While Jewish Israelis rejoiced at the casting of an actress from Israel as a superhero in a major Hollywood production, the backlash among Palestinians and their supporters was swift, and #CaptainApartheid soon appeared on social media.
Many critics expressed outrage about Sabra’s character and her identity as an Israeli intelligence agent, accusing Marvel of buying into Zionist propaganda; of ignoring, or supporting, Israel’s occupation of territory captured in 1967; and of dehumanizing Palestinians.
“By glorifying the Israeli army & police, Marvel is promoting Israel’s violence against Palestinians & enabling the continued oppression of millions of Palestinians living under Israel’s authoritarian military rule,” wrote the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a US-based pro-Palestinian organization, on Twitter.
Compounding the anger was the name of the superhero, Sabra, which has different connotations for Israelis and Palestinians. Sabra is the name of a refugee camp in Lebanon where a Christian militia massacred between 2,000 and 3,500 people, according to Al Jazeera, while Israeli troops stood by 40 years ago.
Snippets from the Marvel comics featuring Sabra, a mutant Israeli police officer-turned-Mossad agent. “This is how Arabs are presented in Sabra’s first appearance in Marvel comics. The word Palestinian is never used. An Arab child in the comic who is an illiterate liar and thief is killed by black veiled bombers so Sabra can cry over them. Literally shoot and cry propaganda,” Twitter user @kkhelil said.
According to Al Jazeera, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution declaring the massacre an “act of genocide”, and in February 1983, the UN commission found that “Israeli authorities or forces were involved, directly or indirectly in the (Sabra and Shatila) massacres”.
But, to Israeli Jews, a Sabra can simply be a person born in Israel.
“The bottom line is that to Palestinians, Marvel having an Israeli superhero whitewashes the occupation,” said Sani Meo, publisher of This Week in Palestine, a magazine about Palestinian issues.
Palestinians and their supporters around the world have been posting profusely about “Captain Apartheid,” he said. “Some of it is humorous,” he added, “though the topic is not humorous”.
Marvel Studios declined to answer detailed questions about the issue or about the company’s intentions in bringing Sabra to the big screen.
“While our characters and stories are inspired by the comics,” the studio said in a statement, “they are always freshly imagined for the screen and today’s audience, and the filmmakers are taking a new approach with the character Sabra who was first introduced in the comics over 40 years ago.”
Whatever its motivations, Marvel has found itself being condemned by pro-Palestinian advocates.
Israel has been criticized by international human rights groups and by boycott and divestment activists for its policies toward the Palestinians. Some of those organizations equate Israeli policy with apartheid. Currently, About 475,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank in settlements that are illegal under international law.
But Israel is also gaining broader acceptance by some Arab governments, such as the UAE.
Much of the outcry over Marvel’s decision to include Sabra in the new movie, called “Captain America: A New World Order,” centers on the name of the character itself.
cartoon by Carlos Latuff. Twitter user @ jimzawiya said in a recent tweet: “Marvel announcing Sabra as a new character when she’s a Mossad and isr**l (Israel) propaganda character just one week before the 40th commemoration of the Sabra and Shatila massacre is just… sickening.”
To Israeli Jews, sabra is the Hebrew name of a cactus bush and its fruit, prickly on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside, which the nation’s founders adopted as the nickname for native-born Israelis.
But to Palestinians, the sabra bush, traditionally used to mark the boundaries of village lands, is a symbol of loss and steadfastness (“sabr” is also the Arabic word for “patience”). During the war that accompanied Israel’s creation in 1948, Zionist Israeli forces destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees after fleeing or being expelled from their homes. But the hardy sabra bushes remained an indelible part of the landscape even after most traces of the villages were erased.
Critics have also accused Marvel of being insensitive to the link between the Israeli superhero’s name and that of the refugee camp in Lebanon. Sabra and Shatila are the names of two Palestinian camps in Lebanon where, from September 16 to September 18 in 1982, a Lebanese Christian militia massacred hundreds of residents. Israeli troops had allowed the militia to enter the camps, and Israeli commanders issued no orders to stop the carnage.
“Social media activists are slamming Marvel over their new Israeli Mossad superhero ‘Sabra,’ whose name is sensitive considering the Sabra and Shatila massacre,” the official Palestinian news agency WAFA wrote on Twitter.
The character of Sabra first surfaced in an issue of “The Incredible Hulk” comic book in 1980, wearing a blue cape and white bodysuit featuring a Star of David. That debut was some two years before the massacre in Lebanon.
Critics pointed at how in a 1981 Hulk issue titled “Power and Peril in the Promised Land,” the character of Sabra initially showed little emotion over the death of a Palestinian boy in an explosion, until the Hulk enlightened her about basic human values.
Nothing is yet known about the story line of the next “Captain America” movie, which is scheduled for release in 2024, or the scope of Sabra’s debut role.
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