An Israeli superhero nurtured by and in service of Israel’s military is set to appear in Marvel’s upcoming 2024 blockbuster, Captain America: New World Order. Played by Shira Haas, who gained recognition for her appearance in the Netflix show Unorthodox, the superhero goes by the name Sabra and is according to the existing Marvel Universe a mutant who was raised by the Israeli government to use her powers for the benefit of the Israeli state.
Who is Sabra and why is her addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe causing so much anger?
The original comic books show Sabra working for Mossad, Israel’s notorious secret service, which saw her make her first appearance in a run in with the Hulk. Part of her back story, which has angered many across the Middle East and left them dreading the harmful and Islamophobic stereotypes that may come with Sabra’s addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is her battles with Arab terrorists. The stereotype-ridden storyline of Sabra’s battles with terrorism sees her battle the Hulk, believing him to be working with terrorists, and her own son being killed in a terrorist attack, leading her on a vigilante mission for justice.
Sabra, who describes herself in the comic books as the ‘super heroine of the state of Israel ‘, is often shown in the comic books battling Arab men wearing veils and armed with bombs, with absolute disregard for Arab women and children, who Sabra is there to protect. Critics have alleged that this represents a white savour complex that positions Arabs as a people to be saved from themselves as they are driven by a blood lust and love of violence. Commentators like Khaldoun Khelil also pointed out that the comic books featuring Sabra engage in the erasure of the Palestinian identity and existence by never using the words Palestine, Palestinian, or Palestinians.
In one revealing and depressing scene that sees the supposed superhero kneeling next to a dead Arab child, Sabra refuses to see the humanity in or feel sympathy with the child until the Hulk intervenes to explain. The text on the comic book revealing reads, “it has taken the Hulk to make her see this dead Arab boy as a human being”. Many from the region on Twitter have referenced this and other scenes that feature her using her powers indiscriminately, leading to allegations of the glorification and justification of war crimes.
Understandably, many Arabs and Muslims across the region and the wider world have stated their disgust at the proposed addition of Sabra to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some organizations, like American Muslims for Palestine have also called on Marvel and Disney+ to cancel Sabra’s upcoming appearance in the upcoming 2024 blockbuster. The worry is not only of the promotion of negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, but of the whitewashing of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, described by Amnesty International as apartheid, and the use of force by the Israeli Defence Forces, which often amount to war crimes.
What does the name Sabra mean?
Many have angrily taken to Twitter to point that the superhero’s name Sabra has different and more harmful connotations to Palestinians and Lebanese. The word Sabra for Palestinians and Lebanese is a painful reminder of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 that saw between 460 and 3500 Palestinian and Shia Lebanese civilians murdered by a far right-wing militia under the command of the Israeli Defence Forces. With September 16, a few days away, marking the 40th anniversary of this tragic and horrific event, some on social media saw this as a deliberate reference.
However, it was quickly pointed out that the superhero first appeared two years before the massacre took place in issue 256 of the Incredible Hulk in 1980. The name Sabra in the case of Marvel’s superhero instead referred to the term used since the 1930s to describe Jews who were born in the area now known as Israel and a kind of prickly pear seen as indigenous to the area. However, many commented on Twitter that while the relationship to the Sabra and Shatila massacre may be unfounded, the naming of Marvel’s superhero as Sabra is nevertheless part of a colonial project of portraying Israelis of European descent of being native to the land, and in turn denying Palestinians’ existence and historic claim to the land.
Does the Superhero Genre Have an inherent Islamophobia and Anti-Arab Racism Problem?
No other genre is so uniquely American in its history and outlook as that of the superhero genre. While this uniquely American bravado has helped give us many memorable characters we admired as children or alternate worlds we loved to inhabit through comic books, video games, television, and film. It is also a genre that often struggles to represent the wider world and the diversity of its people. However, in the past few years we have seen conscious efforts to open the world of superheroes outside of its traditional America-focussed reference point. While comic books have sometimes had non-American superheroes, these were mostly confined to the printed page and not considered worthy of the funding for a television series or film, but recent productions have bucked the trend. Marvel’s Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel abruptly disrupted the absence of Arab representation, as did the wildly popular Black Panther, bringing the first African superhero to our screens. In addition to the introduction of a more diverse cast in positive and leading roles, not just as villains or minor roles, there has also been a conscious effort across film and television more generally to avoid stereotypes and negative tropes.
However, to jump to the conclusion that the film and television industry have reached a qualitative jump in addressing issues of damaging misrepresentation and a lack of diverse casting, would be short-sighted, especially in the notoriously stereotype-ridden superhero genre. Recent productions like 2020’s Wonder Woman 1984 by DC Comics is a case in point and came under immense criticism amid allegations of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. In the film, starring Gal Gadot, a vocal supporter of the Israeli Defence Forces and its bombardment of Gaza in 2014 that killed 1483 Palestinian civilians, Arab men are almost exclusively portrayed as violent fanatics and Arab women and children in need of saving by outsiders.
Moon Knight director Mohamed Diab even described a scene from Wonder Woman 1984 as “a discrace”. In comments to SFX Magazine, Diab stated “I remember seeing Wonder Woman 1984 and there was a big sequence in Egypt and it was a disgrace for us. You had a sheik – that doesn’t make any sense to us. Egypt looked like a country from the Middle Ages. It looked like the desert.”
In the case of Palestine, the problem is particularly acute. With the perceived notion of “neutrality” in relation to Palestine and Israel, already heavily weighed in favor of Israel, the view often presented of the situation is inaccurate and diminishes the harm done to Palestinians. The reduction of the situation to two opposing and equal sides, ignores the fact that millions of Palestinians are displaced, the unequal military capabilities, and the completely unequal death tolls when violence does occur. While film has the ability to unpack and explain complicated realities, it also has a stronger tendency to replicate our existing and simplistic narratives.
Unless Sabra’s introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2024 comes with a very unlikely complete re-writing of her backstory and an incredibly clever positioning on the issue of the continuing occupation and repression of Palestinians, Sabra is set to be a harmful and offensive introduction to the box offices. With the depressing realization that Hollywood hasn’t changed as much as we want it to, the film industry’s long history of Arab misrepresentation and demonization of the Palestinian cause is set to continue.
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