The Walt Disney Company is planning to introduce an Israeli comic book superhero in Marvel’s next installment of its “Captain America” film franchise — prompting worry among Arabs that it will reinforce negative stereotypes to a mass audience.
Sabra, also known as Ruth Bat-Seraph, is a fictional “human mutant” superheroine who moonlights as a Mossad agent and a police officer. She possesses great strength and stamina.
The character, whose costume includes the blue Star of David that is emblazoned on Israel’s national flag, has made occasional cameos in comic book versions of the “Incredible Hulk” as well as the “Amazing Spider-Man” and “X-Men.”
“Sabra” is the Hebrew slang term for a native-born Israeli Jew. A sabra is a prickly pear cactus fruit and it is used to metaphorically describe Israelis as rough and sharp on the outside but soft on the inside.
Shira Haas, the Israeli actress best known for her starring role in the popular Netflix series “Unorthodox,” has been tapped to portray Sabra in the 2024 release of “Captain America: New World Order,” according to entertainment trade publications.
Those sympathetic to the Palestinians fear that moviegoers will be seeing a romanticized portrayal of a character who works for an Israeli spy agency.
A 1981 edition of the “Incredible Hulk” includes a scene in which Sabra is seen kneeling near the dead body of a young Palestinian boy killed as a result of an act of terrorism by Arabs.
“Boy died because boy’s people and yours both want to own land! Boy died because you wouldn’t share!” Hulk tells Sabra.
Human rights organizations based in Israel, Palestine and abroad have accused the Israeli security services of committing serious crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“That comic doesn’t suggest anything positive about how this film will play out,” Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American writer at a DC-based think tank, told CNN.
Munayyer said that “the concept” of romanticizing Israeli spies “is insensitive and disgraceful.”
“The glorification of violence against Palestinians specifically and Arabs and Muslims more broadly in mass media has a long and ugly history in the West and it has remarkable staying power,” he said.
According to Munayyer, Marvel’s announcement that Sabra will be featured on the big screen coincides with the approaching 40th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese Shi’ites in Beirut — adding insult to injury.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to dislodge the Palestine Liberation Organization from the country and install a friendly government in Beirut, which would ostensibly be amenable to signing a peace agreement.
As Israeli forces ringed the Lebanese capital, an Israel-allied Lebanese Christian militia slaughtered thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese Shi’ite Muslims at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
An Israeli commission of inquiry determined that senior Israeli government figures bore indirect responsibility for the massacre.
Munayyer said that Disney-owned Marvel should be more sensitive to the timing of their announcement.
“It’s not just in the timing or the name but also in the fact that the massacre itself was led by a Mossad-linked [militia] in territory under Israeli military control,” said Munayyer.
“Given all of this, it is hard not to conclude that the people at Marvel are either abjectly ignorant about the region, its history and the Palestinian experience, or that they deliberately aimed to kick a people living under apartheid while they were down.”
A spokesperson for Marvel Studios told CNN that “filmmakers are taking a new approach with the character Sabra who was first introduced in the comics over 40 years ago.”
The spokesperson added that characters in Marvel films “are always freshly imagined for the screen and today’s audience.”
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