Last Thursday (Halloween 2013) I finally decided to watch World War Z—one of the biggest movie productions of 2013, featuring Brad Pitt in the leading role. It is a zombie movie, so it kind of fits Halloween day, but that was a pure coincidence. I neither care about Halloween nor Zombie movies. When the film was being shown in local cinemas here in Leipzig a couple of months ago, a friend of mine suggested that we go together to see it, but I objected strongly on the grounds that it seemed very silly. This was confirmed later by one of my flatmates who described the movie as a debacle. Later, another flatmate of mine watched it and described it as too bad to the extent it is funny. This has aroused my curiosity, but not enough to bother watching it until I watched World War Zimmerman—the third episode of the new season of South Park—in which World War Z is bitterly ridiculed. I thought then that I must watch this film. The day before yesterday, which happened to be Halloween, I stayed in bed all day long because of being sick, so I had enough time to watch two movies—one of them was World War Z.
The film turned up to be very bad indeed, but, unfortunately, not to the extent it was funny, as my second flatemate had claimed before. From a cinematic perspective, I have nothing interesting to say about the film. It is simply a bad movie, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. World War Z, however, is not only cinematically bad, but also politically, and this is what I am going to talk about in this article.
The film narrates the story of Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt)—a former UN investigator, who is called to investigate the reasons behind the outbreak of an epidemic virus that turns people within seconds into Zombies. His journey of investigation takes him to Israel, which has constructed huge walls around Jerusalem to quarantine it from the epidemic. An officer of the Mossad informs him that Israel intercepted a message from India which mentioned that Indians are struggling to contain an epidemic of Zombies. Gerry is skeptical how a sober Mossad officer could recommend the building of such huge walls based on then unbelievable allegations of zombies attacking people. The officer answers him that Jews throughout their modern history have refused to believe that many misfortunes were going to occur to them, yet they did occur (mentioning the Holocaust, the 1972 attack on Israeli athletes in Munich during the Olympic Games, and the 1973 Arab war against Israel). The Mossad officer then takes Gerry to see the walls around Jerusalem. Gerry sees that the Israeli army is allowing both Arabs and Jews to enter the holy city, because, as the officer puts it, “every human being we save, is one less to fight.” One sees Arabs and Jews praying, singing, and dancing together in celebration of peace and security. The serenity of the scene, however, does not last long, as the singing of peace and harmony alerts the Zombies outside the walls who climb over each other in massive numbers until they pour into the city and take it over.
You can see the full scene here below:
My first political objection against World War Z is the seemingly honest subtitle at the beginning of the Jerusalem part of Gerry’s journey. It says simply “Jerusalem, Israel.” This may seem like a statement of a fact that should not offend anyone, just like saying “Washington D.C., USA.” It is true that Jerusalem is currently under Israeli control and that Israel regards Jerusalem as its capital, but in reality not a single country in the world other than Israel officially recognizes such claims (see Wikipedia’s article on the official status of Jerusalem here). Even the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally, does not recognize Jerusalem as such. The American Congress has passed in the past two decades several legislations calling the President to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but neither President Bill Clinton, nor George W. Bush, nor Barack Obama has implemented them. Indeed federal courts and the Justice Department have considered such legislations to be invalid or unconstitutional.
To be clear, we are not talking here about Western Jerusalem, which following the Israeli-Arab war of 1948 came under Israeli control and thus it is generally accepted by countries that recognize the state of Israel as part thereof. We are talking here about East Jerusalem, which is effectively the Old City of Jerusalem with its landmark holy sites, including the golden Dome of the Rock, which is easily visible in the scene above. East Jerusalem is part of the Palestinian territories, which was occupied in the 1967 war waged by Israel against Syria, Egypt, and Jordan (the last was in control of Palestinian territories from 1948 until 1967), and, as previously mentioned, no country or international organization (including the UN) recognizes Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem. This little subtitle is nothing in my opinion but an attempt to sanction a de-facto situation that is morally, politically, and legally objectionable.
Am I being too cynical? After all, how many people know the international status of Jerusalem? I myself—who grew up in a country (that is, Syria) where anti-Israeli propaganda is a daily matter, and who is supposedly well-informed about the Arab-Israeli conflict—had not honestly known, before I did research for this article, that there is such a unanimous international consensus on not recognizing Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem. I really thought that few countries must have already recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. So why accusing the filmmakers of moral and political incorrectness just because of this possibly “accidental” mistake?
If one may gloss over this “incidental” mistake, I don’t think that one could gloss over the symbolism of the walls erected by Israelis around Jerusalem in the film. It happens, “incidentally,” that Israel has been indeed for more than 10 years constructing a barrier to separate most of the Palestinian population in the West Bank from Israelis. The wall is constructed east of Jerusalem so that it effectively serves to annex the city to Israel and isolate it from Palestinian territories. The wall consists in some of its sections, as you can see in the image below, of 8-meter-high concrete slabs, much like the wall depicted in the film to protect Jerusalem from Zombies. The only difference is that the wall in the movie is much higher for greater visual impact.
