This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Munich Massacre, a Palestinian terror attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The terror attack was one of the worst to take place on European soil and one of the most blatant examples of the Palestinian hatred towards Israel and the Jewish people.
It was the second time Munich had hosted the Summer Olympics, and it was the second time antisemitism was on display in front of the world. In 1936, Hitler’s Germany hosted the Olympic Games, and Hitler used the event as a propaganda platform to promote his ideals of racial supremacy and antisemitism, including by hindering German Jewish athletes from competing in the Games. This event foreshadowed World War II and the Holocaust. When Munich was again chosen to host the Olympics in 1972, West Germany was trying to unshackle itself from its dark past and even chose “The Cheerful Games” as that year’s motto.
The Israeli delegation to the Games was of huge symbolic significance. Israeli Jewish athletes, some of whom were survivors of the Holocaust, competed in the Games under the banner of the Israeli flag, which is adorned with the Star of David. The symbol once used to mark Jews for persecution in Germany was now a symbol of hope for Jews around the world and was being meaninfully and proudly flown inside Germany. It was a sign that while the Nazis were defeated, the Jewish people lived on.
Not only was it a display of the Jewish people’s survival over antisemitism, but it was also a sign that Israel was willing to forgive Germany and move forward despite the atrocities of the past. However, while the Nazi regime had been defeated, the evil of antisemitism lived on, and it again revealed itself to the world, this time through Palestinian terrorism.
On 5th September, 1972, the world’s media recorded the events of the Munich Massacre and broadcast them for all the world to see as eight Palestinians murdered 11 Israelis. Before the era of 24-7 news, it was unprecedented as news reels followed the sickening event unfold. The terrorists were part of ‘Black September’, a terror organisation under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Armed with guns and grenades, they broke into the Olympic Village and forced their way into the Israeli sleeping quarters. There, they held eleven Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. They only had one intended victim – Israelis. They allowed athletes from other countries that shared the building to leave unharmed. But they showed no mercy to the Jews. Two of the Israeli athletes were killed after they tried to fight off the terrorists. The rest were tied up and tortured, with the dead bodies of their friends lying at their feet as a reminder of what would happen if they tried to fight back.
On 6th September, the terrorists transferred their hostages to a nearby military airport where they intended to fly out of the country with the hostages. A botched German police operation, intended to rescue the Israelis, resulted in all the Israelis being killed. In addition, a German police officer was also killed in the shootout. All but three of the terrorists were killed. Those three were arrested and released the next month in a hostage exchange when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa flight in which they held passengers hostage while demanding the release of the Munich terrorists. West Germany obliged.
The attack was horrific as much as it was shocking. The location was clearly chosen for the symbolic reason that Germany was where the Holocaust originated. Likewise, the Olympics was chosen so the Palestinians could make a spectacle of their terrorism to the world.
Today, the only living terrorist who carried out the Munich Massacre is Jamal Al-Gashey, who said of the attack, “I’m proud of what I did at Munich because it helped the Palestinian cause enormously… before Munich, the world had no idea about our struggle, but on that day, the name of ‘Palestine’ was repeated all around the world.”
Sadly, Al-Gashey may be right. While most saw the terror attack as horrific, the Arab world largely celebrated the murders, and the terrorists became heroes. The incident galvanised Palestinian terrorism of which Israel continues to feel the effects. There is also an argument to be made that suggests a lack of compassion shown towards Israel and their fallen may have also acted as a green light for further atrocities.
The tragedy the world ignored
The world’s reaction could be considered the most heart wrenching thing about the tragedy, and one of the many reasons why Israel so often feels isolated. Following the attack, the Olympic Games was suspended for several hours, the first time in modern Olympic history that this has occurred. But once the incident was over, organisers held a ceremony for the fallen athletes before declaring “the Games must go on.”
That’s exactly what the rest of the world did. For the Israelis, their Olympics was over. The Israeli delegation packed up their belongings and flew home to Israel as well as the bodies of their dead teammates. There was no way they could continue to compete after such a tragedy had occurred. The rest of the world, seemingly unaffected, carried on without them.
At the time, it may have felt like the right decision to keep going. Indeed, even today, many in Israel have the opinion that life must continue even after Israel has endured countless terror attacks. However, this wasn’t an attack on the Olympic Games. This was an attack on Jews. It seemed the Jews were left to mourn their victims alone while the rest of the world carried on as normal.
Unbelievably, in the next Olympic Games, there was no mention whatsoever of the Munich Massacre. In fact, from 1972 to 2016, there was not a single memorial for the victims of the Munich Massacre at an Olympic Games. Several other terror attacks were rightly commemorated during opening ceremonies, such as the September 11 attacks in America that were honoured at the 2002 Winter Olympics and the 7/7 London Bombings of 2005 that were remembered at the London Olympics in 2012. The Munich Massacre, however, never got mentioned.
The reason is shamefully because every time the International Olympics Committee (IOC) tried to honour the victims of the Munich Massacre they were met with heavy opposition from Arab nations who threatened to boycott the Games if such a commemoration took place. Even before the 2012 Olympics, Parliament debated the subject and several MPs noted how outrageous it was that Arab nations had glorified the attack.
The attitude of the Arab world went against everything the Olympics claims to represent. No competing nation that objects to remembering victims of a terror attack, particularly athletes competing in the Olympic Games, should be allowed to participate in an event aimed at promoting unity and respect between athletes of all backgrounds. It is shameful that the Olympic community cowed to this hatred and abandoned the athletes they were supposed to be standing up for.
Thankfully, Israel and the families of the victims of the Munich Massacre never allowed the memory of their loved ones to be extinguished. They would not allow the hatred of Israel’s enemies to win.
In 2016, there was finally a breakthrough when the IOC agreed with the families that a memorial would be placed inside the Olympic Village at the Rio Olympics with a small ceremony being held before the Olympic Games began. It was a small gesture that meant a lot to the families. And in 2021, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the Munich Massacre was finally commemorated in the proper manner.
Finally, after 49 years, the Israeli victims of the Munich Massacre were honoured at the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games. The world’s attention was rightly drawn to this tragedy almost half a century later. Whilst the wait to commemorate the terror attack took far too long, we know it was a significant step forward. Our hope is it will not be the last time the Olympics remembers these fallen athletes.