Everybody loves a good zombie movie. The concept of a rabies-like virus transforming docile human populations into ravenous man-eaters is a fascinating one. World War Z (2013) is just the latest (and at $200 million the best-funded) iteration. The movie is interesting because it introduces a new twist to the zombie genre. Rather than concentrating on zombies ravaging isolated locales like a convenience store or even New York City, World War Z treats us to the zombie menace on a global scale. Brad Pitt plays a United Nations investigator who trots around the globe in an effort to find the origin of the epidemic. This journey takes him from Philadelphia to Newark, New Jersey; from South Korea to Israel to Wales, even Nova Scotia. The only thing really lacking was gratuitous, horror-movie gore, but marketing a summer blockbuster essentially requires a PG-13 rating. On the whole, however, the movie delivers everything you would want from a studio zombie movie: non-stop action, tense scenes, top-notch special effects, star power, and super human zombies!
Expecting a typical summer flick, I was quite surprised when—in the middle of the movie—the audience was treated to a 20-minute infomercial for the State of Israel. Ok, technically this segment was a part of the movie. In it, Israel and North Korea—interesting bedfellows—are the last human holdouts against the zombie invaders. The North Koreans achieved this by removing the teeth of each and every one of its inhabitants because, as the New Yorker sagely noted, “you can’t be gummed to undeath.”
Israel, on the other hand, was able to prepare for the oncoming zombie apocalypse through a combination of foresight, intelligence, and predictive power never before witnessed in the history of the world. Capitalizing on existing infrastructure, the Israelis protected themselves from the zombie menace by building a giant wall around Jerusalem. Although this paid-programming portion of the movie was not directed by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it could have been. If you missed it because you were distracted by swarms of Computer-Generated zombies, or concentrating on Brad Pitt's haircut, I don’t blame you. However, as a former relief worker in Israel and the Palestinian territories (and a zombie lover), I was in a special position to notice how World War Z transitioned from Hollywood blockbuster to an I Heart Israel ad campaign. And this isn’t just my opinion: even the Times of Israel called “World War Zion (…) the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since ‘Exodus.’”
World War Z’s pro-Israel message is communicated through:
In World War Z, we see Israel in all of her humanist glory—a peaceful, tolerant refuge in which Jews and Arabs come together to sing “Kumbaya” (literally). The pale blue Star of David flies magnificently over Jerusalem, which is governed by Israel. The brave young men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces protect the city from the undead, and a beautiful, but tough female IDF soldier is one of the movie’s heroines. The entire introduction to Israel—with its slow motion filming, triumphant music, and soft colors—is reminiscent of commercials urging American youth to join the Marines: lots of flags and bravery on display for the purposes of peace. It definitely makes you want to hug an Israeli.
In the non-zombified real world, Jerusalem is a disputed city. Israel is widely considered to be the legitimate government of the western part of the city, but also considered to be the illegitimate military occupier of the eastern, Palestinian part. The Palestinians hope for this eastern portion to be the future capital of a Palestinian state, while Israel hopes to annex the whole of Jerusalem for themselves. The issue of Jerusalem is one of the major barriers to Middle East peace; World War Z, however, ignores the disputed aspects of the city and happily labels it, “Jerusalem, Israel.” In Turkey, presumably where people are more informed of the aspects of the conflict, the movie subtitles refer to the city as, “Jerusalem, Middle East.” Obviously, just “Jerusalem” would have sufficed, but the filmmakers decided to make a political statement.
The nation of “Israel” is mentioned much more than any other country in the movie. The moviegoer is treated to dozens of references to “Israel” while other countries, even those prominently featured in the film, get only passing reference. Certainly, part of the reason for this is the critical sequences that take place in and around Jerusalem. But moreover, it seems that the screenwriters were determined to include the word in the script as much as possible. In a normal conversation, a UN investigator might ask the Mossad chief “How were you able to protect yourself from zombies?” In World War Z, this conversation would sound more like, “How was Israel able to protect Israel from Israel’s zombie enemies?” This is a slight exaggeration, but if you pay attention to the dialogue, you’ll clearly notice the repetition. Interestingly, this is a dramatic departure from the book, which refers to this unified zombie sanctuary as “United Palestine” not as “Israel.” I guess if you say “Israel” enough, it must be true.
