Published in The Huffington Post
Ever since I converted to atheism, I have wondered what it means to be a Jew. Was I even Jewish anymore — the ‘ish’ appending my classification suddenly appearing more appropriate? Such were my musings at thirteen, the only immediate change in my life a cessation of special prayers before Yeshiva league basketball games. But the identity questions remained and are still pondered with stereotypical neuroticism: Am I a Jew? Can I choose not to be a Jew? Can others decide that I am a Jew? Can I disunite culture from religion? Would others care or still conflate the two? What is a Jew? And…do I want to be one?
I do not believe in god, nor practice Judaism, nor blindly support Israel’s policies. Yet I cannot deny that a Jewish upbringing and school, with summers spent in Israel, shaped me. My only ties to Judaism are family, memories of a Jewish childhood, the Hebrew language, and a Thanksgiving-like attendance of Passover dinners. Yet the world considers me Jewish. While I can ponder, study, manipulate, disprove, and, finally, dismiss social constructs to my brain’s content, when I reopen my eyes they have a funny little habit of appearing quite unharmed. All that is clear to me is that, by force of habit or society, I instinctively identify with other Jews.
Interestingly, the past half-decade of film has presented non-stereotypical Jews to test and expand this identification. Strong, athletic, violent, handsome — something separate from the bookish, weak, nerdish, neurotic construct that shaped me — they are…the Super Jews. Their latest incarnation is Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class.
While Super Jews exist in reality, as a social construct — as part of public consciousness — they have been absent since perhaps Flavius’s account of Masada. They are projections in a liminal space, Golem-like in power yet manifestly human, seemingly fanciful yet based on historical figures or archetypes. That other than Liev Schreiber the actors in question are non-Jews, though detrimental to a Jewish viewer seeking identification, works to broaden Jewish identity. And that baggage that actors carry from previous roles is in this case mostly larger-than-life characters, adding to the perceived power and mystique.
Two generations ago, Charles Bronson and Rutger Hauer brought their tough-goy personas to Raid on Entebbe and Escape from Sobibor, respectively. Their cinematic Super Jew progeny include:
-Eric Bana: coming off Trojan warrior Hector, the Hulk, and a super-hero-like soldier in Black Hawk Down
-Daniel Craig: tabbed to play Bond; best known for action role in Lara Craft: Tomb Raider
-Craig: having added Munich and a pair of Bond movies to his resume
-Schreiber: tabbed to play superhuman mutant Sabretooth; recent roles of note included a brainwashed vice-presidential candidate in The Manchurian Candidate and a CIA operative in The Sum of All Fears
The Debt (2011)
-Marton Csokas: relative unknown; with action movie pedigree including Kingdom of Heaven and The Bourne Supremacy
-Sam Worthington: fresh off playing the son of Zeus, a half-Terminator superhuman, and a blue alien of superhuman proportions and physical prowess.
(Counterintuitively, Tarantino’s eponymous Basterds are precluded from Super Jew glory. In the film, while others, including their non-Jewish conspirators, are granted a modicum of interiority, history, and dialogue, these Jews are purposefully left as dehumanized, blank mercenaries for Germans to fear. The movie’s Hitler seems terrorized by these “apparitions,” rumored to be Golems — which essentially they are. Even the Golems’ mark, the Hebrew word for truth on the creature’s forehead, makes a cameo: in a twist, the Basterds brand truth onto Nazi foreheads in the form of swastikas)
Into this milieu enters Magneto. He is super in the truest sense of the word, able to manipulate magnetic forces and viewed as perhaps the most powerful mutant of all. Despite his presence in a fantasy universe, he, like the other Super Jews and unlike the Basterds, is both characterized and acted with serious intention. And yet, I did not have the same instinctive identification with this Super Jew, that strange, shared bond of “Jewishness” I usually feel, wanted or unwanted.
There is a difference between him and the others, a power hitherto unseen: the ability to transcend the Jewish social construct. This is by far the movie’s greatest act of fancy, for who has ever accomplished a like feat? While his past haunts him, Magneto chooses not to consider himself Jewish and the world follows suit — viewing him as mutant full stop, with none of his actions judged in a Jewish context. As a measure of this feat’s difficulty, to transcend Jewish identity, to have this seductive power of self-determination, it was necessary to leave human identity behind.
And perhaps this void is for the better. The danger with any violent Super Jew portrayal is the risk of unintentionally critiquing Israel (assuming the director does not wish to). This risk is greater with a character meant to be more than individual, to embody a certain set of broad-scale ideas in a debate, as is Magneto in opposition to Professor X. And the Magneto/Israel parallels abound:
Jews shaped and driven by Holocaust imprisonment and suffering; formerly weak but now autonomous and powerful; chased Nazis with vengeance; believe in “never again” and fulminate at the phrase “just following orders;” have little faith in humanity’s tolerance for difference; follow a violent path — along with its attendant civilian casualties — to achieve their goals; toe the line between self-defense and aggressive preemption (or outright aggression, depending on one’s viewpoint); use behavior of antagonists as rationale for aggression, though sometimes their own actions are root cause of said behavior; extending to the comic-book world, both desire a homeland for their kind.
All this would prove banal without another Magneto parallel. There is a strange, not oft discussed discomfort with the Holocaust both allowing for and shaping Israel and its citizens’ mentalities. For it is not a giant logical leap for some to make that if the Holocaust had such an influence in shaping Israel, so too did the Holocaust’s architects. Usually this line is disposed of with a simple and effective willful disregard. The movie, however, seems to engage this idea head-on, to even progress from just a “shaped by Nazis” towards a “replication of them” implication:
We first see Magneto’s powers emerge in a moment of rage as a child in a concentration camp. They reappear with increased intensity after witnessing Sebastian Shaw, then a Nazi, murder his mother. Strangely, though his anger is taken out on both human and inanimate object alike, he spares the Nazi killer, who laughs, deliriously calm, watching Magneto’s metallic storm. The sequence ends with Shaw putting an arm around Magneto as they walk towards the settled destruction and into a bright illuminating light; the Nazi discussing the unlocking of Magneto’s powers, their hands finally touching.
Later, Magneto will paint this Nazi as father-figure and refer to him as his creator. He will express agreement with Shaw’s views on mutant-human relations and take over his group — symbolically anointing himself as the new Shaw when he dons Shaw’s helmet for protection (and, as this protection is from the telepathic interference of other minds, he is in that same action rendered literally close minded). Even Magneto’s plan in the original (temporally later) X-Men movie, to mutate humans by force, is similar to Shaw’s plan to accelerate mutations in humans through nuclear war, with both eerily reminiscent of Nazi experiments on Jews.
Magneto views his kind as a superior race. He is capable of a methodical man-hunt, sadistic killing, and, eventually, a calm equilibrium in violence — a state described as optimal for exercising his powers. And that baggage the actor brings from previous roles? In his previous major role to date, Fassbender played a character pretending to be a Nazi.
And so we are presented an Israel-like figure who is also a Nazi-like figure. What intervention can the movie possibly employ to avoid the implications? The elimination of his Judaism (an either Nazi-like or freedom-inspired solution, depending on one’s point of view). For while Israel is wrapped up in its Jewish character, the mutant Magneto is not at all Jewish. If he were obviously so, the movie would receive attention of a kind that hurts box-office receipts.
The irony is, given Israel’s Jewish character, not only that Israel is largely secular, but also that the closest approximation of Magneto’s ability to cast off Jewish identity is immigration to Israel, where that difference falls away in a sea of likeness, replaced by more pedestrian distinctions: country of origin, political leanings, piety, military service, class…