Dani Ishai Behan

Why Changing Magneto’s Origins Would Be Anti-Semitic

According to recent rumors, Marvel intends to give Magneto – the iconic Jewish supervillain – a fresh coat of paint. But what exactly is meant by “fresh coat of paint” here?

Put simply, it is alleged that they intend to cast a “POC” actor – or actors – as Magneto in any future appearances.

Why is this a bad thing? Well, it’s not. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that Magneto is a Jewish Holocaust survivor. He is already a POC, at least insofar as indigenous Middle Eastern populations are considered to be such (which Marvel undoubtedly does), and they arguably should have been using Jewish (or other Middle Eastern) actors from the get-go. However, since it’s highly unlikely that Marvel actually considers diaspora Jews like Magneto to be Middle Eastern (even though they are Middle Eastern, by definition), and since there are no other notable anti-Jewish genocides in the past 50 years to draw inspiration from, the implications of this rumor could not be more clear: they may very well end up erasing Magneto’s Jewish origins.

I’m deeply bothered that Marvel is even considering this – that the thought of it has even entered their heads, let alone their board room discussions. And I’m even more bothered that it’s being framed as a bid for “diversity”, as if this is really “no different” than changing Ariel’s race. It absolutely is different. In fact, these scenarios couldn’t be any more different if they tried to be.

There are many reasons why changing Magneto’s origins would be damaging and oppressive to Jews, especially in light of anti-Semitism’s meteoric rise and resurgence in mainstream culture. For starters…

Magneto’s Jewishness is central to his character

His experience as a Jew – as a survivor of the Nazi death camps and a member of one of the most despised ethnic groups on Earth (not just in the United States, but in the entire world) – is the main impetus for Magneto’s actions. It’s why he is who he is. Magneto is an extremist because he sees the way mutants are treated as parallel to the way Jews are treated. His realization that humans will never accept mutants also parallels Herzl’s realization that Europeans would never accept Jews. And Magneto’s proposed solution, while certainly 100x more extreme than Herzl’s (whose solution was to repatriate Jewish exiles to their indigenous homeland, to liberate it from foreign rule, and to regain sovereignty therein), is borne of a similar distrust and cynicism towards those who hate his kind.

Magneto is a Jew. That’s who he is to most fans, especially to Jewish fans who grew up with him and identified with him for much of their lives. Why take that away from us? Especially now?

Magneto embodies Jewish anger, fear, trauma, and pain like no other character, before or since. You can’t just treat that as if it’s some trivial thing, or if it’s just “white” people crying about their “privilege” (which, it must be emphasized, Jews do not have). Changing him now would be horrifically insensitive and immensely disrespectful to Jewish fans, especially to children/grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

If it’s Magneto’s age people are worried about, I’m certain Marvel could come up with something. If they can prolong Wolverine’s life for as long as they have, there’s no reason why they can’t do so for Magneto.

And if there’s another minority out there whom they feel is “more deserving” of representation, they can simply create a new character. Problem solved.

Jews deserve representation too

Like it or not, we’re minorities too. And we don’t exactly have stellar representation, contrary to common belief.

We’re all but invisible outside of some very stereotypical characters. I mean, what else do we have besides lonely nerds, gold diggers, terrorists, bankers, and eccentric rabbis?

We have this…

Yup, that’s right. Gargamel, the main villain of the Smurfs, is supposed to be Jewish. And if his Levantine features didn’t make that painfully obvious, he also had a mezuzah in his house in his first few appearances.

There are exceptions to this rule (e.g. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman), but that’s all they really are: exceptions.

I know what people are going to say next… “But what about these Jewish actors who’ve done characters like Indiana Jones and Jackie Kennedy? They even did blackface back in the day.” Well, here’s the thing: they weren’t Jewish actors playing Jewish characters. They were white-passing Jewish actors (and usually only half or even 1/4 Jewish, like myself) playing white characters. That’s not representation, and referring to it as such is essentially tantamount to whitewashing. It is every bit as absurd as saying Indians are “white”/”well-represented” because Ben Kingsley played Adolf Eichmann (yes, that Adolf Eichmann), or that Arabs* are because Lebanese actor Danny Thomas (to name one example) did blackface and other white roles, or that Latinos are because Cesar Romero did The Joker.

*Speaking of Arabs, Jewish actors who are more obviously/visibly Jewish (particularly those who aren’t half or 3/4 non-Jewish) are very frequently cast in Arab roles. And no one even notices. Why is that?

It’s because…

Ashkenazi Jews are not white people

Non-Ashkenazi Jews exist, of course. That is undeniable. But since Magneto was born in the Jewish diaspora communities of Central Europe, it is quite obvious that he is Ashkenazi.

And Marvel’s assertion that they intend to rebrand Magneto as a “POC” is a pretty clear indication that they have a piss-poor understanding of (if not utter contempt for) who Jews are.

Magneto isn’t white. He’s a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Jews are an indigenous ethnic group and nation of the Levant, so it makes little sense to refer to Magneto as white unless A ) he is a convert (which he’s not) or B ) one views all indigenous Levantines as white, which is highly unlikely (at least in Marvel’s case). Ergo, Magneto has always been a POC.

However, all of his live-action portrayals were done by white actors, and this suggests that whoever was responsible for their casting sees Jews as nothing more than a religion. And for someone whose view is that Magneto is an “ethnic Pole” or “ethnic German” whose family “just so happened to practice Judaism”, it’s not too far of a leap (or even a leap at all) to cast white actors in that role. This view is, of course, patently absurd.

This popular narrative that Ashkenazim are “white”, and that we are therefore already “over-represented” and don’t “need” characters like Magneto, is the reason why things like this keep happening. Were it not for that, the idea of replacing Erik Lensherr with a “real” minority would have never entered their heads.

Just because we’re not black, doesn’t mean we’re white. And you can’t treat this as if it’s somehow akin to rebranding Ariel as a black woman. It’s just not comparable.

It indicates that Marvel does not see Jews as a “real” minority group

Marvel is a politically progressive company. And the progressive left has been infected with its own form of Jew-hate – distinct from its right-wing counterpart, but similar in many ways. One thing they both have in common is that they both feel Jews are “hyper-powerful” and absolutely swimming in “privilege”, and are therefore not oppressed or marginalized in any meaningful way – and that if anything, we’re the oppressors. And for this reason, it is argued that we do not “deserve” the same respect or consideration that other oppressed outgroups do, and this argument naturally extends to representation in media. After all, this isn’t the first time Marvel whitewashed a character’s Jewishness (Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver), and it likely won’t be the last.

And it is precisely this line of thinking that facilitates antisemitism and contributes to its growth.

Bottom line: Magneto is Jewish. He is a Holocaust survivor. He is an ethnic Middle Easterner. And despite his (typically) villainous portrayal, he has done more to give Jews a human face than any other character. And if there’s anything we need right now, it’s for people to see our humanity.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.