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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine.
Meet Captain Israel, the anti-BDS superhero
Creators of a new comic hope that they can counter the 'venomous' Israel boycott movement.
Last Modified: 06 Sep 2011 10:46
An international campaign calling for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel has grown in the past year [EPA]     

I'm sitting in my den with Mekaal Hasan, one of Pakistan's premier musical artists and producers, who stopped by to visit while on break from a tour with his countryman, Atif Aslam. Mekaal is one of the pioneers of the explosive fusion of metal, prog rock and Qawwali (sufi) styles that is the cutting edge of South Asian pop music these days. If you still think Bollywood soundtracks are cool, you're way behind the musical 8-ball.

In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden and increasing acrimony between the US and Pakistani governments, cross-cultural collaborations have never been more needed to help build an alternative relationship between Pakistanis and Americans. But with the music business crumbling globally and the US mired in recession, it's proving extremely hard to raise the money to bring his band to the US to tour, or bring American artists to Pakistan to see the beauty of the country, its music, and the vast majority of its people first-hand.

Some well-known American artists, including former members of Guns N' Roses, are taking the lead in collaborating with Aslam and Hasan on a project called the Sonic Peacemakers, which aims to facilitate just such exchanges. I wrote a column about the beginning of this collaboration, and the trip by members of the Sonic Peacemaker team to Pakistan after last year's horrific floods. The group is continuing to record and plan for some impressive collaborations.

But even with such an auspicious beginning, gaining much-needed institutional support - not merely at the government level, but by cultural and business leaders who understand the power of music to reshape people's mutual misperceptions - remains an uphill battle.

Mekaal and I were lamenting how much money gets put into war and the hate-filled propaganda that tear people apart while artists have to beg for funds to bring people together, when I received a seemingly bizarre email. The subject line talked about "Capt. Israel," and when I opened it on my Blackberry, I could see a small part of an image on the screen, which seemed to be from a comic book, and a very strange one at that.

I scrolled up, down and across the screen until the full image began to make sense. Once it did, I ran into the other room to open the message on my computer, as what I thought I was seeing seemed hard to believe.

But it's true. World, please welcome your newest superhero, "Captain Israel"!

A man in lighter blue tights

No, his motto is not "Up, up and away!" the catchphrase of the first, admittedly ambiguously Jewish hero, Superman. (Come to think of it, if Superman, the Jewish guardian of "Truth, justice and the American way," won't fly off to defend Israel's policies, shouldn't Americans be questioning why our government continues to do so?)

Nor is it "To Infinity and beyond!" which, if you consider that Buzz Lightyear couldn't have reached earth without Einstein's contribution to physics, could arguably be considered Jewish-inspired.

Instead, Captain Israel's catchphrase is "For Israel!"

And his shield is a giant Star of David.

And his costume is a shade of blue that only my late mother and Jewish women of her particular generation and fashion sense would ever consider wearing.

And he's carrying a giant menorah in his other hand, screaming into the sky as dozens of Israeli jets streak overhead, while a bunch of Israeli tanks with IDF infantrymen advance behind him, bombs and machine gun fire erupting all around them in a scene that could only be meant to depict the final war for Israel's existence.

Please stop laughing. It's not funny. Especially in light of the current upturn in violence plaguing the country.

Turns out - as far as I can tell - this comic is not a prank dreamed up by the Daily Show's writing team during their summer hiatus, or even more plausibly, by a couple of bored Hebrew School students.

"Captain Israel" means business! His task: Defend Israel at all costs from her most dangerous enemies!

And what enemy is so dangerous that the once-vaunted IDF is no longer able to handle without superhuman (and perhaps even divine) intervention? A nuclear-armed Iran? Gazan terrorists infiltrating from Egypt? A much larger Gaza Flotilla? A million unarmed Palestinians marching to the Qalqaliya and Erez "border" crossings? Members of the Jenin Freedom Theatre?

Don't be ridiculous. The IDF, Shin Bet, Mossad, Border Police, US Congress, "stinky water" (the name really doesn't do justice to the smell), drones, anti-missile shield or various combinations of the above can handle any of these threats.

No, the threat that only Captain Israel can defeat is none other than ... the BDS movement!

Wait, I'm sorry, the "venomous BDS movement".

