perfect setting to reinforce this impression. However powerful Israel had become from a military standpoint, its achievements in sport were miniscule. Although individual athletes occasionally did well, the Israeli team fell squarely in the category of those just happy to be there. The American media in particular was fond of highlighting human interest stories of this type, using them to offset the Cold War narrative — the forces of democracy against the might of communism — that was the primary focus of television and newspaper coverage in the United States at the time.

Because I was only four years old in 1972, I never would have been able to articulate how the media framed the Olympics for me. But I certainly felt it. Although I might not have understood what basketball was yet, I definitely perceived that something had gone terribly wrong in the gold-medal game, robbing the American team of its birthright. I could tell, when Americans defeated the athletes in red, that their triumph meant a little more than it otherwise would have. And I knew that the adorable gymnast everyone was talking about was truly special because we liked her in spite of her place of origin.

That I have such memories at all is a testament, surely, to the force with which ABC impressed upon American viewers the Games’ significance. Even small children are acutely aware of what matters to the adults in their lives. Aside from children’s programs like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Munich Olympics represent the first experience of the media that I can recall.

I remember, near the end of the first week of the games, when my parents told me to pay particular attention to the feats of Mark Spitz as he neared his improbable record of seven gold medals. “You don’t want to forget this, Charlie. This is history in the making.” Unsurprisingly, they did not offer similar instructions when the news of Black September’s attack broke. Because the television was on all day, though, and I had it ingrained in my mind that the Olympics were important in a way that everyday events were not, I couldn’t help but absorb the tension coming through the television set.

Even now, although all the clips available on YouTube feature Jim McKay in the garish ochre jacket that ABC sports announcers wore, I still picture him in black and white, trembling through the static on my family’s 19-inch television. Although I did not have the intellectual resources to make sense of what was happening September 5th, I could tell that it mattered in a different way than the coverage that had preceded it. The sense of interruption, of a break in routine, was palpable.

Yet since I had already been conditioned to view the Olympics as a break in routine, the character of this interruption was hard to pin down. It was an interruption of an interruption, but still framed by the spectacle it brought to a halt. I’m sure that’s why Black September decided on that particular action, knowing that it was their best chance of achieving live global coverage. For someone like me, though, the end result was not what they had in mind.

In a sense, it was the Munich Olympics that taught me to root. Before then, I hadn’t really grasped that I was an American and that there were people out who wouldn’t like me for that simple reason. And I didn’t have a conception of what it meant to be a favorite or an underdog. By the end of the games, though, I understood both that the United States was at a disadvantage against the Soviets and that little countries like Israel had the odds stacked heavily against them.

While my subsequent political education was devoted to complicating such black-and-white conclusions — even as a nine-year-old, I would comprehend that Anwar Sadat wasn’t the bad guy at the Camp David Accords — the foundation of my allegiances had been firmly established. No matter what Israel was doing at the moment — assassinating Palestinian leaders, invading Lebanon, bombing Iraq — I still had those images of its paltry Olympic team in my head to pit against my impulse to criticize.

If the fact that Neo-Nazis were involved in the Munich attacks relieved me, it was because some part of me was still holding on to the conviction that my childhood convictions were the right ones. I suspect that a lot of people my age share this desire, since the early 1970s were such a confusing time. It was pretty easy to intuit that grown-ups were having a hard time holding on to their beliefs back then. But the last thing a small child wants to confront is a world without belief.

We were desperate to compensate for the crisis of confidence we sensed all around us. That’s why boys like me were drawn to play World War II instead of Vietnam. We needed villains who could be counted on to remain unambiguous. We needed the Nazis. So did Israel. And so do both Germany and Israel today. That’s why this curiously timed news is so good for both nations. Even if it won’t be enough to turn the tide of public opinion, it can at least help to slow its progress. In a rapidly changing world, where so much feels tenuous, that just might be enough to save both countries.

 Photographs courtesy of Toby Evans (#1) and Ismail Kupeli (#2.) Published under a Creative Commons license.

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