TEL AVIV — The families of the 11 Israeli athletes who were killed by Palestinian militants at the 1972 Munich Olympics said Wednesday that they intend to boycott a memorial ceremony planned in Germany in September to mark the 50th anniversary of the attack because of a dispute with German authorities over compensation.
The decision will put pressure on the president of Israel, Yitzhak Herzog, who is scheduled to attend the ceremony in Munich on Sept. 5, to also stay away, threatening an event aimed at healing the wounds of an attack by the Black September terrorist group that shocked Israel and the world.
Germany’s handling of the terrorist attack, and its aftermath, remains one of the most divisive issues between the two countries after the establishment of full diplomatic relations between them in 1965 — a relationship already fraught by the Holocaust.
The families have long fought for more compensation for the killings of the athletes, and Israel has maintained that Germany failed to adequately protect the athletes and covered up its failings before and after the attack.
The attack took place on Sept. 5, 1972, when eight Palestinian militants jumped over the fence of the Munich Olympic Village, which was guarded by just a few German police officers, according to an official report by the Israel State Archives. Only two of the officers were armed. The militants entered the Israeli residence and killed two team members before demanding the release of comrades imprisoned in Israel. Later, nine other athletes were killed, along with a German police officer, in a chaotic rescue attempt.
Ankie Spitzer, the representative of the families in meetings with Mr. Herzog, said that the families regarded the compensation offered by Germany as “a joke” and that all but one member planned to boycott the ceremony where the payment was to be announced.
The German government said in an internal memo obtained by The New York Times that so far the families have been paid a total of 4.6 million euros, or about $4.8 million, by various German agencies. In a statement Wednesday, the German interior ministry said that “confidential talks are currently underway with representatives of the victims’ families” but did not mention the boycott move.
“We expect President Herzog to also announce, immediately, that he is not coming,” said Ms. Spitzer, who is the widow of Andrei Spitzer, who was the coach of the Israeli fencing team. “If the families don’t travel, he shouldn’t travel either because if he is there, even to lay a wreath, it will legitimize this cruel German behavior.”
Mr. Herzog and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany had a series of phone calls with the families and the German interior ministry, which was responsible for coming up with the compensation offer, in an unsuccessful effort to resolve the dispute, according to the families and their lawyers, an account backed by Israeli and German officials.
Germany is offering 5.4 million euros in total in additional compensation to 23 remaining family members, according to the government German memo. But lawyers for the families say they are seeking about 20 times more than that.
“The level of state responsibility of Germany, as we know it now, is far more extensive compared to the facts which were known in 1972-2020” said Alexander Knoops, a lawyer for the families. “Ample evidence was recently discovered which shows that the Government not only failed in the protection of the athletes but was also instrumental in the cover up of its failure.”
The dispute over the compensation is a rare conflict between Germany and Israel. Germany has worked hard to be transparent in its atonement for its Nazi past, and to have a special relationship with Israel. For example, traditionally, Israel is one of the first foreign trips taken by new German presidents.
The decision by the family members to boycott the event calls into question the participation in the ceremony of the entire Israeli delegation of about 200 people, which includes members of the Israeli Olympic Committee and Olympic medal-winning athletes, who have said they would not go to Munich without the families.
Mr. Herzog has not yet decided on the issue and continues his efforts, together with the president of Germany, to resolve the case, according to Israeli officials. A spokesman for the Israeli president declined to comment on the issue.
Ms. Spitzer, the representative of the families, also said Israel had not helped her or others over the last decade.
“Ties with Germany are very important and probably surpass everything else,” she said. But, she added, it was time for Israel to “say publicly what everyone is saying quietly fearing to insult the Germans — it’s time to finally compensate the families of the victims for the terrible failures that led to the death of Andrei and the other 10 athletes, and for all the lies and cover-ups in the last 50 years.”
The prime minister of Israel at the time of the attack, Golda Meir, refused to negotiate with the militants but asked to send a special commando unit to free the athletes but Germany refused, an account confirmed by German officials in a 2012 documentary. Israel demanded that the Games be stopped — but this request was also declined.
The head of Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, said he was only allowed to observe the rescue operation, and that all his proposals had been rejected by the Germans.
“They didn’t make a minimal effort to save lives, they didn’t take a minimal risk to try to save people, neither theirs nor ours,” the Mossad head, Zvi Zamir, told government ministers when he returned to Israel, according to a transcript of the meeting obtained by The New York Times.
The families of the victims have long accused German authorities of hiding documents from them and creating bureaucratic difficulties so that they would not get access to the archives and receive financial compensation.
Recently declassified documents published in the German media show that German intelligence had warnings of an imminent action against the Olympics, but did nothing.
In the middle of August 1972, the German Embassy in Beirut sent an urgent telegram to the foreign ministry in Bonn alerting it of an attack. The telegram was first published in July by the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
According to an internal German government memorandum obtained by The New York Times, the aim of the ceremony on Sept. 5 was to confront the “questions of historical reckoning that remain unresolved.” The interior ministry statement said Germany viewed the ceremony as “an occasion for a clear political analysis of the events of 1972.”
As part of that effort, Germany plans to establish a German-Israeli history commission, with full access to all records, “to scrutinize all available sources” and come up with a “scholarly account and assessment of the events.” President Steinmeier also planned to acknowledge the responsibility of Germany for the handling of the terror attack, and announce the additional compensation for the victims’ families.
“Through these actions, the Federal Republic of Germany is fulfilling its moral and historical obligation to the victims and their surviving family members,” the memo concludes.
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Hanover, Germany.
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