Saving Brand Israel

It turns out that Captain Israel has come - from where, no one knows (Brooklyn? Miami Beach? Petakh Tikva?) - to save Brand Israel from the evildoers behind the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement. In my last column I interviewed Birzeit University sociologist Lisa Taraki, one of the founders of the movement, who explained that the BDS programme sought to raise awareness of how the Israeli government and its allies in the US spend millions of dollars to create a brand image of Israel that occludes the realities of the occupation and its treatment of Palestinians.

Indeed, judging by the size of his muscles, I think it's safe to say that Captain Israel is Brand Israel on enough steroids to be banned for life from the Maccabi Games.

Whether or not Captain Israel is artificially endowed, can he actually defend Israel? Let's see.

In the first issue, Captain Israel introduces us to Jewish and Zionist history. He might be "endowed with the strength of Samson and the Wisdom of Solomon", but I'm not sure that the millions of non-Zionist Jews, both ultra-Orthodox and secular, will be too thrilled about his teleological portrayal of "3,000 years of Jewish history" leading inevitably to the final redemption of Jews with the creation of the State of Israel.

Not to mention that, even if Captain Israel is extremely old ("I was there when Jewish civilisation and National Identity were formed over 3,000 years ago"), no such thing as "Judaism" or "national identity" existed three millennia ago. Nor am I sure Egyptians would be too happy that Captain Israel is standing with one foot firmly planted in the Sinai, but let's chalk that up to the artist's - if not Captain Israel's - weak grasp of geography.

What Captain Israel is really here to tell us is, in his words, that:

"For almost 2,000 years no other state or unique national group developed in Palestine; instead different empires and peoples came, colonised, ruled and disappeared ... for 400 years before World War I, Palestine was an unimportant backwater of the Ottoman Empire, sparsely populated, barren, impoverished ... Until, in the latter half of the 19th century new Jewish immigrants from Europe and Russia ... began to repopulate the desolate land, buying it legally from absentee Palestinian landlords."

And there's more: "I watched their backbreaking labor, as Jewish pioneers cleared the wastelands and swamps, reforested the hillsides, restored the land's once famous fertility and built towns and villages. I was there when Tel Aviv was founded in 1909!" he continues, with the text over the iconic photo of the founders of Tel Aviv breaking ground in the sands north of Jaffa.

Well, Captain Israel, I am not as old as you, but I did write a book about the history of Tel Aviv, and I'm pretty sure you were not in that photo, unless you were in your non-superhero clothes when it was taken.

Captain Israel goes on to describe the rise of European anti-Semitism, and of Zionism and Theodor Herzl's famous saying (or was it Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams"?), "The Jews who will it will achieve their state!" He then moves "finally" - in fact, very quickly - to 1948, when in the ashes of the Holocaust, the UN voted to partition Palestine, which Jews accepted and Arabs didn't, even though Jews were willing to take only "13 per cent of their original mandate, 60 per cent of which was desert."

(Take that, Palestinians and your overly generous "22 per cent of Palestine" that you'd get in a two-state solution! Jews were willing to take less 9 per cent less!)

Well, both Captain Israel and we know what happened next: Israel won the war, did everything possible to make peace, reluctantly conquered the rest of Palestine in 1967 but demonstrated a willingness to give back land for peace ever since, as evidenced by the peace treaty with Egypt and the withdrawal "from Gaza and parts of the West Bank" as part of the Oslo Accords (his map lists the West Bank as "disputed with Palestinians").

"Israel still is attacked by Palestinian terrorists from both areas," Captain Israel exclaims. "Yet ..."

And that's where we have to wait for the next, so far unreleased issue.

There is a strange feeling reading Captain Israel while watching images of the carnage wrought by the latest rockets or terrorist infiltrators. Israel certainly needs some superheroes, and maybe one or two might emerge out of the current protest movement. It would have been nice to know how Captain Israel would defend Israel against actual threats. Not just terrorists, but Arab neighbors like Egypt who are growing increasingly assertive against Israeli policies. Against young Palestinians who feel they have nothing left to lose, and so like their counterparts across the Arab world, are poised to explode - this time in ways neither Israel, the PA nor Hamas can control. Against ultra-religious nationalists who, even to mainstream observers, are taking the country down a very dark road.

Comically revisionist history

Captain Israel could use his super brain power to help educate Israelis - actually, American Jews, since I can't imagine any Israeli wasting her time reading the comic - about the realities of decades of brutal occupation, the same way the great Jewish superheroes of old, the Prophets, took on the People of Israel when their actions contradicted biblical injunctions against oppression and exploitation.