3. The Wall
In the movie, when Brad Pitt’s character learns that Israel has protected itself from zombies by constructing walls, he qualifies this by stating that, “they have been building walls there for millennia.” The implicit meaning is that any current wall construction is simply a continuation of the natural course of history. Anyone who has been to the region knows that the recently constructed wall separating the West Bank from Israel is anything but natural, and is in fact one of the most inhumane aspects of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. While Israel ostensibly claims these walls are built to protect Israelis from attack, these barriers dramatically bisect the Palestinian territories, essentially (and illegally) annexing large swaths of land to Israel. These walls, known to activists as Apartheid Walls, contribute to the continuing humanitarian crisis in the West Bank by preventing Palestinians from the freedom of movement, even to other Palestinian areas. To give a better sense of how this is used to create a flattering picture of Israel, imagine if World War Z was set in 1980s South Africa. And in this alternate movie, South Africa was governed in all of her glory by an all-white, Apartheid government, which was able to protect its territory from zombies by employing the same measures they used to control black populations. People familiar with the facts on the ground would look at such a presentation as blatant propaganda.
4. Israel under seige, and the idea of the 10th Man
In Brad Pitt’s character’s attempt to understand how Israel was able to have the necessary foresight to protect itself from a zombie invasion when the rest of the world is in ruins, we are told of the “10th Man” practice. This fictional strategy in policy making is explained as one that only Israel employs. The idea is that if 9 people all agree on something (e.g., there will be no zombie invasion) it is the duty of the 10th man to play devil’s advocate and disagree (e.g., there WILL be a zombie invasion). It is revealed that this strategy was developed to protect Israelis from the next anti-Semitic atrocity. In the movie, the Mossad chief explains that Jews did not see the holocaust coming, nor did they foresee the 1972 Munich Olympic attacks or the 1973 Yom Kippur (October) war. In 1973, Israel was nearly driven “into the sea” according to the Mossad chief. This classic, Israeli version of history depicts the young Jewish state as perpetually defending itself from attack by its aggressive neighbors. This narrative essentially absolves Israel from any role in their conflicts other than that of victim. Despite being a popular history within Israel it has largely been disproven by modern historians (see Avi Shlaim’s Iron Wall). The movie also seems to conflate Nazis and zombies with Palestinians and Arabs, all of whom are the ruthless and bloodthirsty enemies of Israel.
So why is any of this important? I mean it’s just a silly zombie movie, right? True. In fact, making political statements is nothing new even to the zombie genre. For example, AMC’s The Walking Dead series is said to have a clear political bias; it has been described as blatantly misogynistic, racist, and anti-abortion. World War Z will soon clear $300 million in box office sales and be seen by 30 million people or more. Most of these people are non-experts in Middle Eastern history and will not question the movie’s portrayal of Israel. The majority of audience members will assume Israel is every bit as peace loving, smart, and noble as the movie depicts. Consider, for example, the first image you have when you think of Scottish independence from England during the 13th Century. If it is a face-painted, kilt-donning Mel Gibson from Braveheart (1995) you wouldn’t be alone, despite the fact that this movie is almost a complete fabrication of history.
Unlike Braveheart, World War Z deals with a living and breathing conflict; one that is taking place right now with serious ramifications for Middle Eastern peace and the creation of a Palestinian state. This conflict essentially has two sides, Israelis and Palestinians. Word War Z, unfortunately, uses its global platform to sell one side over the other, in essence helping to shape public opinion. Given the fact that the movie departs so wildly from the novel means that this illustration of Israel was active and intentional. The likely culprit is Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B, which hired screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan. Carnahan is best known for writing the screenplays for the movies The Kingdom (2007) and Lions for Lambs (2007). The former unflatteringly depicts Arabs as terrorists while the latter ostentatiously celebrates the greatness of the U.S. military. But who knows who else in Hollywood may have had a hand in portraying Israel in such a flattering light—there are many possible suspects.
In the end, the only thing that World War Z lacks (besides blood and guts) is an 800-number to send donations to AIPAC.
Israel, Palestine, Propaganda