Na’vi and Goliath: Palestinian Protesters Dress as Avatar Underdogs

Until a few weeks ago the Israeli Jewish public, and the Israeli print and electronic media, were quite enthusiastic about James Cameron’s Avatar. The film, in all of its 3D splendor, was breaking box office records in Israel and was warmly embraced by its tech-savvy elite. One of the film’s animators, Shahar Levavi, is an Israeli who trained for a decade in American studios before moving to New Zealand where he joined the team that made Avatar.

Similar enthusiasm about Cameron’s film was voiced in the American Jewish press. In The Forward, the popular and culturally astute New York Jewish weekly, regular columnist Jay Michaelson wrote a January 22 piece titled “Taking Avatar Seriously: Environmentalisms, Spiritual and Practical,” describing the film’s philosophy as “a bit of pantheism, a bit of nature mysticism, and a surprising dash of monotheism, as well. In other words, it’s Kabbalah.” Avatar’s Kabbalism, Michaelson concluded, is “a challenge to question what we think we know about theology, ethics, and contemporary values.”

These feel-good reflections, both scientific and philosophical, on the blockbuster film of the season (and, perhaps, the highest-grossing film of all time) were undercut by events on the West Bank early last month. On February 12, at the now regular demonstrations and clashes in the town of Bilin, pro-Palestinian demonstrators appeared in blue body paint as the Na’vi—the film’s indigenous people who are threatened by the human corporate mining of “unobtainium.” Among those reenacting the parts of “Na’vi” were Palestinians, Israeli activists, and Europeans. As the Bilin demonstrations have been going on for almost five years and have attracted the attention of the international media, the photos of the blue-painted demonstrators were seen around the world.

The conflict at Bilin revolves around disputes over the West Bank separation barrier—what many Israelis call the ‘security fence’ and what Palestinians refer to as the ‘racial segregation wall.’ The section of the barrier that runs through Bilin separates the villagers from their farming land. The town’s villagers and their political supporters took their case through the Israeli court system and organized demonstrations, often involving hundreds of protesters.

In 2007 the Israeli Supreme Court decided that the path of the barrier had to be changed to accommodate the villagers’ needs, though the court’s will has yet to be carried out. But the media message of the Avatar-style protest was highly successful: the Palestinians were understood to be the innocent Na’vi while the Israeli settlers were the outsiders, interlopers. As the West Bank Settlers (and the large number of Israeli supporters) understand themselves to be the true ‘indigenous population’—the descendants of the ancient Israelites to whom the Land was promised—this media critique cut to the bone.

A few weeks before the Bilin demonstration, the analogy between the film and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was made explicit in a recent article by James Wall, former editor of the Christian Century. In “A Teachable Moment: Linking Avatar to Gaza and Af-Pak,” noting that President Obama took his family to see Avatar while on vacation in Hawaii, Wall opined: “What an incredible teaching moment this film provides.” Avatar shows, “the foolishness of following the path to destruction which the military-industrial complex insists is necessary for human survival.”

The use of cultural references—both high and low—have long been part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. Biblical references are often invoked in these battles of propaganda and persuasion. The story of David and Goliath is a prime example. For the first decades of its existence Israeli successfully presented itself in the West as the small David fighting the large Arab Goliath. 

After the 1967 Israeli victory and the subsequent and continuing occupation, this self-presentation became somewhat more difficult, but by no means completely unacceptable—particularly in the United States. The State of Israel’s implicit and explicit claim that it is a “rebirth” of ancient Israel—a claim which resonated deeply with many in the Christian (primarily Protestant) West—also gave it a claim to biblical narratives, such as David and Goliath. 

But as the long resonant biblical narratives lose their familiarity and appeal, and as they are replaced by cultural icons from music, film, television, and the new media, many Israelis fear that this very valuable cultural advantage is being threatened. One group for whom the biblical narratives are alive and well are American conservative evangelical Protestants. Support for Israel is stronger than ever among members of those churches—something that Israeli politicians are acutely aware of.

As for the Na’vi, they have no lack of admirers among the politically savvy. Reflecting on the recent visit of the Dalai Lama to the White House, Columbia University Professor of Indo-Tibetan studies, Robert Thurman, told the New York Times that “the Tibetans are like the Na’vi… They’re hanging in there. Maybe not fighting with bows and arrows, but they are staying connected to nature, and we think they will prevail.”