Captain Israel could even show up at the next demonstration in Bil'in or Sheikh Jarrah and defend the Israeli and Palestinian peace activists who are routinely attacked by Israeli forces and settlers. (In fact, in working together non-violently against occupation, they are the true superheroes of today.)

Instead, Captain Israel seems to be reading from a very old (comic) book, one in which Israel can do no wrong and the Land of Israel is empty of Palestinians, who don't exist in his version except as "absentee landowners" 100 years ago and terrorists today.

Perhaps his super vision is such that he doesn't even have to see them. Why should he, when he tells us that nothing important happened for the last 400 years in the country, until Jews came back and took a desolate, barren, empty land and repopulated and restored it?

This blatantly racist version of history erases not just Palestinians but the pre-Zionist Sephardic Jewish community multiple times and in multiple ways in order for the country to be transformed into a "land without a people for a people without a land". It is one that most Israelis have long ago discarded as crudely inaccurate, although it was at heart of Zionist portrayals of the land for decades. But for the backers of the comic, it has been resurrected as "the truth against the revisionist version".*

With his no doubt super intellect, Captain Israel apparently understands that allowing Palestinians a legitimate place on the land would mean admitting their legitimate rights to it, a recognition that not even a superhero could overcome.

Anyway, who cares about historical accuracy when you have comic books and huge propaganda budgets that will place them in the welcome packets of tens of thousands of Jewish freshmen and women as the new academic year begins on college campuses and Hebrew schools across the country? Of course, the fact that the people behind Captain Israel actually think young American Jews are gullible enough to buy what Captain Israel is selling is in and of itself quite telling - much less about the intelligence of young American Jews than about the desperation of their elders.

What is clear, however, is that for the people behind Captain Israel - specifically the right-wing American Jewish group "Stand With Us" - any recognition of Palestinian rights or history is a sign of weakness that must be fought by any means, by super heroes if all else fails.

Indeed, another official of Stand With Us explained that the group is "widening the lens and connecting the dots, going straight to the brain to connect with people. You have to convince people that when Israel is threatened, everyone is threatened. Unless you show how other people are threatened, they're not going to care." And so Captain Israel is not just fighting for Israel and Jews, but for everyone, even Muslims.

A most venomous enemy

According to a story in the Jerusalem Post, Stand With Us funded the comic because "as Israel's Jewish connection to Israel and the land is always being challenged, we wanted to re-establish our Jewish roots and make sure that everyone understood the history, stuff we know and take for granted and that others try to chip away at". The comic was specifically devoted to "establishing a hero, establishing roots, [and] countering the venomous BDS movement".

Indeed, in the so-far unreleased second issue, Captain Israel will face his first arch-nemesis as he "exposes the extremists behind the Venomous Snake Charmer BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions)", a sharp-fanged serpent whose skins just happen to be the colours of the Palestinian flag, and who represents the world's supporters of the BDS movement against Israel. Stand With Us CEO Roz Rothstein also explained that "we're beginning with ... the BDS venomous snake ..., and will get to different attacks against Jews and the legitimacy of Israel".

So who will subsequent villains be? Judging by the ideology of the sponsors, I wouldn't be surprised if Captain Israel took on the members of Jewish Voices for Peace, or Tikkun magazine, or even had to wrestle Jewish philosopher and BDS supporter Judith Butler in a steel cage match (Judith, I will be your tag team partner if Richard Falk can't do it!).

The more I think about it, the more I'm not too sure that Captain Israel is up to the task of defending Israel, especially against his fellow Jews. Call me old-fashioned, but I'll take Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea over a muscle-headed know-it-all with delusions of immortality and questionable fashion sense who fantasises about leading the IDF into its next battle while spouting discredited 50-year-old propaganda.

A little self-reflection, please

Before his next battle, perhaps the good Captain could read the Prophets and do a little heshbon nefesh, or critical self-reflection, like hundreds of thousands of Israelis are doing in the midst of the emerging nation-wide "social justice" protest movement. Come to think of it, shouldn't he be at the head of the protest movement, defending Israel against neoliberal tycoons and militarist politicians? Or perhaps, if he's not too busy stamping out boycotters, he could track down the terrorists infiltrating from Egypt or help stop the rockets from Gaza (surely a more important target then a bunch of lefty BDS activists).

Then, after a hard day's work, perhaps he could use his super mental powers to figure out how Israel can go on settling the West Bank and East Jerusalem, keep Gaza under siege, and attack non-violent protesters wherever they turn up, and not expect Palestinians to retaliate with their own terrorists in response.

