News of Israeli Marvel hero appearing in upcoming Captain America movie elicits both excitement and backlash


Jackie Hajdenberg | JTA

In a move that is already thrilling some Jewish audiences and stirring controversy among other international fans and activists, Marvel Studios recently announced that an Israeli comic book hero will appear in the next installment of its Captain America movie franchise.

(Wikimedia Commons/Design by Mollie Suss)

“Captain America: New World Order,” which is set for release in 2024, will feature Israeli actress Shira Haas as Sabra, a hero who debuted with a cameo in a 1980 “Incredible Hulk” comic and appeared as a full character the following year in a strip set in Israel titled “Incredible Hulk: Power in the Promised Land!” Since the details of Marvel projects are kept under tight wraps until their release, it is not known how prominent Haas’s character, the first Israeli to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, will be in the film.

Between 1980 and 2019, Sabra appeared in 50 issues, according to a Marvel fandom page. Sabra (also the word for an Israeli prickly pear, which has a bristly outside and soft and sweet inside, and is used as a nickname for an Israeli person) is a Mossad agent and police officer with superhuman speed and strength. The 1981 comic that first prominently features her involves multiple quotes and plot points that would be seen as taboo in a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.

In the comic, the Incredible Hulk mistakenly ends up in Tel Aviv, where he befriends an Arab boy who gets killed in an attack by identifiably Arab terrorists. Sabra (real name Ruth Bat-Seraph} witnesses the attack and assumes the Hulk is in cahoots with the terrorists. She attacks Hulk with “energy quills,” weakening him, but the Hulk explains that the boy was his friend — and references the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Boy died because boy’s people and yours want to own land!” the Hulk tells Sabra. “Boy died because you wouldn’t share. Boy died because of two old books that say his people and yours must fight and kill for land!”

The introduction of the character, first announced last week at the Disney D23 expo in Anaheim, Calif., has already received backlash. Some on social media have argued that the character is an example of Israeli military propaganda or used it to criticize the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Others have taken issue with the name of the character, which they argue is painful for Palestinians, who associate the word “sabra” with the former Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut. During the 1982 Lebanese civil war, right-wing Lebanese forces murdered up to thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims in the camps, while Israeli military forces surrounded the areas; an Israeli inquiry found that Ariel Sharon, in his capacity as Israeli Defense Minister, bore “personal responsibility” for not taking action to prevent the massacre.

Others are pushing back against the critique, arguing that the character debuted two years before the killings.

This will not mark the first time that a Jewish character has appeared in a Marvel onscreen product: “Moon Knight,” the Disney+ miniseries that premiered in March, stars Oscar Isaac as the Jewish protagonist.

Still, some fans are also expressing surprise and excitement about the choice to resurrect a clearly Israeli hero for a mainstream film. One of them is Sasha Kaplan, a comic-book historian and advocate for Jewish representation.

“Wow,” she tweeted Sept. 10. “Marvel actually got a Jewish actress to play a jewish [sic] character. Gotta admit, I didn’t see Sabra coming. I’m excited and worried at the same time. Here’s hoping they do it right.”

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