The message, I think, is clear and does not need any deciphering: Israel’s wall in World War Z is simply an allegory of Israel’s separation wall in reality (called the “Apartheid Wall” by Palestinians and many human rights activists), which is supposedly meant only to protect Israel from an “eminent, evil danger”—that is, Palestinian “terrorists”—just like the wall in the movie protects it from blood-thirsty zombies. The famous scene of Zombies climbing the wall over each other is reminiscent of attempts made by Palestinians to climb the wall to get to their houses, farms, jobs, or places of worship on the other side, as one can see below.
The filmmakers’ choice of Israel as the country that erected walls to protect itself from Zombies cannot be random. It must have been inspired by the real separation wall in the West Bank. And there is no way that this inspiration can be regarded as innocent or devoid of any political or racist connotations. If you watched a movie in which the United States built a huge wall along its Southern borders with Mexico to guard itself against Zombies, could you but interpret Zombies trying to jump over this wall as a reference to illegal Mexican immigrants trying to make it into the USA? Wouldn’t you see such allegory to be racist and politically incorrect?
The scene of Israelis and Palestinians singing for peace while entering walled Jerusalem does not lessen the racist connotations of the wall. It is consistent with the Zionist idea that Arabs and Jews can live together in peace and harmony, but only under the supremacy of a Jewish state and the protection of the Israeli army. Israel is willing to accept and tolerate Arabs as subjects and dependents, but not as equal citizens. The concept of a Palestinian state that stands on equal terms with a Jewish state in Palestine or the alternative concept of a unified state for both peoples where the Palestinians might be the majority are both unacceptable to the Zionist ideology that still maintains its hegemony over Israel.
Since World War Z is based on a novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, I checked Wikipedia’s entry on the novel to get some clues about its depiction of Israelis and Palestinians. The plot section of the article does narrate that Israel has withdrawn from Palestinian territories initiating a “nationwide quarantine, closing its borders to everyone except uninfected Jews and Palestinians.” There is no mention, however, of erecting huge walls around Jerusalem. Wikipedia’s article also speaks of a Jewish ultra-Orthodox uprising in Israel that results in an “Israeli civil war.” Following the end of the “zombie war,” the article reads, Israelis and Palestinians make peace and live in one state called “Unified Palestine.”
I started to wonder whether the walls around Jerusalem was a motif added by the filmmakers or it was already there in the novel, but was dropped out by the writer(s) of Wikipedia’s article. Of course, I neither had the time nor the desire to read a complete zombie novel, so I thought it would be enough to find an online version of the novel and use the magical function of Ctrl+F to search for words such as “wall,” “Israel,” “Jerusalem,” and “Palestine” and see whether the motif of the walls occurs or not.
Actually I did find an online version of the novel, and I did some quick Ctrl+F searches. I found one mention of a wall Israel is constructing along its entire borders—not only its borders with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also its borders with Egypt. But it seemed to me like it was something mentioned in passing without being an important theme of the book. Jerusalem itself is hardly mentioned in the book. The meeting between Gerry Lane and the Mossad officer takes place in “Tel Aviv, Israel” not in Jerusalem. In addition, one scene in the novel takes place in “Bethlehem, Palestine.”
So what are the reasons behind bringing up Jerusalem and the wall as main motifs in the film? Purely cinematic? I highly doubt that. Certainly, one cannot conclusively rely on Ctrl+F search, but this was the best I could do at the moment in terms of researching “primary literature.”
Secondary literature has indeed confirmed my view of the film’s political message and my tentative conclusions about the novel. I have learned from an article published by The Global Jewish News Source that many people have actually panned the film as pro-Israeli. “Or at the very least the most pro-Israel zombie movie ever made” as Jeffrey Goldberg—an American journalist who previously served in the Israeli army—has “admiringly tweeted.” The article also states that what ruins Israel’s plans to keep itself safe from Zombies in the novel is not the harmonious singing of Jews and Arabs together, but the revolt of the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who refuse that Israel withdraws back to the pre-1967 borders. Apparently the treatment of Israeli-Palestinian relations in the novel is much more sophisticated and complex than the pure propaganda work made by the film. At any rate, the writer of the novel himself, Max Brooks, stated that the movie shares with his novel nothing but the title. So we can now safely blame it all on Brad Pitt, who is also a producer of the movie, and other members of the production staff!
At the end of this article I would like just to say two things. First, as a piece of advice: don’t watch the film! It really sucks and there is nothing good or entertaining about it cinematically. What is worse, it promotes racist views of Palestinians that justify the building of a segregation wall that is morally and legally abhorrent. Maybe you would like to read the novel. It apparently offers some political and social commentary on various issues other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, I would like to express my hope of the destruction of the segregation wall built by Israelis and the hope that one day people are going to tear it down just like the Berlin Wall and the apartheid system in South Africa. I share with the novel the vision of a “Unified Palestine” where Jews and Arabs can live side by side. Palestine is too small for two equal nation-states, and one state dominating the other is not going to solve the conflict, only prolong it. The only hope is in a “Unified Palestine.”
A clip by United Civilians for Peace about the Israeli separation wall, which was used in a Roger Waters concert.