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June 14, 2011 10:26 pm

X-Men: First Class’ Magneto and the State of Israel: Friend or Foe?

avatar by Saul Sudin

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Devin Faraci, once a fellow writer for CHUD.com, recently posted an opinion piece (linked here) that analyzed X-Men: First Class‘ portrayal of Magneto from the point of view as a mirror to Israel. In it, he traces the history of the Jewish nationhood’s establishment from Holocaust to modern day, focusing mainly on the various wars they have participated in. He connects the mutant’s actions in the aforementioned film to Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League, a fringe group among the nation of Israel’s many viewpoints. No one can deny the connection between Kahane and Magneto, which comes down to the use of the phrase “Never Again” in both the recent X-Men film and it being the JDL’s own slogan (Magneto even started his own JDL in the comics- the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants). This is a stark departure from the comic version of Magneto, it should be noted, who in 1964’s X-Men #4 used the phrase “Never Forget”- the slogan of holocaust remembrance from the point of view of education and peace. Magneto’s character is inherently that of a 20th century Jew, whether by his holocaust origins or (in the comics) his will to establish an independent nation for his own kind, where they could be at peace. But as in real life, that peace has consistently been demolished by attackers, whether from inside or outside the nation.

The producer of the initial X-Men films, Avi Arad, himself an Israeli, said of Magneto: “I would look, ideologically, more to Jabotinsky and Begin… Magneto to me is not a villain. But he becomes more like Kahane the more frustrated he is with the way the world is approaching the ones who are different.” In Rabbi Simcha Weinstein’s book Up, Up ,and Oy Vey!,which traces the very real influence Judaism had on the creators of many comic book superheroes, he quotes writer Chris Clarement, who was responsible for creating Magneto’s holocaust back-story. “It allowed me to turn him into a tragic figure who wants to save his People… I then had the opportunity over 200 issues to attempt to redeem him, to see if he could start over, if he could evolve in the way that Menachem Begin had evolved from a guy that the British considered ‘shoot on sight’ in 1945… to a statesman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.”

Looking to the life of Menachem Begin to try to understand Magneto, from his early life of opposing the Zionist leadership’s bowing to British colonialism (much as one could say Xavier does in X-Men), to fighting for independence through any means necessary with the Irgun, one can see the connection. But as Claremont himself said, over the course of decades Begin’s role changed. In 1977 Begin lead the Likud party to take control of the state’s government and allied himself with many smaller fractions of the multi-party system that makes up Israeli politics. Ultimately, peace between Israel and a neighboring Arab state was reached for the first time in 1978, under Begin’s control, when the Camp David accord was struck with Egypt.

To throw the entire State of Israel under the bus as Mr. Faraci does in allying it with Magneto is shortsighted. It is important to remember that Magneto, Kahane’s JDL, or any independent group and the State of Israel are far from being one and the same. The Jewish Defense League does not represent the greater Israeli mentality or their actions. The ideologies of both the fictional X-Men universe and our very real Israeli nation are as split and divisive as any on the planet (if not more). Mutants and Jews as a whole are the true parallel (one that has also been struck by blacks and homosexuals- thus the brilliance of this particular work of fiction).

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The JTA, in a recently released video, drew the Magneto-Kahane comparison, but paired it with an analysis of Professor Xavier’s potential alter ego Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. Greenberg is a follower of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soleveitchik, working tirelessly for decades to promote the idea of “Tikkun Olam” – to repair the world. He is a staunch believer in Jews being tasked the role of a “light unto the nations”, to set a moral example for others to follow. Xavier unlocks Magneto’s ability to control metal by unlocking memories and guiding him to a place “between rage and serenity”. These actions may be blown to cinematic proportions, but this is analogous for every Jew’s role to do each action with a balance of fear and love. This is not a fool’s errand as Devin suggests, using the logic that rooting for the bad guy is more fun. Indeed, there is a difference between what we are and what would like to be, but with that knowledge we set our sights on the goal of being righteous and trying at every curveball thrown to still attain it.

