Marvel Studios announced that little-known Israeli superheroine Sabra will join the next installment of its Captain America movie series. The character - Israeli police officer by day, super-powered Mossad agent by night - is a quintessential reflection of the Israeli apartheid system.
In a decision that seems to needlessly court controversy, Marvel Studios has decided to incorporate the little-known Israeli superheroine, Sabra, into the next installment of its Captain America movie series, Captain America: New World Order. To say the least, Palestinians and Palestine advocates have not greeted the news with excitement.
The heroine is problematic not just because she is Israeli, but because she is a quintessential part of the Israeli apartheid system. She is, by day, an Israeli police officer while her super-powered persona is an agent of the Mossad, so she has two jobs that involve oppression and brutalization of Palestinians. Her outfits usually include some aspects of the Israeli flag, including blue and white coloring and a Star of David. She is not just an Israeli woman, she is a symbol of Israeli nationalism, and, therefore, of Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
Even her name, “Sabra” courts controversy. For Israeli Jews, this is simply the word for Jews who were born in Palestine or Israel. But for Palestinians, the name is a painful reminder of a landmark atrocity, the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, where Israeli forces allowed Phalangist militias into those two refugee camps to carry out wanton and massive killings of innocent and helpless Palestinian refugees and Lebanese Shi’a.
Israelis will remind people that Sabra was a term used for Jews born in Palestine (before 1948) and Israel (including the Occupied West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights) long before the Sabra and Shatila massacre. And some might point out that the Sabra character debuted before the massacre. But, while that’s true, it doesn’t change the visceral reaction the name provokes among Palestinians and many Lebanese. That fact only adds to the senselessness of Marvel choosing to introduce this marginal yet offensive character into their movie universe.
But the name is only the beginning of the problems with this character. In her initial appearance, she is confronted by The Hulk, who is protecting an “Arab” child (the comic would not, in 1980, use the term “Palestinian”), named Sahad. Hulk manages to “humanize” Sabra, forcing her to see Sahad as a person, rather than only the enemy. Given the realities of the day, that scene was somewhat better than most since, although it is simplistic (it is, after all, the Hulk who is doing the moralizing) and absolutely “both sideses” the conflict, Sabra is left feeling at least some regret and responsibility for Sahad’s death.
But that child was an awful stereotype of Arabs. Hulk encounters him fleeing after stealing a watermelon, and Sahad confides in him that he is illiterate and makes a living by telling lies of a hard life to tourists so they will give him money. Sahad’s death in a “terrorist attack,’ launched, of course, by Palestinians, reinforces the myth that Palestinians, not Israel, are responsible for their own casualties.
In later comics, Sabra is portrayed as representing the Israeli government. Taken together, this is not just about a comic book character who happens to be of Israeli origin. Sabra is a national symbol of Israel; she is not portrayed by Marvel as an Israeli person, but as the personification of the state of Israel. How could Palestinians not be outraged by this?
It’s worth comparing this to the portrayal in movies of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman, portrayed by the Israeli aristocrat, model, actress, and passionate supporter of the Israeli military, Gal Gadot. While Gadot’s public support for Israel’s assaults on Gaza was seen by many as problematic, her appearances in several DC Universe movies were mostly uncontroversial. Then came Wonder Woman 1984, a movie that indulged in a number of very troublesome topics.
Arabs were portrayed, all too typically, as greedy oil merchants and tyrants, indifferent to the suffering of others. Other portrayals included extreme xenophobia, domestic abuse, and the ubiquitous trope of Arab parents being indifferent to the safety of their children. In the latter case, the white savior—in this case, Wonder Woman, portrayed by an IDF veteran—saves a pair of Arab children playing football in a combat zone.
Wonder Woman 1984 was rightly pilloried by many for this racism, yet while the criticism was loud, it was largely ignored by much of the mainstream media at the time. Gadot’s career has hardly been blemished at all by her glorification of military assaults on Gaza and her blaming of Palestinian victims, using well-worn Israeli talking points to do it.