One thing's for sure: I doubt Captain Israel scares the folks behind BDS all that much. They have enough to worry about in the real world. And besides, something tells me that soon enough a Palestinian artist will ensure he is defeated by Handala, the little cartoon boy who has symbolised Palestinian resistance for decades.

In the meantime, Mekaal and I just keep shaking our heads, wondering how it is that in the 58th/21st/15th century artists who are trying to heal the world are largely scrambling for crumbs - or, as I discussed in my last column on the Jenin Freedom Theatre, are kidnapped by the IDF, or attacked by Salafis - while those willing to prostitute their talents at the altar of the nation, tribe, or corporation have a seeming unlimited supply of patrons with closed minds and open wallets willing to support them.

If Captain Israel can help with that, I'll become his biggest fan.

Postscript II

Since this column was written, the 2nd issue of Capt. Israel was put online. It is quite a read. If you're out there capt israel, perhaps you can answer the following questions:

1. So you are claiming that anyone who supports BDS, even if they are Jewish and Israeli, is no better than Martin Luther or the Nazis, is no different that anti-Semites who have murdered Jews for hundreds of years? That the arguments are the same as the blood libel that accused Jews of using the blood of Christian children to make Matzoh? Is that REALLY what you are arguing Capt. Israel?

2. You are claiming that BDS activists today--again, many of whom are Jews and even Israelis, are no better than the Mufti and willing to meet Hitler or his contemporary equivalent and commit genocide? REALLY?

3. Are you REALLY making a direct connection between Nazism and BDS? Is the Palestinians venomous snake you depict in issue #1 really the same as the Nazi venomous snake that you show in this issue wrapped around a swastika?

4. Are you really so unsophisticated that you think all BDS literature is the same as the most anti-Jewish slander put out in the Muslim world? And by the way, what have you done about all the anti-Muslim and Palestinians slander in Israel and the Jewish world? Or are you too busy for that?

5. Can you please define the word "deceiving" since the comic book your lend your name to seems full of deception, whereas the main BDS site is never even mentioned or critiqued in your comic...

6. Don't you think we should boycott a company that makes bulldozers to destroy the homes of an occupied people against absolutely every possible international law you can think of, and even interplanetary law (assuming, as I actually do, that you are not from this planet...)?

Captain Israel, Your act is already old... I suggest a wardrobe change, and a nice visit--perhaps incognito--to the West Bank and Gaza for a few weeks. I'd be happy to show you around, and then we'll see what issue #3 looks like...

Postscript I

Yes, Captain Israel's version of Zionist/Israesli history is blatantly racist and inaccurate. Palestine, like the rest of the Levant, went through many ups and downs, but it was hardly desolate and unpopulated for 400 years. Indeed, it was actually in the midst of a fairly rapid economic, demographic and social development in the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, brought on by the region's growing incorporation into the world and Middle Eastern regional economies, as well as increased European tourism. Moreover, the very notion of its being a "backwater" of the Empire presupposes that the only way to judge the economic and social situation in the country is in terms of its direct relationship with Istanbul, which leaves out the centuries long relations between the peoples of what would become Mandate Palestine and the surrounding peoples and lands.

Nor was all the land bought legally from "absentee Palestinian landlords"; Yisrael Porath, the well-known Israeli historian, argues that over 50 per cent of Jewish-purchased land was from non-Palestinian absentee owners. But of course, since according to Captain Israel Palestinians didn't even exist in this period, the claim itself doesn't make much sense. In reality, it didn't matter that much to Palestinian peasants whether their own village sheikhs sold the land to Jews or some absentee landlord in Syria, the end result was dispossession. As for the creation of Tel Aviv at which Captain Israel brags about being present, the sale of the land on which Tel Aviv was first built was actually contested by residents. Local Ottoman officials did not want to approve the sale but were overruled after European consuls put pressure on the Ottoman government on behalf of Jewish purchasers whom they represented. Perhaps Captain Israel was out of town during that dispute.

Readers can consult the work of historians like Salim Tamari, Gershon Shafir, Beshara Doumani, Amy Singer, David Kushner, Amnon Cohen, Mark LeVine, Boutros Abu Manneh, Mahmoud Yazbak, Michelle Campos, and Alexander Scholch for discussions of Ottoman, Arab and Jewish primary sources related to the late Ottoman history of the country.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and the soon to be published An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.

Follow Mark LeVine on Twitter: @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are those to whom they are attributed and do not necessarily represent al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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