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The Jews learned a lesson from the Munich massacre

In that horrific moment in 1972, we were taught that the world had not changed, and Jewish lives still did not matter.

The bodies of Israeli sportsmen killed at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich arrive in Israel. Photo by Eldan David/GPO via Wikimedia Commons.
The bodies of Israeli sportsmen killed at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich arrive in Israel. Photo by Eldan David/GPO via Wikimedia Commons.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

We are swiftly approaching the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Even after the passage of decades, the wounds have not healed, and the atrocity remains as emotive and fraught as it ever was.

In particular, the German government, which botched its ambush attempt on the terrorists, allowing them to murder the athletes they had taken hostage, recently offered further compensation to the families of the victims. It was refused, with one survivor calling it “degrading.” The families are boycotting an upcoming memorial ceremony as a result.

They are right to do so because the Germans’ behavior—from the moment the Israelis were first taken hostage—has been debased and disgraceful. Not only did they refuse Israeli security assistance, which might have saved the victims’ lives, but they permitted the Games to continue despite the atrocity and, later, released three of the surviving murderers after an airplane was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Suspicions remain that the hijacking was staged in collaboration with the West German government, which built a strong relationship with the PLO in the years that followed.

The Israeli government was not unaware of this betrayal. In response, it launched “Operation Wrath of God,” a decades-long intelligence operation that executed most of those involved in planning and carrying out the attack and crippled the PLO’s foreign terrorist capabilities. Its greatest achievement, however, was to bring at least some measure of justice to the victims and their survivors.

There is a lesson in this because the Jews learned something on that terrible day in 1972. It was a shocking lesson and took many years to sink in, but it was very real. The botched “rescue,” the refusal to cancel the Games and the pathetic appeasement of the perpetrators at the earliest possible moment were all based on the single principle: Jewish lives do not matter.

To past generations of Jews, this would not have been surprising. For centuries, Jewish lives did not matter. The Jews knew it and dealt with it as best we could. But after the Holocaust, it came to be believed—perhaps in a fit of absence of mind—that now Jewish lives did matter. The world had learned its lesson, and out of its shame, a pledge had been made that the kind of dehumanization that culminated in the Holocaust would never occur again.

The Munich Massacre showed us that this was a lie. The negation of Jewish life had not ended with the Holocaust. The world, we now knew, cared about Jewish life up to and until the moment it became difficult to do so. The moment when, in order to fulfill its pledge, it had to suffer a wound, make a sacrifice or face down terror and violence. In that moment, it stopped caring, because it was inconvenient to do otherwise.

And ironically, the world has found the means of justifying this indifference in the Holocaust itself. Jews believe that the 6 million died for the Sanctification of the Name, but the world has decided that they died to sanctify humanity. They were martyrs to the nobility of the human spirit.

As a result, they believe that Jewish death only makes humanity ever more sacred, and there is no particular need to honor the victims or see justice done. The world can continue to play games, cut deals with terrorists and offer belated “compensation” with a clear conscience. Yes, many Jews may die because of it, but if so, the world will have the opportunity to build yet another museum in their memory, and won’t that be nice? That the Jews have no interest in dying in order to make others feel better about themselves is considered irrelevant.

All of this is a bitter irony, but we are fortunate enough to live in an era when the Jews no longer have to simply bend the knee and accept it. The lesson of Munich, for most Jews, has been learned quite well, and we have the means to act accordingly. Israel’s heroic efforts to achieve justice for the victims, execute the perpetrators and force the world to accept that while it may not value Jewish life, we do, represents one of Zionism and the Jewish state’s least-heralded but most noble accomplishments.

We should not have needed a Munich massacre to learn this lesson. But, at least, we did learn it. Fifty years later, we must remember it and resolve never to fall into convenient illusions again. That would be the finest way to honor the victims, their survivors and the silent guardians who brought them justice in the shadows when the world would not do so in the light of day.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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