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Not Even Zombies Can Save the Middle East

Israelis and Arabs aren’t likely to get along in the real world any time soon, but they briefly pull it off in the film adaptation of Max Brooks’ mega best-selling novel, World War Z. People who hate Israel for a living are giving the movie a big thumbs-down because of it.

As’ad AbuKhalil, the self-described “Angry Arab,” quotes a reader named Mohammad who describes the film as “Zionist pornography.”

Here is Jesse Benjamin at the relentlessly axe-grinding Mondoweiss Web site: “Not only is Israel’s fanatical Wall Building proven to be justified, against the hordes of undead invaders, and not only are Jewish victimizations paraded to justify the aggrandizement of Israeli military prowess, but it’s Israel’s supposed humanism, and multicultural inclusiveness, which in the end weakens the fragile post-apocalyptic state and allows the zombies to overrun everything.” He goes on from there on a bizarre racialist rant against Zionism and the American “empire” and concludes by yearning for a tonic against such evils with a story told from the zombie horde’s point of view.

The Associated Press rounds up negative reactions from the Arab world. “It's free propaganda for Israel at a time when it occupies other people,” says Palestinian cartoonist Ramzi Taweel. “It portrays Israel as a moral power that protects human beings. It justifies the wall. ... The Israeli occupation army in the movie is a humane army that protects the world.” “I don't think it was trying to justify Israel's occupation,” says Aleena Khan in Dubai, “but it was glorifying the Israelis by emphasizing peace and harmony of the two nations, which is far from the truth.”

World War Z does portray Israel and Israelis positively. No one is imagining that. But at no point is Israel positively portrayed at the expense of the Arabs.

Most of the kvetchers are tired and predictable, are they’re over-reacting. World War Z is a popcorn movie. It doesn’t even pretend to be a serious geopolitical film. The novel is complex and brilliant. The film version is not. It’s a straightforward summer blockbuster designed to get the main character Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) from one exotic locale to another so he can get chased by zombies.

The book is subtitled An Oral History of the Zombie War. As in Studs Terkel’s classic oral histories, no one appears in the book for more than a handful of pages, so there is no main character. We get a few pages from a man in China who lives in the village where Patient Zero appears. Another chapter is narrated by a blind man in Japan who manages to flee the city and survive in the wilderness. An American soldier describes how the United States army sweeps and clears the continent from one coast to another. And so on.

Because the characters in the book span the entire world over a long sweep of time, there’s no plot in the conventional sense, but there is a story. The story is the human race’s struggle against an extinction event. Humans collectively are the protagonist, and the zombie horde—known by the United States Army as “Zack”—is the terrifying antagonist.

No one could film that in two hours. The movie, by necessity, is only glancingly similar. There is a main character, but he isn’t developed. Gerry Lane is a United Nations researcher who bounces from one part of the world to another trying to figure out where the outbreak started. His quest takes him from Philadelphia to East Asia, the Middle East, and to Europe. The film’s final stretch in Wales is by far the most suspenseful, but Lane’s visit to Israel provides the film’s most interesting, though brief, foray into international affairs, and this of course is where all the controversy is focused.

In the film version, Israel is one of only two countries that survives the initial zombie outbreak. The other is North Korea. Pyongyang pulls out the teeth of the entire population in 24 hours, making it impossible for the virus to spread. But Israel is not a totalitarian police state. The Israelis survive the initial wave intact because they have a clever intelligence tool at their disposal that no other country in the world possesses. I don’t want to spoil the film by revealing it here, but I will say that whoever developed this part of the story understands Israeli history and culture well enough to think of a semi-plausible explanation that, fortunately for the film’s reputation among mainstream filmgoers, has nothing to do with the Palestinians, the West Bank, or Gaza.

The Arab countries have been overrun with zombies, and the Israelis construct an enormous wall to keep them out. If you stop right there you could say the zombie wall is a thinly disguised metaphor for the real-world separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank and that the zombies represent Arabs. But in context that’s ludicrous. The movie makes it clear that zombies are zombies and Arabs are humans. The towering zombie wall is not a stand-in for the real wall separating Israelis from Arabs. In World War Z, the wall separates Israelis and Arabs from zombies. The Israelis let non-zombified Arab refugees pass through the wall to relative safety. The eternally squabbling neighbors are finally at peace, united against a common enemy. “Every human being we save,” says an Israeli intelligence agent, “is one less to fight.”

Israelis and Arabs banding together to fight zombies is the stuff of fantastical science-fiction, of course, but it’s a nice message all the same, one that has been a staple of the genre since its beginning. Our differences as human beings vanish when faced with zombies, alien invasions, killer asteroids, and so on. Harlan Ellison put it this way in his classic science fiction collection Dangerous Visions, originally published in 1967:

Between the time I wrote “The Day After the Day the Martians Came” and now, I met a minister from a small town in Alabama. Like many churches, not only in Alabama, his is torn on the question of integration. He has found a way, he thinks, to solve it—or at least to ameliorate it—among the white teen-agers in his congregation: he is encouraging them to read science fiction in the hope that they may learn, first, to worry about green-skinned Martians instead of black-skinned Americans and, second, that all men are brothers…at least in the face of a very large universe which is very likely to contain creatures who are not men at all.

It’s easy to botch that message and make it sound juvenile and pat, but World War Z takes it seriously. The antagonists in the film are so overwhelmingly violent and hostile that even a Middle Eastern pessimist like me managed to swallow it.

Unfortunately, World War Z’s message of common humanity is lost on much of the real Middle East and its legion of commentators.

You can watch the trailer here.

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