?Munich?

Published in the Jewish Chronicle 3 February 2006

Rarely has a trip to the cinema been such a political act. The last film to be treated this way ? not as a movie but as an ideological statement ? was Mel Gibson?s ?Passion of the Christ.? And that incensed Jews, too.

I am speaking, of course, about Steven Spielberg?s ?Munich,? a film which has dominated the editorial pages as much as the movie sections for more than a month. In the US especially, the director has been under sustained assault for his imagined account of the Mossad operation to kill the men behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. You?ve heard the key objections: that Spielberg relied on a dodgy book for source material and that he suggests a moral equivalence between Israeli intelligence and Palestinian terrorists.

I?m unsympathetic to that last charge, not least be-cause it?s just as easy to argue the reverse case: that Spielberg humanises his Israeli characters, while the film?s Arabs are two-dimensional cut-outs, never on screen for more than a minute or two.

But I have two other thoughts on my mind. The first is one I?ve had before, occasioned not by Spiel-berg but by Ariel Sharon ? still, as I write, lying mute and immobile in a Jerusalem hospital bed. A year or so ago, at the height of the political battle over the Gaza withdrawal, I saw a poster morphing the image of Sharon into that of Yasir Arafat, wrapping the Prime Minister?s head in a keffiyeh. The image was the work of ultra-rightist Israelis, the same crowd who had depicted Yitzhak Rabin as an SS officer a decade earlier.

What I realised then is that it doesn?t matter how much a Jew has given to his people: there will still be some ready to cast him as a traitor. As far as the crazies were concerned, in abandoning Gaza, even the war hero and settlers? godfather Arik Sharon had become a self-hating Jew.

Spielberg is now undergoing the same treatment: one email round-robin branded ?Munich? a Nazi propaganda movie. ?Schindler?s List? is forgotten; Spielberg?s establishment of the Shoah foundation, recording the testimonies of the world?s remaining Holocaust survivors, is put to one side; it all counts for nothing. In the eyes of his extremist critics, he has no moral credit in the bank.

This is useful to bear in mind, even among those of us who live at a lower altitude than Sharon or Spiel-berg. Next time you?re condemned for your opinions or accused of some vile treachery, either at a synagogue debate or around a family dinner table, re-member that even those whose Jewish commitment is total get the same mud dumped on them. What it proves is that these accusations mean almost nothing.

The second thought cuts the other way. It is the nagging feeling that one criticism of ?Munich? probably does stand up. Some critics dislike the film?s subtle implication that the sole justification for a Jewish state is the Holocaust. The hero?s mother exp-lains that Jews needed a homeland, one they had to take by force from the Palestinians; after all, they had lost so many people to the Nazis.

The trouble with this, say Spielberg?s antagonists, is that it plays directly into the hands of the fiercest anti-Zionists, typified by the President of Iran and a good slice of the newly dominant force in Palestinian politics, Hamas. They insisted this week that they ?shall never recognise the legitimacy of a Zionist state created on our soil in order to atone for somebody else?s sins.? As the neo-con US commentator Charles Krauthammer puts it, ?if Israel is nothing more than Europe?s guilt trip for the Holocaust, then why should Muslims have to suffer a Jewish state in their midst?? If there has to be a Jewish state, why can?t it be in Bavaria?

None of this is uniquely Spielberg?s fault: plenty of Zionists make the same, rather crude cause-and-ef-fect link between the Jewish state and the Shoah. It has the benefit of simplicity and unanswerable moral force. But it may be serving us badly. I hear too often the argument that it?s unfair that Palestinians have to pay the price for a European crime ? as if the whole idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine was dreamed up only after the Holocaust. We may need to spell out anew what we have always taken as read: that the Jewish attachment to that land is millennia old; that Jews had once lived on that terrain as a sovereign people; and that the modern Zionist yearning to return predated Hitler by nearly a century.

We can?t blame Steven Spielberg for failing to make that case; he had enough on his plate. But we need to do it and we need to start now.

Stand up for real stars

The celebrity culture which has put paid to the Planetarium is a blow to British science. How can we give our children back a sense of awe about space?

Published in the Evening Standard 2 February 2006

It was the second day of this year and, like lots of parents caught in the twilight zone between Christmas and the new school term, we needed to come up with a fun day out for the kids. So, like lots of parents, we headed to the Science Museum.

