I’d rather Magneto not be a Holocaust survivor.
A lot of Jewish people strongly disagree with me. This week there’s been another round of the periodic social media conversation in which some people point out that for Magneto to be a Holocaust survivor he would have to be quite, quite old, which wouldn’t be realistic for a hale supervillain who looks 50ish, while others point out that in real life people can’t manipulate the forces of magnetism either so what’s the problem?
More consequentially, many Jewish fans feel that Magneto’s past as a survivor of the Holocaust is central to his identity. Though many comics creators were Jewish, there aren’t a lot of explicitly Jewish superheroes on the big screen. Magneto is one of the few high-profile examples, and perhaps the only one where Jewish history is so central to his backstory.
I’d be loathe to give up Magneto’s Jewishness. But I’m ambivalent about the idea that the Holocaust has to be at the center of Jewish identity forever, no matter how far into the past it recedes. Magneto shouldn’t have to be a relic of atrocity for his Jewish identity to be relevant or legible.
It’s worth pointing out that although Magneto was created by two Jewish men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he wasn’t originally Jewish himself. In the early X-Men comics, Magneto was a fairly typical supervillain ranter, motivated by largely contentless megalomania. It was only during the classic Chris Claremont/John Byrne X-Men run in the late 70s and early 80s that Magneto acquired a past involving the Holocaust. Even then, though, his Jewish identity was somewhat ambiguous. He had been in the camps, but it was never stated that he was targeted for being Jewish.
Over time Magneto’s Jewishness became more explicit. There’s a lovely scene in 2011’s X-Men: First Class in which Professor X (James McAvoy) helps Magneto (Michael Fassbender) access a memory of a childhood Hannukah.
The X-Men movies ambivalently and sometimes confusedly draw parallels between the Nazi eugenic racism directed against Jewish people and (fictitious) racism directed against the (genetically different) mutants. Magneto’s experience of being targeted as inferior by racists is part of what inspires him to believe humans can’t be trusted and to argue for a vengeful mutant rule.
Magneto sort of flips Nazi ideology and sort of extends it. He’s a kind of Nazi Jew, superpowered, scheming, using his superior genetics to conquer normal people. This is uncomfortably close to Nazi propaganda’s vision of Jews as conniving racial monsters. The movies do have sympathy for Magneto, which mitigates the stereotype somewhat. But the writers don’t ever really seem to realize the extent to which they are defining their Jewish character not just through Jewish trauma, but through the antisemitic stereotype.
Even if we could get a more thoughtful MCU Holocaust survivor Magneto though (not a guarantee given the MCU’s Jewish representation thus far), there would still be problems.
The Holocaust is already seen as the iconic Jewish experience in pop culture; it’s at the center of the highest profile Jewish narratives from Schindler’s List to Maus. When Judaism is just the Holocaust, it’s difficult to see Jewish people as anything but victims. And it’s also difficult to see Judaism as existing in the present, rather than as some sort of past preserved trauma.
If Magneto has to be a Holocaust survivor to be meaningfully Jewish, that puts most Jewish people in a bind, since most of us are at this point too young to have lived through World War II. And for that matter, some of our families weren’t in the Holocaust. My relatives all came here in the early 1900s.
In contrast, making Magneto a contemporary Jew creates a number of interesting questions and motivations. He could have grown up in America and faced some antisemitism—or he could have benefited from the growing acceptance of Jewish people, and experienced that as a striking contrast to the prejudice he faced as a mutant. He might have been inspired by his mutant nationalism by the example of Zionism. Or perhaps Israel is unwelcoming to mutant Jews as it has sometimes been unwelcoming to Black Jews, and Magneto’s mutant separatism is in part a reaction against what he sees as the failures of the Jewish state.
There are lots of ways in which Magneto’s identity as a Jew might influence and interact with his identity as a mutant and vice versa. His character and story could be a way to explore the complexities of Jewish identity at a time when white Jews in the diaspora and in Israel often have access to certain kinds of privilege, even as antisemitism remains a dangerous force. A mutant who is a Jew also suggests parallels with the experiences of Jews of color—which is why some people have suggested that Magneto might be Black as well as Jewish.
It's difficult to explore these themes, or to address the experiences of contemporary Jewish people, if stories about Judaism have to constantly focus on a past genocide which, while incredibly important and devastating, still does not encompass the entirety of the Jewish experience or being. Magneto can manipulate the very forces of the planet. It seems like he should be able to take a couple of steps forward, and tell a new story or two.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.