Marvel’s Captain America and Sabra’s origins in propaganda
SOAS MA Media and the Middle East graduate Nadine Sayegh comments on the latest Marvel comic
For Marvel comic fans, the introduction of the new character ‘Sabra’, announced last weekend at the D23 Expo held in Anaheim, California, generated considerable discussion, particularly because the comic introduces Israeli actress Shira Haas cast as ‘Sabra’ in the upcoming Captain America franchise, New World Order. Discussions ranged from the title of the film itself, to talk about ‘Sabra’ being plagiarised from an Israeli comic creator, to her background, and even to the clear anti-Palestinian rhetoric in the comic where she first appeared. The title of the film, New World Order, was also seen as being problematic because of its assumed references to World War II anti-semtisim (‘New Order’). However, one of the main questions of debate was whether the inclusion of ‘Sabra’, a Mossad Spy, trained by Israeli forces, and emblazoned with the star of David in the same hues of blue and white od the Israeli flag, was a public relations effort to counter potential claims of anti-Semitism?
What is in a name?
If the word Sabra is said in the Arab world, one of two things are thought of, first is the fruit grown on the cacti of the region, the prickly pear; and second, the 1982 massacre of up to 3,500 people (the majority being Palestinians) over two days in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, which was facilitated by the Israeli army. In the Levant, this massacre is generally considered to be a dark day of grief and loss in history. As such, coupled with the fact the MCU and Disney made this announcement days before the massacre’s annual commemoration, it comes as no shock as there have already been calls to boycott the franchise.
While Sabra is apparently used amongst Israelis to refer to a Jew born in Israel, and also used to refer to the prickly pear, the actual transliteration of the Hebrew word is “tza-bar”. This is similar to the Arabic “sab-ra”, but it is neither pronounced nor transliterated in the same manner. It is possible that this is a matter ‘lost in translation’ or even pronunciation. However, the fact that Sabra’s real name is Ruth Bat-Seraph, a Jewish name and more of a tongue twister than ‘tzabar’, it is surprising that they would name the character in the transliteration from Arabic and not Hebrew – particularly where the connotation is so heavy for a large group of people. Furthermore, it brings into question whether the use of this word is an attempt to replace the connotation in the public mind from the atrocities committed by Israeli forces in Lebanon, to a glorified Israeli ‘superhero’ from US pop culture.
Sabra first appeared in a 1981 edition of the Incredible Hulk comic book series. There she was introduced as a Jerusalem-born Israeli, raised in a Kibbutz, or settlement, and as having trained and actively working for Israeli forces. She is a Mossad spy and a police officer who develops mutant powers which essentially boost all her natural abilities. She is draped in a costume that resembles the Israeli flags and some of her additional weapons are specifically designed by the Israeli army. The scenes depicted in her comic debut are entirely a reduction of Palestinians particularly and Arabs generally. In sum, Sabra versus the Hulk features a young Palestinian boy named ‘Sahad’, a beggar or a street urchin who builds a bond with the Hulk in the streets of Tel Aviv. Sahad explains to the Hulk, “Sometimes it’s very hard to be an Arab in Israel. Both my people and the Israelis believe the land is theirs. They could share it, but two very old books say they must kill each other over it. Me? I don’t read books.”
The boy is never referred to as Palestinian, only as Arab. In fact, the word Palestine is not mentioned once; Arab terrorists are shown bombing a cafe, “In the name of Arab sovereignty over these lands.” The explosion injures the boy, and the Hulk picks him up and runs away trying to save him, he is chased by Sabra into the Jordanian desert. She accuses him of being in allegiance with the ‘Arab assassins’ and murdering the boy. In the final scene, “It has taken the Hulk to make her see that this dead Arab boy is a human being.” The narrative around her character begs the question: why introduce a character that is very clearly politically biased in an issue that is currently affecting millions of lives?
Considering that today the Mossad has built notoriety on extrajudicial assassinations across the world, and has acted with continuous impunity to the ire of communities and governments alike, glorification of this violence is done in particularly poor taste.
Captain America as propaganda
It is quite fitting that ‘Sabra’ will make her screen debut alongside Captain America, a character created as part of the unofficial World War II propaganda effort in 1941. In his first ever appearance, he punches Hitler in the face. In an essay, R. Joseph Parrot explains, “Stories of fanciful Nazi invasions reinforced the real sense of insecurity that accompanied the war, while stereotyped depictions of Japanese enemies mirrored the dehumanizing propaganda used by allied governments.” His popularity was so instilled in a wartime mentality, and an abject vilification of the US enemies that in 1949, after the war effort, Captain America fell out of interest as, “post-war sales faltered without a real-world conflict to give the character weight”.
While Captain America today is a more distilled version of his previous self, he remains a patriot and aligned with US interests. Stereotypical and dehumanizing depictions of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, alongside a reductive explanation of the Palestinian struggle, is not new and Sabra is therefore not surprising. In a recent CNN article, Avner Avraham, an ex-Mossad film consultant, explained that the film will help the TikTok generation learn about the Mossad, “it helps the branding,” he says. Adding that the exposure will help in recruitment of sources from other countries.
The culmination of these criticisms should have given significant pause towards the introduction of Sabra onto the big screen; the character structure is archaic, her background is one dimensional, and her presence in popular culture problematic. It can only be assumed that with a multi-million-dollar investment behind this film, she is here by design and with a calculated purpose.
Disclaimer: This article was originally published in the TRT World Opinion section.