And I do mean lots. The place was heaving, every floor jammed with

families. Outside the "pattern zone,? where toddlers could discover the laws of interlocking shapes through touching, dancing and crawling, was a motorway pile-up of push-chairs. The basement area of hands-on experiments, featuring magnet cars, air-pumped planes and a Heath Robinson style gravel-moving machine, was filled with a permanent, ear-splitting din ? like a school playground moved indoors.

Every child was feverish with excitement, leaping from one model or

gizmo to the next. Only one thing could divert them: the announcement that "the rocket show" was about to begin. At which point, they all crammed into an even smaller space to hear a young guide in a T-shirt teach them the rudiments of rocketry. They sat, listened and concentrated as she burst a balloon or set fire to an empty Pringles can to explain the basic principles of spacecraft. It was rocket science ? and these kids loved it.

All of which came back to me on hearing that the London Planetarium is to close after nearly 50 years of service. I hadn?t yet taken my two boys, four and two, to the vast, stellar dome on Baker Street: I had stored it up as a treat to come. Now I plan to rush them in before that great unnatural sky is shut down ? converted into a new Madame Tussauds attraction, one that spokeswoman Diane Moon says will ?look at fame and celebrity through the ages.? Expect a giant laser projection of Elizabeth I rapidly morphing into Kylie and Chantelle.

It?s not that Madame Tussauds have got something against the night sky. It?s just that the punters stopped coming. The appropriately named Ms Moon tells me that for every ten people who came to look at the waxworks, only three bothered visiting the planetarium ? even though their ticket granted them entry for no extra charge. Recently, Tussauds cut the long, detailed show I remember from childhood down to just 10 minutes. But even that was too much. ?Visitors said, ?We were bored senseless by that bit; we wanted to see celebrities.??

This decision tells us so much about the state of the world in the 21st century, it could almost be an exhibit of its own. First, it confirms that we truly live in the age of celebrity. Those Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan epigrams about everyone being famous for 15 minutes and the medium being the message contained even greater wisdom than we imagined. It is not just funny that the BBC made George Galloway?s eviction from Celebrity Big Brother the third item on the Ten O?Clock News ? ahead of the education white paper ? it is revealing. Just as it is no coincidence that Heat magazine is one of the publishing phenomena of our time, its snaps of actresses? cellulite a mass-circulation smash with a hundred imitators. These things flourish because they give us what we want: the chance to stare at famous people.

I am not immune to this: I sat glued to the sight of Galloway in a leotard along with everyone else. But I have to confess I have never understood the appeal of waxwork dummies of celebrities. I genuinely cannot comprehend what would be interesting about a mannequin of Tom Cruise. But now we know. People would rather look at a stationary, fake Victoria Beckham than have the sensation of gazing at the midnight sky in perfect, pin-sharp clarity.

Perhaps Madame Tussauds were simply aiming at the wrong market. Most of their 2m annual customers come to gawp at stuffed celebrities: no wonder they didn?t fancy a quick peek at the solar system. No, says Ms Moon: even when the Planetarium was a stand-alone attraction, separate from the waxworks and marketed in Astronomy Now and the like, it didn?t pull in the crowds.

Maybe it doesn?t matter. The market has spoken, telling us we want movie stars of hair and teeth not distant ones of light and gas. Perhaps we should just let it go.

But I can?t quite accept that. For one thing, we need all the tools of basic science education we can get. A study published last November warned that the teaching of physics was in danger of dying out in British schools, with the number taking A-levels in the subject falling by 38% since 1990, a problem compounded by a shortage of physics teachers.

In this ultra-competitive global economy, in which technology and

innovation play such a crucial part, we simply cannot afford science to wither. We need to get kids enthused by it early ? and the wide-eyed, open-mouthed experience of the London Planetarium was one of the few guaranteed ways to do it.

Luckily there is an alternative. A year from now the Royal Observatory at Greenwich will open a new, state-of-the-art, 120-seat planetarium. Currently kids can visit Greenwich for free and the Observatory plans to keep admission costs for the new attraction ultra-low ? quite a contrast with Madame Tussauds, where an adult ticket costs #21.99 while a child has to pay #17.99.

Still, this is not a complete solution. The London Planetarium was bigger, with 398 seats, and more central than Greenwich. Turning it over to a celeb light show means losing a unique educational asset. I understand that it no longer made a profit for the already super-profitable Tussauds. But it?s a pity the company couldn?t find some way to let this resource be used for the public good. Rich lawyers do pro-bono cases, good works taken on for no charge. Isn?t it about time that some of London?s wealthiest enterprises started to do the same?