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The Judgment Of Magneto

An illustration of Magneto placing a yarmulke atop his head.
Illustration by Mattie Lubchansky

Somewhere beyond death, in a realm of judgment and pain, a concrete labyrinth filled by countless names, a man walks. He is Jewish, and has been made hard and cruel by his experiences in the Nazi death camps. He's also a mutant, gifted with the power to manipulate metal and the electromagnetic spectrum. Since his first appearance in the inaugural X-Men comic, he spent six decades of Marvel publication history oscillating between supervillainous heel, messianic terrorist, swaggering nationalist, and increasingly heroic anti-fascist. He stood trial for crimes against humanity and tried his hand at state building; he’s variously fought against, allied with, and led the X-Men. He’s taken and abandoned many names: Max, Erik, Magnus. Only one ever stuck: Magneto. 

This is the setup for Resurrection of Magneto, an ongoing miniseries by Al Ewing and Luciano Vecchio. In it, Marvel’s master of magnetism, who is also the company’s most famous Jewish character, counts his many sins, tortured by the fear that he’s wasted his life on a poisoned dream. The comic arrives at a fraught time. When it debuted earlier this year, Israeli bombs had been falling on Gaza for three months; 25,000 people were dead. That number has now topped 34,000, and the bombs are still falling. 

It is a low and shameful moment. It is also one that suits Magneto entirely too well—a distillation of all the ambiguities and anxieties of American Judaism as it reckons with the sacrifices made to the promise of “never again,” and the increasingly fraught question of what that actually means. 

Magneto debuted in 1963, as the lead villain of the first issue of Uncanny X-Men #1. The comic was a late, weak product of the long-running partnership between artist Jack Kirby (who did most of the work) and Stan Lee (who claimed most of the credit). The narrative engine was simple: A team of teenage mutant superheroes, led by kindly mentor Charles Xavier, seek to protect a suspicious populace from the depredations of evil mutants. “The human race no longer deserves dominion over planet Earth!” Magneto snarls as he slinks through Kirby’s rushed layouts, swearing to “make homo sapiens bow to homo superior!” 

Kirby (née Kurtzberg) and Lee (née Lieber) were both American Jews, and the product of one of the great Jewish cities: New York. Their relationships with that community varied; Kirby maintained a muscular ethnic and cultural pride in his Judaism, while Lee tended to avoid associating with it. The X-Men’s original creators wrote about people who, though sometimes able to pass as WASPs, were inescapably and essentially different, and the subject of both elaborate conspiracy and unthinking prejudice. They were human and not; eternal Others hiding in the upstate suburbs, longing for acceptance from a world that hated and feared them. That otherness would be interpreted in many ways over the coming decades, as imperfect stand-ins for various identities and populations. But the American Jewish anxieties of the midcentury were there first, and undergirded much of what came after. 

If the X-Men can be read as crypto-Jews, what was Magneto? Kirby had fought in World War II, and Magneto fit alongside his other supervillains—if not explicit Nazis, then fascists and bullyboys and tinpot dictators. Magneto himself is a supremacist lunatic, barely cloaking his conquering urges in self-justification. “They would kill us all if they could!” he says in an early issue, fleeing a nuke that he’s primed to destroy a small country he’s just tried to conquer. “We fight only in self defense!”

It’s a revealing line, but only in retrospect. The original incarnation of X-Men, canceled due to low sales in 1970, was essentially a rough draft; so was its lead villain. In 1975, Chris Claremont, a young Anglo-American Jewish writer, inherited a freshly reinvented X-Men comic and set about turning the book into a much more explicit metaphor about persecution. 

Magneto, he realized, needed an overhaul. Trying to work out where the character’s ranting antipathy toward humanity might have come from, Claremont—who’d kicked around on a socialist kibbutz in Israel among Holocaust survivors four years before he got the job—made a change that utterly redefined the character: He tied Magneto’s origins and explosive rage to the German death camps. “I remember my own childhood—the gas chambers at Auschwitz, the guards joking as they herded my family to their death,” the villain recalls during his big return in 1981’s X-Men #150. “As our lives were nothing to them, so human lives became nothing to me.” 

While initially playing coy about whether Magneto was explicitly Jewish, Claremont wasn’t quite able to stop himself from implying it, either. From the beginning, Israel and Israeli politics are woven through Claremont’s conception of the character. Menachem Begin, founder of Israel’s right-wing Likud party and a former terrorist who masterminded the lethal 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, was an explicit inspiration. In a later issue, Claremont establishes that Magneto and Professor X are old friends who had first met in Haifa after World War II. There, as Jewish militants were waging open war against both the British Mandate and their Palestinian neighbors, the two sparred genially over whether oppressed mutants should pursue Xavier’s liberal integrationism or something more violent. “Mutants will not go meekly into the gas chambers,” Magneto tells Xavier. “We will fight, and we will win.”

