The new Sabra character is archaic, her background is one-dimensional, and her presence in popular culture is problematic.

For Marvel comic fans, the introduction of the new character ‘Sabra’, announced this past weekend at the D23 Expo held in Anaheim, California,  has generated considerable excitement. 

A joint production of Marvel Comic Universe (MCU) and Disney, the comic will have Israeli actress Shira Haas cast as ‘Sabra’  in the upcoming Captain America franchise, New World Order. 

The announcement, however, came under heavy criticism as many called it extremely bizarre and tone deaf. Criticisms range from the title of the film itself, to ‘Sabra’ being plagiarised from an Israeli comic creator and to her background, and even the very clear anti-Palestinian rhetoric in the comic where she first appeared. 

The title of the film, New World Order, is quite problematic as it is fascist and clearly reminiscent of World War II anti-semitism (‘New Order’). Sources cite that the villain for this installation will be ‘Red Skull’ who is indeed a fascist. 

This begs the question: is the introduction of ‘Sabra’, a Mossad spy, trained by Israeli forces, and emblazoned with the star of David in the same hues of blue and white on the Israeli flag, was a poorly thought out public relations scapegoat to counter potential claims of anti-semitism? 

What is in a name?

If the word Sabra is said in the Arab world, one of two things are thought of, first is the fruit grown on the cacti of the region, the prickly pear; and second, the 1982 massacre of up to 3,500 people (the majority being Palestinians)  in a period of two days in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, which was fuelled, facilitated, and sponsored by the Israeli government.

Generally, particularly in the Levant, it is considered a very dark day of grief and loss in history. Coupled with the fact the MCU and Disney made this announcement days before the massacre's annual commemoration, it comes as no shock as there have already been calls to boycott the franchise. 

While the word is apparently used amongst Israelis to refer to a Jew born in Israel, and also used to refer to the prickly pear, the actual transliteration of the Hebrew word is “tza-bar”. This is similar to the Arabic “sab-ra”, but it is neither pronounced nor transliterated in the same manner. It is possible that this is a matter ‘lost in translation’ or even pronunciation. However, the fact that Sabra’s real name is Ruth Bat-Seraph, an overtly Jewish name and more of a tongue twister than ‘tzabar’, it is contradictory that they would name the character in the transliteration from Arabic and not Hebrew – particularly where the connotation is so heavy for a large group of people.

Furthermore, it brings into question whether the use of this word is an attempt to replace the connotation in the public mind from the atrocities committed by Israeli forces in Lebanon, to a glorified Israeli ‘superhero’ from US pop culture.

Character history

Sabra first appeared in a 1981 edition of the Incredible Hulk comic book series. There she was introduced as a Jerusalem-born Israeli, raised in a Kibbutz, or settlement, and as having trained and actively working for Israeli forces. She is a Mossad spy and a police officer who develops mutant powers which essentially boost all her natural abilities. She is draped in a costume that resembles the Israeli flag and some of her additional weapons are specifically designed by the Israeli army. 

The scenes depicted in her comic debut are entirely a reduction of Palestinians particularly and Arabs generally. In sum, Sabra versus the Hulk, featuring a young Palestinian boy named ‘Sahad’, a beggar or a street urchin who builds a bond with the Hulk in the streets of Tel Aviv. Sahad explains to the Hulk, “Sometimes it's very hard to be an Arab in Israel. Both my people and the Israelis believe the land is theirs. They could share it, but two very old books say they must kill each other over it. Me? I don’t read books.”

First, the boy is never referred to as Palestinian, only as Arab. In fact, Palestine is not mentioned once; Arab terrorists are shown bombing a cafe, “In the name of Arab sovereignty over these lands.” This explosion injures the boy and the Hulk picks him up and runs away trying to save him, he is chased by Sabra into the Jordanian desert. She accuses him of being in allegiance with the ‘Arab assassins’ and murdering the boy. In the final scene, "It has taken the Hulk to make her see this dead Arab boy as a human being," the comic reads. "It has taken a monster to awaken her own sense of humanity."

The overall narrative around her character is overtly racist as was the tone of her introduction into the MCU in this comic. It begs another question, why introduce a character that is very clearly politically biased in an issue that is currently affecting millions of lives? 

Considering that today the Mossad has built notoriety on extrajudicial assassinations across the world, and has acted with continuous impunity to the ire of communities and governments alike, glorification of this violence is done in particularly poor taste. 

The narrative presented through this character is reductive and frankly insulting towards the actual issues happening in Palestine today and she is very clearly coming through with her own public relations agenda. While the MCU-Disney film is set to be released in 2024, if this sets the precedent for the character, it will certainly be poorly received in today's socio-political climate. 

Captain America as propaganda

It is quite fitting that ‘Sabra’ will make her screen debut alongside Captain America, a character created as part of the unofficial World War II propaganda effort in 1941. In his first ever appearance, he punches Hilter in the face. In an essay, R. Joseph Parrot explains, “Stories of fanciful Nazi invasions reinforced the real sense of insecurity that accompanied the war, while stereotyped depictions of Japanese enemies mirrored the dehumanising propaganda used by allied governments.” His popularity was so instilled in a wartime mentality, and an abject vilification of the US enemies that in 1949, after the war effort, Captain America fell out of interest as, “post-war sales faltered without a real-world conflict to give the character weight”.

While Captain America today is a more distilled version of his previous self, he remains a patriot and aligned with US interests. 

Stereotypical and dehumanising depictions of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, alongside a reductive explanation of the Palestinian struggle, places Sabra in the same space. To highlight this, for example, in a recent CNN article, Avner Avraham, an ex-Mossad film consultant explained that the film will help the TikTok generation learn about the Mossad, “it helps the branding,” he says. Adding that the exposure will help in recruitment of sources from other countries. 

The culmination of these criticisms should have given significant pause towards the introduction of Sabra onto the big screen; the character structure is archaic, her background is one dimensional, and her presence in popular culture problematic. It can only be assumed that with a multi-million dollar investment behind this film, she is here by design and with a calculated purpose. 

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Source: TRT World