Recently, I went to see “World War Z,” a typical Hollywood blockbuster with a fairly typical theme — zombies. Now, a quick note to all you non-film buffs out there: Zombie films are never about zombies; they are about the societal pressures of the day. The basic premise of the film was nothing new [Spoiler Alert]: A virus mutated and spread, people were turned into zombies, and entire cities across the globe were wiped out. There doesn’t seem to be any hope of survival except for Brad Pitt, a U.N. soldier of sorts, who must save the world.
None of this offers any brilliant insights about our society in 2013. There was, however, a notable choice in this film that surprised me. The screenwriters chose one country that was successfully keeping out the zombies: Israel.
Aerial shots of Jerusalem filled the big screen, along with a giant concrete wall built along the Green Line. Giant walls and checkpoints were seen as necessary security measures, which stimulated a positive feeling in the audience. Israel became a refuge for all of humanity — anyone who made it to the gates of the country without being infected. We saw strong women fighting for safety, we heard a brief history of Israel and the Jewish people, and we were given insights into the Israeli mentality. For me this choice alluded to the Isaiah 42:6 passage in which God says to the Jewish people that they should be “a light unto the nations.” While these moments made me smile, there was something more important coming through the big screen. It was the waving of the Israeli and Palestinian flags with all of the people, Jewish and Muslim, Orthodox and secular, dancing and singing the Hebrew peace song and prayer.
This scene, I joked, demonstrated to the audience what could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a zombie virus outbreak that was infecting the entire planet. It sounds outrageous, but in thinking about it a little more, I came to realize these screenwriters were onto something. Could it be that they were trying to argue that only an external power of enormous magnitude could solve the conflict? So, I took a look at both the current state of the conflict and a theory that could explain why a zombie apocalypse could, in fact, create peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Israeli and Palestinian governments have been at a stalemate for more than a decade, yet among Middle East experts it is common knowledge that everyone knows what a peace agreement would look like. As Aaron David Miller, Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said on NPR recently, “Look, you could have an agreement. If Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas were prepared to pay the price of what it would cost.” Right now, that price is too high. The societal pressures placed on both leaders make it politically unfavorable to resolve the conflict. The status quo is better than the unknown. The final-status agreement will take tremendous strength and political capital, as well as the will of the people, but that is not what is frightening — it is what comes next: How do the people shift their beliefs and mentalities as well as erase their fears and the hatred? How do they live in peace with their neighbors? How can their typical behaviors and way of thinking shift overnight when their leaders sign a piece of paper — a peace treaty. The “next” is harder than the agreement.
So what does this have to do with zombies? Well, zombies are a metaphor for a great external power that forces populations and governments to dramatically shift their behavior overnight. The only way to go from conflict to peace overnight is through a forced shift in the typical behavior of the elites as well as average citizens changing national interests, ingrained belief systems, identity, involuntary reactions to “the other,” negative stereotypes and many other small but significant social and cultural cues.
This can be explained by a theory in sociology called socialization — when a major force causes an external and internal crisis in a country or region, people shift their behavior because they must in order to survive. In other words, zombies.
Does this mean that unless a zombie virus breaks out and Israel becomes a safe haven, we won’t have peace between Israelis and Arabs? I’m not such a skeptic. This is where public diplomacy remains a key factor in shifting behavior over time — laying the foundation for a slow and steady migration toward a true peace instead of needing an external crisis to force the behavior shift overnight. Peace activists, public diplomats, and ordinary citizens of both Israel and the future Palestinian state must continue to listen and learn from each other, find the commonalities and overcome fears ... or pray for Ebola, the bubonic plague, flesh-eating bacteria or, clearly, a zombie apocalypse.
An extended version of this piece was originally posted on the CPD Blog of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School.
Naomi Leight is a partner in Rimona Consulting, assistant director for research and publications at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School and co-founder of Jewcer.com.