The narrative substitution here is deft but familiar—tie the cartoonish supremacist to monumental tragedy, and render him more human. But there were other undercurrents here. Throughout the midcentury, the Holocaust went largely unspoken of in America and Europe, and was a source of pity and embarrassment in Israel. Even as Claremont took over X-Men, however, a new Holocaust memory culture took shape at home and abroad, fueled by a powerful surge of expansionist Israeli nationalism. The spectacle of Israel’s rendition and trial of (arguable) Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann in 1961 resurfaced the issue. Wars in 1967 and 1973 against coalitions of Arab nations led by Egypt, which effectively destroyed the Labor party’s long dominance in Israeli politics, left the state awash both in the heady rush of military conquest and a siege mentality. In America, Jewish organizations—rattled by the Arab wars and perhaps not immune to the “white ethnic revival” that emerged in reaction to the civil rights movement—began tying themselves ever more closely to political Zionism. 

In this context, the slogan “Never Again,” popularized in English by the American-born Jewish supremacist and terrorist Meir Kahane in 1971, became a common rallying cry among American Jews and Israelis alike. Many understood it to have a specific meaning: Never again for Jews. Such circumstances favored the rise of men like Begin, who took over as Israeli Prime Minister in 1977 and invaded Lebanon to attack the PLO in 1982; the war left Beirut a smoking ruin and tens of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese dead. Begin was among the first Israeli leaders to seek justification in the Holocaust, both for the invasion of Lebanon—“Believe me, the alternative to this is Treblinka, and we have decided that there will not be another Treblinka,” he said before the war—and his vision of Israel’s identity. To him, Palestinians and other Arabs were the new Nazis, Palestinian political leader Yasser Arafat the new Hitler, and the next genocide forestalled only by Israeli walls and guns. 

Yet Begin appealed to Claremont as a model not simply for his terrorist past, but also for his participation in the 1978 Camp David Accords that brought peace with Egypt, which won him a statesman’s reputation. Over the course of the writer’s run, the regretful Magneto increasingly sought to distance himself from his 1960s behavior, first—in Uncanny X-Men #200—by agreeing to stand trial for his crimes, and then by taking over Xavier’s school in the professor's absence, teaching his students, and furthering his integrationist goals. Whatever his reservations, the old supremacist terrorist would try to pursue liberalism and coexistence.

Unfortunately, Begin proved a more apt model than Claremont had intended. By the end of the 1980s, Marvel editorial mandated that Magneto turn heel again, a decision that played a large part in driving Claremont off the book. In the absence of the writer that redefined him, Magneto became an increasingly unstable antagonist, spending a good chunk of ‘90s X-Men comics manipulated, insane, or in a coma—but always at war against the non-mutant world. In one 1999-2000 arc, the supervillain bullied the UN into granting him a mutant nation on the fictional island of Genosha, the refugee population of which he soon sought to turn into a conquering army. If the root of Claremont’s reinvention could not be wholly ignored, it bubbled out in Magneto’s bristling paranoia and monomaniacal focus on mutant power and safety, with ugly hints of eliminationism underneath. Here was “Never Again” framed as the blind pursuit of power and the false safety of the preemptive strike. 

In 2001’s New X-Men, Scottish writer Grant Morrison mined that queasy space for maximum discomfort. That run, a barn-burning 2001 attempt to reinvigorate the series in the wake of the blockbuster 2000 X-Men film, begins by re-staging the Holocaust in grand sci-fi scale, with mutant-killing robots wiping out the 16 million mutants of the mutant nation of Genosha, Magneto seemingly among them. The terrorist became a martyr, and the island’s ruins a monument to his memory. Disaffected students at Xavier’s school don Che-like T-shirts emblazoned with his face and the slogan “Magneto Was Right.” 

And then, in “Planet X,” the penultimate arc of the comic, Magneto returns and wrecks it all. Having infiltrated the Xavier school under a false identity, he subverts students into terrorists, badly thrashes many of the X-Men, and turns Manhattan into a death camp for humans before the team finally kills him.

