The buzz surrounding this summer’s “most urgent, highest-IQ action picture” World War Z caught my attention over a year ago, when it was reported that part of the movie would be set in Israel. Kind of an odd location to shoot a zombie movie, you would think. As the world premier approached and the buzz reached fever pitch, it proved impossible for me to resist ordering a copy of the book that the movie was supposedly based on, Max Brooks’s World War Z – An Oral History of the Zombie War. The book happened to arrive in the mail the day before the President’s Conference, Shimon Peres’s birthday extravaganza in Jerusalem. Needless to say, I ditched the conference to stay home and read the book.
Whereas the movie is apocalyptic, the book is post-apocalyptic, a collection of first-person testimonials ten years after humanity has declared itself victorious in the war against the zombies. The political map of the world has been completely up-ended: Cuba is the richest country in the world, Russia is a theocracy, and Israel and “Palestine” are living side by side in peace, with Bethlehem being described as “one of the Middle East’s most affluent cities.”
While the movie is better described as having been inspired by rather than based on the book, they both share this feature: Israel. Whereas Jerusalem plays a very prominent role in the movie, the book devotes just as much space to the Jewish state as it does to any other country that it describes. Unique aspects of Jewish history allowed Israel to respond quicker to the zombie menace than many other countries, but apparently Cuba still came out ahead thanks to its unique history, and South Africa’s history played a vital role in shaping a battle doctrine against the zombies that was quickly copied by many other nations in the world. What’s significant about the portrayal of Israel in the book is that it’s not significant, or at least no more significant than any other country.
And that’s what caught my eye over a year ago: the apparent relegation of the current political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to such an insignificant spot in the plot that it barely merits mention. Whereas The Times of Israel has described the movie as “the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since ‘Exodus’,” the book gracefully hides this point behind conjecture (albeit conjecture that only a fool would dismiss out of hand). Israel is suddenly like any other normal, zombie-fighting nation in the world, which is essentially what our Hasbara-apparatus has been saying for years, but with much less success.
But it gets even better: the book’s testimonial from Bethlehem is given by a professor in urban planning that grew up as a Palestinian refugee in Kuwait. He describes how he tried to prevent his family from seeking refuge in the Israeli safe haven that was open to descendants of Jews and Palestinians alike, since he was convinced that it was all part of a masterful Israeli ruse designed to somehow deliver the final blow against the Arabs. His father managed to smack some sense into him, and eventually the family reached Israel, where it survived the war. “I realized I practically didn’t know anything about these people I’d hated my entire life,” says the professor.
When I read that line, it struck me that the book isn’t merely describing a post-apocalyptic world, it’s also (and significantly) describing a post-antisemitic world. This world is by no means perfect: it has its fair share of religious fundamentalism, suicide epidemics, and Special Economic Zones “catering to a culture of chaotic violence and debauchery,” but that only makes the absence of anti-Jewish paranoia all the more conspicuous, since it’s usually in the breakdown of society that anti-Semitism thrives. Yet here, a mere decade after a war that brought humanity to the brink of total extinction, when the human race is just barely standing up straight again, we only encounter anti-Semitism as a relic, a nostalgic memory of youthful ignorance.
It’s all conjecture, of course, and I don’t claim to have unearthed some sort of coded message in Max Brooks’s book. It’s just curious how comfortably the war against the zombies functions as a metaphor for the fight against anti-Semitism , which the movie then graphically portrays by showing the walls of Jerusalem being scaled by hoards of the undead, with nice Jewish soldiers taking them out one by one with headshots. Conjecture, conjecture.