The Devin’s Advocate: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS’ Magneto As A Critique Of Israel

Is the path of Michael Fassbender’s Holocaust survivor mutant meant to parallel that of Israel?

"Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." - Nietzsche

There's a reason that quote has become a hoary cliche, and that's because it's true. To engage the darkness is to open yourself up to the darkness; it's a popular theme in literature and movies. The film that most recently explores it with the greatest success is, in in my mind, X-Men: First Class, which is the first X movie to present Magneto as more than a misguided villain. Matthew Vaughn's movie presents Magneto as a man with a philosophy you can understand, a man whose life experience led him inexorably to the decisions he makes at the end of the film. And in many ways the film presents Magneto as a mirror held up to the state of Israel.

While Israel's modern history doesn't begin with the Holocaust (the Zionist movement had been underway for decades by the time WWII rolled around; there had been great waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 19th century, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 made it clear that Britain saw Palestine as the homeland of the Jews. The Jewish Legion fought alongside British troops to conquer Palestine, and by the time WWII started 11% of Palestine's population was Jewish), the state's thirst for survival certainly began there. Huge waves of refugees and Holocaust survivors poured into Palestine throughout the middle 1940s. In 1944 the Jewish community started an armed uprising against the British, who eventually left, and Palestine was split into two states by the UN, which would have Jerusalem as an international city that belonged to neither. But when Britain left Israel declared itself an independent state and the surrounding Arab states declared war. Thus began in earnest sixty years of simmering violence.

Magneto's history does start with the Holocaust, as seen in X-Men and expanded upon in X-Men: First Class. It was his experience in Auschwitz that made Erik Lensherr who he would become. And his general goals are not that different from the state of Israel. Some might argue that his tactics aren't that different either.

It's important to approach First Class' Magneto with as little baggage from the original films or the comics as possible. In many ways this is a new version of the character, with Vaughn and Michael Fassbender examining facets of the man that have received little attention cinematically. Magneto comes out of the Holocaust wanting two things: vengeance and independence. It's important to note that while he doesn't disagree with Sebastian Shaw's stance on the inferiority of homo sapiens, Magneto in this film isn't looking to wipe them out. He just wants to be free of them.

Magneto spends years hunting down Nazi war criminals, much like Israel's Mossad, who illegally extradited Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and executed him in Israel. And like Israel, Magneto at first works with the existing governmental structure; he teams up with the CIA's black ops mutant team as the Palestinian Jews worked alongside the British to secure the nation.

But like the Palestinian Jews, Magneto doesn't want to be working under someone else's heel, and he is ready to declare his own independence from the CIA as soon as the moment is right (and actually unlike the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun, who conducted terrorist attacks against British targets in Palestine in 1944, Magneto never specifically turns against the CIA). That comes in the form of simply announcing to the world the existence of mutants at the Cuban beach battle, a moment that parallels Israel's declaration as an independent state in 1948; and just as in that case the declaration of existence is met with immediate hostility. The assembled homo sapien war ships fire on the mutants much as the assembled Arab states attacked Israel.

I would argue that it was the 1948 Arab Israeli War that helped solidify Israel's stance on self-defense. And it was the missile attack on the Cuban beach that did the same for Magneto - in both cases the newly independent figure finds their fears of open hostility to be completely founded. Israel's policy on national security becomes an offensive one, with them invading Egypt in 1956 and launching the pre-emptive strikes that began the Six-Day War in 1967. Magneto's policy on humanity, we are to assume, becomes equally offensive, with him opting to strike at humans before they can strike at mutants.

On the surface that policy makes a lot of sense, but it's the way that the policy is pursued that becomes controversial. For many Israel has been a belligerent actor in the region, and their treatment of the Palestinians is unforgivable, especially in the way that it echoes the marginalization and treatment of the Jews in the years leading up to WWII and the Holocaust. But for others Israel is a scrappy state that needs to show its force to keep safe from every other nation in the region, who would like nothing more than to see this country snuffed out.

In the final moments of the Cuban beach crisis, Magneto utters a line that completely solidifies his position as a metaphor for Jewish nationalism and Zionism  - "Never again," the motto of the Jewish Defense League, described as a right wing terror group by the FBI. Founded by Meir Kahane, a figure who could easily be a template for Magneto, the JDL targets 'enemies of the Jewish people.' A JDL member massacred dozens of praying Palestinians in 1994; 15 out of 18 domestic terrorist attacks carried out by Jews were carried out by JDL members.  In some ways the JDL feels like a real world version of Magneto's Brotherhood, a militant organization that carries self defense into the realm of pre-emptive violence.

What's interesting is that while Magneto is painted inextricably as an analogue for militaristic Zionist Jews post-WWII, X-Men: First Class never quite demonizes him. We know where he ends up, so his association with these types is an implicit criticism, but at the end of the movie it's hard not to kind of root for Magneto. Professor X seems like a star-eyed optimist, a completely naive goofus whose principles are nice but unworkable. His response to being fired upon by a combined US and Soviet fleet is to... keep working with the US. Doesn't Magneto's response feel a bit more reasonable?

By the end of X-Men: First Class Magneto has not quite become the monster he has been fighting, but he's right on the edge. Does Matthew Vaughn think that Magneto's future status as a monster means that Israel has gazed  too long into the abyss?