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George Jonas: A consummate outsider

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George Jonas, author of 'Vengeance'
George Jonas, author of 'Vengeance'

Editor’s Note: George Jonas passed away last week at the age of 80. The article below first appeared in the Jan. 26, 2006 edition of The Canadian Jewish News.


Everything old is new again. 

That expression has gained renewed cachet with the 2005 rerelease of George Jonas’ Vengeance (Simon & Schuster), the 1984 book that is the basis for Steven Spielberg’s controversial film Munich.

Jonas’ equally controversial book, which tells the dramatic story of the Israeli Mossad’s hunting down of the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, made a clear moral distinction between terrorism and counterterrorism. The $70 million Hollywood movie, by many accounts, does not, adding a key scene that offers up the Palestinian point of view and others in which the Mossad agents engage in constant questioning of their mission.

Sitting in the lobby café of a local hotel, Jonas seems almost bemused about the furor over the film adaptation. “The interesting thing is that the film actually is quite faithful, perhaps slightly more faithful, to the letter of the book than I would have been had I made a film of it. What it is not faithful to is the fundamental spirit of the book,” says Jonas.

READ: NEW DETAILS EMERGE SURROUNDING 1972 MUNICH MASSACRE

In a recent Maclean’s magazine cover story, Jonas wrote: “The book has no trouble telling an act of war from a war crime; the film finds it difficult. Spielberg’s movie worries about the moral trap of resisting terror; my book worries about the moral trap of not resisting it.” Fortunately, Jonas says, “There have been a handful of reviewers, in the New York Times, the Weekly Standard, who actually bothered reading the book before making comparisons between the movie and the book. [They] saw the fundamental difference between the conclusions of the book and the conclusions of the film”

However, most journalists, whether defending or attacking Spielberg’s film, have also taken a swipe at Jonas’ book, deeming it inaccurate or saying its veracity has been called into question, specifically concerning the “existence” of the Mossad team leader, Avner.

“Personally… like every writer, I would be happier if there were no suggestion about the book’s research lacking or being in any way in doubt,” Jonas says. “I feel quite comfortable about my research [for the book].”

Malcolm Lester, whose then-company Lester & Orpen Dennys co-published the book in 1984, stands by the book’s truthfulness, as well, provocatively adding that many of the broadsides against it “may come from the Mossad who want to create disinformation. 

“I can only guess that,” he added, pointing out that when Vengeance first appeared Israel’s spy agency denied even engaging in targeted assassinations. (“Today,” says Jonas, “you see examples of counterterrorism on television, on CNN news; you see an Israeli missile launched to strike a terrorist enclosure on the West Bank.”)

Lester also met Avner and says, “I have no doubt that Avner at one level is who he says he was; whether all the details [he gives] are true… [But] I think George got at the truth of what was going on.”

Controversy is nothing new to the Hungarian-born Jonas, who still exudes a gentle old-world European charm, despite having spent most of his life in Canada. (He emigrated from Hungary after the Soviet-quashed 1956 uprising.) His strong opinions, such as those decrying Communist holocausts as comparable to the Shoah, have been manifest in his columns for the National Post, which he’s been writing since the newspaper’s inception in 1998, and in his syndicated newspaper columns, which date back to the mid-’90s.

Jonas was the writer/ producer/ director of the award-winning The Scales of Justice, dramatizations of landmark and interesting judicial cases that Jonas did for both CBC radio and television from 1981 to ’96. David Cronenberg directed a TV segment of the show in 1990 when he was in between movies.

Despite his success as a writer/ producer/ director, and for the last 20-plus years as a freelancer, Jonas has always felt like an outsider. He tells the story of when he parked cars for the members of Toronto’s tony Granite Club. “A Granite Club member couldn’t place my accent and he said, ‘let the Martian park my car.’ In many ways, he was accurate.

“I was always a bit of a Martian in any group. I did not fully belong to any group that I nominally was a member of, whether it was fellow writers, fellow Hungarians or fellow Canadians or fellow Jews or fellow lyric poets or fellow motorcycle racers. I was never quite at home [with them], so in that sense I was a bit of an outsider.”

That’s a description that many writers and artists would embrace, he adds. “If you were to ask me a question, do I belong to a group called outsiders, the answer may be yes.”

Politically, Jonas is often perceived as a right-winger. He disputes that label. “I do not see myself as a libertarian. I certainly don’t see myself as a neo-conservative. I see myself as a classical liberal. My political views I derive from 19th-century liberalism, [from] John Stuart Mill, the kind of liberalism derived from the Scottish philosophers, not from the French revolution.” It’s a liberalism that he regards “as an organic property of existence, not a gift of the state.”

READ: ISRAEL NOT COMPROMISING DEMOCRACY IN TERROR FIGHT – TOP JURIST

He refers to the late John F. Kennedy’s famous dictum, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” “I would have some difficulties with that,” says Jonas. “I believe that it’s the country that exists for its individuals, for its people, rather than the individual for the country.” 

Those views come into contentious play today. “9/11 has awakened people to one danger, the danger of international terrorism, a certain totalitarian streak of Muslim theocracies,” he stresses. “But in another sense, it’s increased the aspect of statism in many areas, in the name of security. It’s not because [the need for security] is not real, but it can serve as an excuse for that all-encroaching state to interfere with more and more aspects of your existence and develop more and more control over your life as an individual, on the basis that it’s doing it for your own security. The paternalism of the state has been increased.”

If so, it’s a safe bet that Jonas will continue to sound the warnings against that paternalism and all the other pernicious ideologies that he fears affect us all. 


Shlomo Schwartzberg is an arts journalist, a teacher and former director of programming of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.