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Getting to That Moment of Silence: Remembering the Munich Massacre

By Randy Pinsky

The 1972 Olympics in Germany will forever be burned in the collective memory of the world.

It took fifty years, but a moment of silence was finally held at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic) in honor of the eleven Israeli athletes murdered in the Munich Massacre. Years of lobbying the International Olympic Committee to change its steadfast refusal ‘to bring politics into the Olympic Games,’ had finally resulted in a measure of collective recognition and closure.

Why did it take so long? The Azrieli Institute hosted Francine Zuckerman, director of After Munich (2019) on March 22, 2021 to discuss what happened on that fateful day.

The Day the World Stopped

“The last time I saw my coach, he told me, ‘We will meet tomorrow morning’ - but tomorrow morning never happened...” (Israeli Olympic runner Esther Roth Shahamorov).

On September 5th, the tenth day of the 1972 Summer Olympics, members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September stormed the Israeli quarters and took eleven athletes hostage, then murdered them.

How could something like this happen? What could have motivated such a violent act to take place at the Olympics, a bastion of unity and peace?

According to the CBC, “the Munich Olympic Committee refused to acknowledge two requests by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to compete in the Olympic Games. This snub inspired the leaders of the Black September Organization, who put forward a plan to use media coverage of the Olympics to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian people and pressure Israel to set free Palestinian prisoners [held in Israeli jails].”

“The Games Must Go On”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage will forever be remembered for these immortal words, insisting that the games continue after a memorial service was held.

While some lambasted him for this act, others understood his rationale to prove the terrorists had not won.

The Mossad Steps In

The world was horrified at what had taken place, much in full view of the cameras. Israeli’s secret intelligence agency, the Mossad, was instructed by then-prime minister Golda Meir, to find and eliminate the leader of the terrorist group.

Thus ensued the Operation Wrath of G-d manhunt to Norway, much of which is chronicled in Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) based on George Jonas’ book Vengeance (1984).

In a telegram sent to the family of one of the athletes (and featured in the Munich memorial), Meir acknowledged the profoundness of their grief, adding, “The pain is not only yours but that of a whole nation.”

“Shame On You, IOC”

In 2020, New York’s Rockland Jewish Community Center put together a documentary called There Was No Silence, criticizing the IOC for consistently refusing to commemorate the attack and dignify the victims.

Ankie Spitzer, the widow of one of the slain Israeli athletes, has dedicated her life to lobbying for an opening ceremony tribute. In 2012, she confronted the Committee present at a commemorative event in London. "Shame on you IOC, because you have forgotten 11 members of the Olympic family.” She continued, “They were killed on Olympic soil and the appropriate place to remember them is at the opening ceremony. Is the IOC only interested in power, money and politics?”

"You owe it to them.”

‘Not a Fit Atmosphere’

The IOC held fast to its decision, claiming the Olympics was not the place for political issues.

However, does this argument hold under scrutiny? Former Canadian Justice Minister, Irwin
Cotler, took the IOC to task in 2012.

Contrary to the Committee’s claims, there have been memorials for Olympians, including for the victims of 9/11 and the 2005 London Bombings even though there was no direct Olympic connection, notably “after eschewing a memorial for the murdered Israeli athletes and coaches.”

Cotler continued, “th[is] as offensive as it is incomprehensible.”

“It is not hard to infer that not only were the athletes killed because they were Israeli and Jewish, but that the moment of silence is being denied them also because they are Israeli and Jewish.”

Tokyo: Fifty Years in the Making

While progress was very slow, a meaningful gesture was finally obtained at the 2016 Rio Games when IOC President Thomas Bach read the names of the ‘Munich 11.’ Prior to this, there were unofficial acts of rebellion, such as NBC announcer Bob Costas “effectively creating his own moment of silence.” when the Israeli delegation entered the stadium during the 2012 London Games.

As stated by Lee Igel of the NYU Tisch Institute for Global Sport, officially recognizing this sobering commemoration during the opening ceremonies “would make clear where the IOC stands- and what it stands for.”

The first official commemoration finally happened in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “The tragedy is still engraved in our collective memory and will always be,” said Israel’s Ambassador to Japan Yaffa Ben-Ari.

“The memory of our victims serves... as a reminder to...the leaders of the world that in order to fight against evil, we all have to stand together and condemn terrorism.”

Never forget.

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