Through a rough outlining of Israeli military actions, Devin draws a conclusion that Israel has been “gazing for too long into the abyss”, downplaying the absolute need for quality military protection (and sometimes acting first, in the case of the Six Day War) that the Israeli army provides. One should look inward, to your own country, before attacking another’s, my friend. Furthermore, while military actions certainly get the most attention in the global news, I can say for certain that 95% of what happens in Israel is either misrepresented or ignored altogether in the global news cycle. Knowing that Mr. Faraci has never stepped foot in Israel, he cannot truly grasp the way things are there, and the right with which the nation acts for the preservation of the Jewish state.  He blatantly ignores the true life being lived there, one that offers everything from farming to high culture, deep spiritual significance for many religions, and a beauty that simply has to be seen to be believed. He calls Israel a “belligerent actor in the region and their treatment of the Palestinians… unforgivable, especially in the way that it echoes the marginalization and treatment of the Jews in the years leading up to WWII and the Holocaust.” But what he ignores is that Arabs who were pushed out of their homes in the late 40s were forsaken by their brothers in surrounding countries, left to poverty and looking for someone to blame. Israeli Arabs have rights well beyond that of any nation in the region, and that many of them fight alongside their Jewish cousins in the Israeli army. One could say that in Xavier’s eyes, this is the ultimate team-up.

On a final note, I want to relate a personal story that I do not often share. When I was 18, I chose to study in Jerusalem at a Yeshiva, delaying my studies at film school in the USA by a year. It was the fall of 2001, and the week I was to fly to Israel, a homicide bomber set himself off in a crowded Sbarro’s restaurant in the center of town.  Despite my family’s worry for my safety, I went.  By the time I arrived, the restaurant was already on its way to reopening. One cannot believe the way that the nation operates, dealing with a constant threat of violence and still managing to pick themselves back up to live life to the fullest. A few weeks later, on September 11th, further terrorist aggression struck, but this time halfway across the world in New York City, where I would have been had I gone directly to college. It is hard to express the mentality of the Israelis at that moment. Surely horror was first and foremost. But that was followed by a brief belief that now Americans would understand what it is like to have terrorists come directly into your home and kill those you love. For me, it seemed like no matter where I was, I was meant to face such terror firsthand. I was close to two more homicide bombings in my time in Israel, one that was just a block from where I sat. The point of this, as I have come to understand it, is not that evil permeates the world or that one side is right 100% of the time, but that it is always wrong to judge that which we consider “other” and condemn it. No one will come out of X-Men: First Class thinking that Magneto isn’t cool. We root for him every step of the way, despite his flaws and emotional actions.  And perhaps, that is the truly scary mirror we must face. Not that he is portraying a negative aspect of Israeli life, but that we ourselves are subject to falling into the abyss of dark thoughts and actions too easily, no matter what nation we are.

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  • I saw the movie yesterday and immediately sought the Jewish response to it. I am worried that this movie would leave a simplistic negative feeling about Jewish people by people who are not going to engage in the sophisticated analyses I have read. A high emotion ipact film will be orocessed more crudely by the mamalian and reptilian brain systems influencing people in ways perhaps notintended. As evil as Shaw, the original villain is, he is shown dead floating in the air as if on a crucifix and I wonder if in minds steeped in Christian imagery, the thought would be again that the Jews killed Jesus. Even if we felt sympathetic with Eric through the film, in the final outcome, he is the villain, using a Jewish experintial base to justify mass destructuion of humans. Having only seen this movie and not having read the comic books, I was left not knowing if his goals would be the same as Shaw’s or more benign. I started to design a research study in my mind as there is no way to really know this movie’s impact on perceptions of Jews and Israel without an empirical rather than analytical approach. Unfortunately, while I am a psychologist, I am a therapy provider, not a researcher. For now, I hope people will ask people from non Jewish backgrounds what feelings or impressions they have of Jews and Israel and report back.

  • Rabbi Meir Kahane love all people and was a peace-maker. He was demonized by those who viewed him as not being politically correct. Read any of his books and you will know how much he loved all humanity and how much he sought for a real lasting peace between Jews and non-Jews anywhere in the world and especially in Israel. He boldly took up the Israeli-Arab cause declaring that we should not expect Arabs to want to live under a Jewish government and for that he was called a “racist”. Please don’t trust my comment or any of the comments you read all over the internet. Go and read one of Kahane’s books and you’ll see how much he yearned for peace and how much of a realist he was.

    • Julian87

      Wow, you talk like Magneto.
      He also saw himself as not evil but as a realist.

      But not the Arabs or the Jews are our enemy.
      The evil has no race or color.
      There is evil inside everyone of us that we have to fight.

  • Hey, enjoyed your take. I’ve also written an article about the topic if you’re interested:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omer-rosen/xmen-first-class-magneto-_b_877751.html?ref=tw

    gonna try to find all the articles now coming about this topic and link to them from mine

    -Omer Rosen

  • brad

    nice job Saul…

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