Did “World War Z” Criticize Israel?
In World War Z, the Israeli wall protecting the country from zombies seriously backfires — but in a way that's different from the book. What does it all mean? (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
About halfway through World War Z, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a country-hopping United Nations investigator and the protagonist of the film, makes his way to Israel after learning that it's successfully blockaded itself from zombies.
The country has kept itself safe by building a huge barrier around itself, reminiscent of actual barriers Israel has erected between Palestinian and Jewish areas. Fortified Israel takes in Palestinians, although this is not framed as an expressly humanitarian mission ("Every human being we save is one less zombie to fight"). But when zombies hear singing coming from within the walls and swarm in, Israel is completely destroyed.
The wall that saves Israel in the beginning ultimately traps its population with the surging hordes of the undead, and the sound that draws the zombies in is the happy singing of a group of people waving both Israeli and Palestinian flags: The zombies attack because of Palestinian-Israeli harmony.
This last part didn't happen in the 2006 novel on which the movie is loosely based, Max Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which is narrated 10 years after the outbreak.
In the book, the wall keeps the zombies out — a major plot difference that seems to indicate that the film is making an explicit statement about Israeli politics and Israeli-Palestinian relations.
"The only time [Israel] ever let down its guard was in 1973, when it was almost annihilated," Brooks said, referring to the surprise attack of an Arab coalition in October 1973 (he did not comment on the film, since he hadn't seen it yet). "The Israelis, especially the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli Intelligence Services, can be extremely proactive when it comes to security threats, so I figured if there was a real zombie plague, this is how Israel might react, so that's pretty much it. It wasn't me trying to give my personal opinion about anything."
Here are the major differences between the book and the movie:
Before the plague devastates the rest of the world, Israel builds a huge wall that keeps it safe through the first phase of the zombie outbreak. This happens in the book and the movie.
Palestinians initially suspect that Israel is somehow behind the zombie outbreak. This only happens in the book.
Palestinians are allowed into Israel. This happens in the book and the movie.
Israel has a civil war where the ultra-orthodox population rises up against the government, in part because Israel withdraws from Jerusalem. This only happens in the book. In the movie, Israel defends Jerusalem.
Zombies breach the wall after hearing singing from within. This only happens in the movie.
Israel gets destroyed by zombies. This only happens in the movie. In the book, Israel's wall keeps the zombies out.
In the book, Israel deals with internal divisions that predate zombies, whereas in the film, the celebration of Palestinians and Israelis is what draws the zombies in. Internal harmony invites external destruction. It's a suggestive way to be destroyed, hinting at the notion that Israel will not reach peace with the Palestinians unilaterally.
David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish studies and chair of UCLA's history department (who hadn't seen the movie), said the episode sounded illustrative of anxiety over "an influx of invaders who are going to demand access to your diminishing resources." (Still, Myers thought the episode was more plausibly understood as a riff on "a very powerful American, Christian vision of the end of days in the Holy Land.")
"I think it might be seen as a sly allegory," said James L. Gelvin, a UCLA professor of history specializing in the Middle East (he also hadn't seen the movie). He talked about the erection of Israel's West Bank separation barrier in 2003 which was followed by the Summer War of 2006. "They build a fence, a wall; they try to be secure behind that wall. In the end, they figure out that they can't be secure behind this wall."
If read as an allegory, the message fits with the leery Israeli policy laid out in the movie: If nine out of 10 analysts agree on something, it is the duty of the 10th analyst to make the opposing case — the devil's advocacy mandate is why Israel takes the initial reports of zombies seriously in the film. It's supposed to function as a safeguard for the Jews when something that seems too outlandishly terrible to be true happens to be true (in the film, World War II is cited as one example).
Myers cited a March Gallup poll showing that American sympathy for Israel matched its all-time high.
Despite popular opinion, though, he said, "There is growing concern and impatience with Israeli policy that's certainly evident amongst American officials, while there's still a great deal of appreciation for what Israel represents to American interests in the Middle East."
World War Z filmmakers were not available for comment.
CORRECTION: The Israeli separation barriers are located between Palestinian and Jewish areas. An earlier version of this item misstated their location. (6/24/13)