Israel lobby groups celebrated as Marvel Studios announced in September that an Israeli “superhero” will appear in the 2024 movie Captain America: New World Order.
The character of Sabra will be played by Israeli actor Shira Haas, a former volunteer with the Israeli army’s theater troupe. In the comics, Sabra is a Mossad agent.
The film could help the Israeli spy agency recruit sources and assistance in other countries, Mossad veteran and now film consultant Avner Avraham told CNN.
The announcement at Disney’s annual D23 Expo by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige mentioned Haas’ casting as Sabra in passing and did not draw attention to the character’s Israeli identity. The actor herself was notable by her absence among her costars.
Haas is best known for the Netflix series Unorthodox and has been in Israeli films such as Noble Savage.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel said that it was “outraged that Marvel will glorify apartheid Israel’s murder and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Palestinians,” slamming the company for what it said was “ugly racism and valorization of Mossad” in the original comics’ depiction of the character.
American Muslims for Palestine has organized a petition calling on Disney – the owner of the Marvel brands – to “cancel the thoughtless plan to feature ‘Sabra’ ” in the upcoming film.
A crude expression of Israel’s settler-colonial nationalism, Sabra is at best a minor character in Marvel’s pantheon of 2,700 heroes and villains.
She has appeared in supporting roles in several Marvel comics over the decades, but was never popular enough to warrant her own series.
She was introduced in 1981 as “policewoman Ruth Ben-Sera,” and later renamed Ruth Bat-Seraph. She was part of a special government program of “Israeli super agents” and later revealed to be a mutant – characters like the X-Men who in the Marvel universe represent the next stage of human evolution, Homo superior.
Mutants have special powers and are often feared and oppressed by the rest of humanity. This is then played up as an analogy for racial injustice. Indeed, the most famous mutant villain of all, Magneto, was in 1981 given a sympathetic backstory as a Jewish concentration camp survivor of the Nazi Holocaust.
As well as Sabra’s costume being emblazoned with the Israeli flag, she is later revealed to be an agent of Mossad, Israel’s deadly spy agency best known for torture, oppression and assassination of Palestinians and other Arabs.
The Israeli character comes in the context of Marvel’s push in recent years for greater diversity and representation in both its characters and creative teams – something right-wing critics have attacked as “woke.” But politically its association with a right-wing apartheid state will alienate fans who otherwise appreciate greater diversity within the Marvel pantheon.
Sabra was one of several characters written into the Marvel comics of the early 1980s by drawing on crude ethnic and national stereotypes.
The month after Sabra, Marvel brought in “The Arabian Knight,” a toe-curlingly hackneyed Egyptian Bedouin character who finds an enchanted scimitar in an ancient tomb endowing him with magical powers – including a literal flying magic carpet.
Other one-dimensional national symbols introduced at that time included “The Soviet Super Soldiers,” “Captain Britain” and “The Collective Man” – a character emblazoned with the flag of communist China.
Sabra’s first full appearance in The Incredible Hulk #256 features harmful racist generalizations about Palestinians and other Arabs.
Arabs in the comic are portrayed exclusively as backward, primitive and violent, and almost entirely hostile – although occasionally to be pitied.
Arab characters are depicted as part of an angry “mob,” or as well-heeled but credulous fat cats wearing – like most Arabs in the issue – a white headscarf.
Worst of all, Palestinian freedom fighters are portrayed as a vicious gang of child-killing “terrorists” who bomb a cafe and attack innocent civilians for no apparent reason. Nothing whatsoever is said about Israeli military dictatorship, apartheid or the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Even the most sympathetic Palestinian character in the issue is bad – “Sahad,” a destitute child “beggar” befriended by the Hulk’s human alter-ego Bruce Banner.
Sahad is a pickpocket who cheats, lies and steals, often from American tourists. He is apparently illiterate (“Me, I don’t read books”).
The boy is ultimately killed by the deranged Arab “terrorists,” invoking the fury of the Hulk, who attacks and threatens to “kill” them.
Hulk’s cheapening of Palestinian life is in marked contrast to his confrontation with the Israeli army earlier in the story. Despite the Israeli army and Sabra both attacking the Hulk, the army is viewed as essentially good – if sometimes extreme in its methods.
The Hulk and Sabra initially fight, the latter mistaking the green monster as being in league with the “terrorists,” but ultimately come to a sort of resolution. The Hulk teaches her a lesson about humanity: “It has taken the Hulk to make her see this dead Arab boy as a human being,” the narration concludes.
Drawing on something he heard from Sahad earlier, the Hulk tells Sabra – his eyes full of tears – “Boy died because you wouldn’t share! Boy died because of two old books that say his people and yours must fight and kill for land!”
This reflects a common ahistorical myth about the situation in historic Palestine (present-day “Israel” plus the occupied West Bank and Gaza).
According to that view, Palestine is the site of an intractable “conflict” caused by millennia-old ethnic hatreds and religious strife, rather than the result of Zionism – the 19th century movement of European Jewish settler-colonists who expelled most Palestinians to establish the state of Israel by force in 1948 – as well as the Indigenous people’s resistance to that colonial invasion.
The words “Palestine” and “Palestinians” are not used in the entire issue, with “Israel,” “The Promised Land” or “Arabs” instead taking their place.