Marvel Studios, on the other hand, has been rightly praised in recent months for its positive portrayal of Egyptian mythology and Arab characters in its Moon Knight television series and its positive depiction of Muslim Pakistani-American culture in the more recent Ms. Marvel. It’s fair to wonder, then, why the decision was made to bring in Sabra, a very minor character in the Marvel comics?
Again, the portrayals of Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel and various Egyptian deities in Moon Knight stand on their own. They imply nothing about any other group. It’s here that Sabra’s identity as an Israeli police officer, Mossad agent, and fighter against Palestinians, more than just her identity as an Israeli, is so very troubling.
It’s particularly worrisome that Sabra is going to be part of the next Captain America film.
As a long-time comics reader, I was reluctant to embrace Captain America. At first, he was a supremely patriotic character, but later, especially after the Watergate scandal, Captain America becomes more alienated from his country. Yet, his portrayal was, for a long time, that of a man who embodied the ideal of the United States, as if it only in modern times were those ideals corrupted. History in this mythos was not just ignored, it was warped.
In later years, Captain America struggled with what the United States truly was, and, in some ways, this translated to the movies that came out beginning in 2011. By the end of the classic character of Steve Rogers’ run as Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic universe in 2019, the character had moved a good deal from his flag-waving beginnings.
The new Captain America, who was formerly the hero called Falcon, is a Black man who is only too familiar with both the history and the present-day realities of racism. He is, nonetheless, a veteran and someone who seems willing to be “America’s hero,” albeit a bit uncomfortably.
So how will Sabra fit into this story? The last time we saw the new Captain America, Sam Wilson, in the Marvel television series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, he had reluctantly agreed to take up the shield despite having weathered financial discrimination, racist police brutality, and the discovery that the U.S. military had experimented on Black men in an attempt to produce more super-soldiers like Captain America.
Marvel’s portrayal of racism in the series was uneven, to put it kindly. It seemed well-intentioned, but the studio clearly didn’t want to either dive too deeply into these issues or to send too radical an anti-racism message.
As writer Scott Woods put it, when Sam hears the story of what the U.S. government had done in its experiments, the message “…is that America may not deserve and certainly hasn’t earned what a Black Captain America represents. The idea underneath Sam’s actions is that working harder and through adversity defeats racism, which anybody who’s suffering through diversity workshops at their job right now can tell you is patently false.”
That bodes ill for how Marvel will handle Sabra. The studio will be dealing with an issue much more remote from the writers’ likely understanding, and one that most of their audience will have a much more distorted picture of. While many Americans, especially white Americans, have a lot to learn about the realities and history of racism, most Americans don’t begin to grasp the nature of Palestinian lives under Israeli apartheid. They are still picturing Palestine as being in a “conflict” with Israel, and for many, Israel is the aggrieved party, or, at best, both sides are.
Yet Marvel has decided to trot out this blatantly racist character, at a time when the country she represents is being exposed more and more every day as the apartheid state it is. Is this, perhaps, someone’s view of “balance” after the studio won praise for Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel? Maybe so, but if that’s the case, it displays a profound ignorance of the difference between cultural representations and a blatantly political character who is the very embodiment of Israel’s oppressive policies.
Sabra is a needlessly provocative and insulting choice for Marvel to bring into their movie universe. Maybe they have some idea about how to handle her that they think will make the character less problematic, but it seems far more likely, even if this is the case, that they will only expose the hubris and arrogance of trying to take a character who intentionally represents a racist system—and was even scripted to symbolize the oppression of another people—and make her somehow palatable for a diverse audience in 2022.
People who enjoy Marvel’s movies know they’re not perfect when they touch on social issues. But in this case, Marvel is setting itself up for charges of racism. They could proudly show themselves as superior to their comic book rival, DC Comics, after the horrible racism in the Wonder Woman sequel. It’s a real shame that they seem to have decided instead to one-up DC by supporting apartheid.
Because unless Marvel is planning to actually portray Sabra as the crusader for apartheid that she is in the comics, they should expect, and will deserve, all the condemnation in the world.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy. He is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics. Mitchell’s previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Director of the US Office of B’Tselem, and Co-Director of Jewish Voice for Peace.