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by “Casey Stein”
This essay contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.
THE LATEST of the films based in the Marvel Comics universe, Thor: Ragnarok is rightfully getting praised for its sense of humor, its offbeat creativity, and for generally being far better and more entertaining than either of the other Thor movies. For those of you unfamiliar with the endless Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor is a member of the superhero collective the Avengers (along with Iron Man, Captain America and others). The character is basically lifted from Norse mythology: he’s the god of Thunder, carries a magical hammer named Mjolnir, and he’s the son of Odin the wise, ruler of the mythical homeland of Norse gods, Asgard. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor must contend with the resurgence of Odin’s first-born, the evil Hela, goddess of death, who has returned to take over the throne of Asgard and its various subordinate lands.
It’s also been noted that Thor: Ragnarok incorporates a fairly progressive look at colonization and imperialism – that is, within the context of a Disney movie. Namely, the narrative takes pains to stress that the history we’ve been shown of Asgard, Thor’s homeland, is thoroughly whitewashed. Far from being the glorious, happy nation-state ruled by wise King Odin, who consolidated control of the Nine Realms in a peaceful, joyous manner (as is depicted in the Asgardian throne room’s ceiling mural), when Hela returns, she reveals the true history of Asgard, and of her place in it: as a violent colonizing force, with Hela as Odin’s right hand.
Indeed, she literally rips apart the ceiling mural depicting pleasure gardens and smiling gods to reveal the true story hidden underneath: one of bloody warfare and conquest from which all of Asgard benefits. After Hela helped her father Odin in his imperial power-grabbing, he banished her from Asgard, knowing that she would give the lie to the narrative of the pleasant manner in which Asgard came to rule over the Nine Realms – the story Thor learned growing up, and the story that Hela ultimately dispels both literally (by revealing the hidden mural) and figuratively (by returning to Asgard in the first place).
Much has been made of director Taika Waititi’s incorporation of his Māori heritage into the movie, and how the false narratives surrounding Asgard are reminiscent of the erasing of the horrors of British colonialism of Australia and New Zealand. But interestingly the film’s climax doesn’t hinge on erasure by a foreign power, but rather a self-liberating negation of Asgard by those who once lived there. The villain Hela draws her strength from simply being in Asgard; so in order to save the people of Asgard, Thor and crew have to destroy Asgard-the-place. A key line of dialogue is repeated several times, with minor variation: that Asgard is not a place, but a people, and wherever Asgardians are is Asgard. Ultimately, the fiery destruction of Asgard at the end of the movie is treated as not a necessary evil, but almost as a positive sign of closure and rebirth for the Asgardian people.
It’s not far-fetched, then, to see the fate of Asgard as a potent anti-Zionist allegory – to see in Thor: Ragnarok a story that parallels how the sanctioned version of the State of Israel is taught, and how the centrality of Israel, vehemently reinforced by donors and Israeli state PR, in the lives of Jews may ultimately do more harm than good. Taika Watiti is Jewish, and though he hasn’t commented on this line of thinking, it doesn’t seem totally out of the blue. It’s the primacy of Asgard as a place, the place, that, in the Thor universe, has caused irreparable harm, and, for much of Thor: Ragnarok, threatens to obscure the very real needs of the Asgardians themselves. After all, so long as Jews are alive and practicing, then Judaism itself remains alive, across the diaspora and through the millennia.
THE COVERED-UP VERSION of history on the throne room ceiling is what Thor learned growing up, and it’s what I learned in my Reform Hebrew school growing up: how heroic the Jews were in 1948 and 1967, how the cell phone was invented in Israel, how Israel is at the forefront of medical technology and saving lives. I was urged to go on Birthright, but I never learned about the Nakba and the denial of right of return for Palestinians, nor the daily dehumanization of the Occupation. I certainly never learned about discrimination against Ethiopian Jews, whether they’re already living in Israel or trying to immigrate. Benjamin Netanyahu might claim that Israel is the home of all Jews, but we’ve seen that Israeli policy fails to measure up to the lofty rhetoric. IfNotNow’s #YouNeverToldMe campaign contains powerful testimonials from young Jews all across the United States who have been given the similar incomplete narratives, whether from their home synagogues, Jewish summer camps, or Birthright trips: that Israel is small but mighty, requires unconditional support, and is, of course, forever righteous and justified.
Now, obviously, I am not arguing in this essay for the fiery destruction of Israel à la what happens to Asgard at the end of Thor: Ragnarok. But I am saying that it’s worth considering just how central a role Israel as a state has come to play in Jewish life, and the effect this primacy has on the diaspora communities who choose not to live in Israel. Going back to my Reform Hebrew school education, I never learned about the rich history of the Yiddish press and labor unions of the early twentieth century, or of the Jewish Labor Bund – after I memorized the stories of Genesis and Exodus and studied enough Hebrew to avoid mangling Torah trope, the focus became Israel, and establishing close personal ties to Israel, as the logical next step in being Jewish. There’s so much of Jewish diaspora history that isn’t being honored, taught, and discussed the way it should be, and certainly traditional narratives leave out the uncomfortable and violent parts of Israeli history, which ultimately undermines the strength of world Judaism as a whole. And as Israel drifts further and further to the right, alienating much of the diaspora, it’s worth thinking how we might begin to reconstitute ourselves should the state drift completely beyond our moral horizon.
Asgard’s destruction at the end of Thor: Ragnarok provides resolution in only the most literal sense. The true revelation, and the solution, comes at the moment of epiphany: when Thor realizes that Asgard is more than the land itself – that the people, history, and traditions of Asgard are more significant than the literal soil and dirt. So we can take a suggestion from the philosophical nature of the end of Asgard-the-place (rather than the literal end), and re-configure the Jewish relationship to Israel, and of how best we can thrive, in that vein. Israel-the-place cannot substitute for the Jewish people as a whole, nor should it.
Casey Stein is a pseudonym for a young writer whose politics preclude them from using their real name.