Does the conclusion of Sabra’s origin issue give us a clue about how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is likely to address “the conflict” in 2024?
That remains to be seen, but at best it is likely to mischaracterize the situation as a “conflict” with two equal “sides.”
Given the nature of Marvel, the history of the Sabra character and the Israeli actor cast in the role, it seems unlikely the film will deal accurately with Israeli military occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism. Marvel Studios told CNN that “filmmakers are taking a new approach with the character Sabra,” adding that characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe “are always freshly imagined for the screen and today’s audience.”
With the Marvel of recent years indulging less in the crude racial stereotypes that abounded in the America of 1981, could Sabra’s character take a different turn in the Marvel Cinematic Universe of 2024?
By the time of Sabra’s next confrontation with the Hulk in 1991 – against the backdrop of the US invasion of Iraq that year – her crude pro-Israel rants against the green hero prompt the Hulk to complain in his internal monologue that she sounds like “the Zionist recruiting board.”
And in a 1997 issue of X-Men, Sabra steals intelligence from her fellow Israeli agents to hand over to mutant leader Charles Xavier to aid his resistance to an anti-mutant campaign. She is subsequently discovered and attacked by entities who appear at first to be fellow Mossad officers.
But despite such divergences, Israel is ultimately viewed with sympathy – if not obsequiousness – by the comics’ authors.
As Sabra puts it: “Israel [is] small, and we stand up against our enemies!” This is a typical Israeli propaganda myth – in reality, the country is funded to the tune of almost $4 billion in military aid by US taxpayers every year – not to mention endless political, technological and diplomatic aid from British and European leaders.
In the 1991 story, the Hulk and Sabra ultimately settle their differences and team up.
In the 1997 story, the “Mossad agents” who attack Sabra turn out to be disguised Sentinels (anti-mutant robots). Sabra remains ultimately loyal to Israel. In an eye-rolling line of internal monologue which reeks of being re-written by committee, Sabra even defends Israel as “A country many of us see as a haven against intolerance.”
The context of Marvel Studios’ real-world relationship with the military and other agencies of US empire, as well as the casting of a former Israeli soldier to portray Sabra, points towards Captain America: New World Order being ultimately supportive of both US imperialism and Israeli settler-colonialism.
One of the three previous Captain America films was actually funded in part by the Pentagon, which has demanded script changes to many of the Hollywood movies it has put money and resources into – including Marvel films. And Captain Marvel was reportedly so flattering towards the US Air Force that the film resulted in a massive recruitment boost from female applicants.Marvel films in recent years have tended towards what left-wing critics term “intersectional imperialism.” In other words, the use of identity politics and visible “diversity” to cover up brutal imperialist oppression and class conflict.
This was seen, for example, in 2018’s Black Panther. Although widely praised by critics, the film used identity politics to push an openly imperialist narrative in which a CIA-backed coup regime overthrows the legitimate leader of an advanced African nation who was planning to arm and aid national liberation movements around the world.Captain America: New World Order seems likely to follow a similar “woke imperialist” narrative – with an added twist of liberal Zionism.
Scattered amongst the usual Hollywood social media platitudes, Sabra actor Shira Haas’ accounts show her posing in an Israeli army uniform, seemingly on a film set, and praising Israel’s 2018 Eurovision win, which was a major front in the Israeli government’s cultural propaganda war.
She has also paid tribute to Shimon Peres, the leading Israeli politician who was the financial architect of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal and is held by Palestinians and Lebanese as being responsible for the 1996 bombing of South Lebanon, including the deliberate massacre of more than 100 civilians and UN peacekeepers in a UN shelter at Qana).
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency also reported that in 2020 Haas took part in a ceremony to celebrate Israel’s 72nd “Independence Day” – the day which Palestinians mark as their Catastrophe, due to the fact that some 800,000 of them were expelled in order to found the new state of Israel in 1948.
In a 2017 Hebrew language interview with Israeli news site Mako, the then 22-year-old Haas revealed she had recently taken part in “a truncated service as a volunteer in the IDF Theater,” part of the Israeli military’s internal propaganda corps.
The last time viewers encountered Captain America was in the Disney+ streaming series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Its leading writer, Malcolm Spellman, is also co-writer of Haas’ forthcoming Marvel debut, Captain America: New World Order.
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson, a Black superhero known as The Falcon, initially turns down the opportunity to succeed his friend Steve Rogers as Captain America, partly because of the negative connotations of the US flag for African Americans.
But by the end of the series, Wilson decides to take up the mantle as the new Captain America, overcoming a pretender imposed by the US government in the process, and comes down on the side of the Stars and Stripes.
Wilson, played by Anthony Mackie, will also be the lead character in Sabra’s 2024 debut, where he will take up Captain America’s shield for the first time on the big screen.
Spellman is no stranger to such dubious politics. He was at one point attached as an executive producer of the cancelled HBO show Confederate – which was planned to depict an alternate history in which the South won the US Civil War and slavery is still legal.
The controversy over Marvel’s Sabra is likely to run and run, but the attempt to use identity politics to give US imperialism a veneer of respectability is unlikely to succeed. And this time Marvel might just have gone a step too far by embracing Israeli settler-colonialism as well.
With thanks to David Sheen for translation from Hebrew.