“What people often forget, of course, is that Magneto, unlike the lovely Sir Ian McKellen [who played him in the blockbuster], is a mad old terrorist twat,” Morrison once said. “No matter how he justifies his stupid, brutal behavior, or how anyone else tries to justify it, in the end he's just an old bastard.” It’s as thorough a rejection of the Claremont model as could be imagined. Morrison’s Magneto is a frightening but strangely feeble presence. His own propaganda of power and grievance—it’s literalized as a sentient power-boosting drug because, hey, it’s comics—leaves him utterly unconnected from reality. He’s reduced to ranting on a rooftop to a crowd that can’t hear him, while marching the humans of New York into abattoirs. “This all started as politics and freedom,” one of his students says in dawning horror. “When did we all turn into such total Nazis?”

When indeed? Magneto’s broader heel turn coincided with a shift among some Jews, who began to regard the trajectory of the Jewish state—by then expansionist, swaggering, increasingly adept at leveraging the sympathies and shames of Europe and America—with a troubled eye. Survivors of Auschwitz with deep emotional ties to Israel, like Jean Améry and Primo Levi, nonetheless condemned the torture of Arabs in Israeli prisons and the Jewish supremacism behind Begin’s rise. In a clear-eyed 1980 column, the Israeli writer Boaz Evron dissected the ways that Israeli politicians increasingly bent the Holocaust to their own purposes, as a means of policing diaspora politics and excusing their own nationalist policies. That management created in the Israeli consciousness “a peculiar moral blindness,” Evron observed: an ideological framework that set Jews as a whole (embodied, in their view, by Israel) outside of humanity—eternally hated, eternally feared, permitted everything and forbidden nothing. Orthodox polymath and theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz was more strident still, warning throughout the 1990s that adherence to Israeli nationalism was corrupting global Judaism as a whole, a position that led him to eventually decry the “Nazification of Israeli society.”

Claremont had drawn a similar connection back in 1981, in his big reinvention of Magneto in Uncanny X-Men #150. After almost killing X-Men team member Kitty Pryde, a 13-year-old Jewish girl, the shocked supervillain collapses to his knees. “I believed so much in my destiny, in my personal vision, that I was prepared to pay any price, make any sacrifice to achieve it,” he wails in a moment of operatic clarity. “Can you not appreciate the irony? In my zeal to remake the world, I have become much like those I have always hated and despised.” Claremont, reflecting on the issue years later, went right at it: “His shattering realization is: 'What kind of monster have I become? Has what the Nazis did to me in the Shoah made me a Nazi?'”

This kind of comparison quite understandably tends to get people screamed at. Equating a Jewish government to the Nazi regime has long been a red line in the discourse, cast as an inherent and particularly vicious antisemitism. Yet the unspeakability of the comparison marks a vulnerable spot. Under Morrison, Magneto’s ugliness feels deliberate and pointed, a finger pressing against a bruise. Too hard for Marvel, as it turned out: In an impressive feat of backpedaling, the company hastily overturned the entire storyline after Morrison left, revealing that the maddened genocidaire had actually been an imposter. The real Magneto, revealed by a returning Claremont to be secretly alive on Genosha, would never do such a thing. The villainous path was closed; he could get his face-turn after all. 

It’s ironic, considering Morrison’s critique of Magneto, that the lasting influence of their time writing the character was something they’d intended as satire—the slogan “Magneto Was Right.” It was a fair conclusion for characters and fans alike to draw. After a 2005 editorial edict depowered the vast majority of characters in the X-line (though, notably, not the marketable ones) a succession of writers spent 15 years piling on stories of hate crimes. The battered X-Men and redeemed Magneto thus drifted increasingly into each other’s ideological orbits.

And why not? Read enough X-Men comics, and you’ll notice that the fundamental feature of the franchise—the idea of mutants as eternal stand-ins for Jews, or black people, or queer people—is its essential pessimism. In X-Men, minority life is wholly defined by oppression. No improvement can last; progress is always an illusion; as figures in an ongoing, eternal piece of intellectual property, mutants must always be hated and feared. This enforced, recursive Marvel-Time unwittingly echoes what we might call Jewish-Time: the idea that Jewish people were, are, and always will be oppressed by antisemitism, cast as the same villain in different costumes. Persia is Rome, Russia is Germany. Rather than discrete historical occurrences—contingent, contested, complex—they are foreordained, essential, and inescapable. There is only the pogrom, forever. 

Actual Jewish history isn’t so clear-cut. Most of our communities have lived—indeed, still live—under the rule of multiethnic nations, and those experiences have profoundly shaped our culture and religion. In Babylon and Persia, Imperial Rome and Charlemagne’s France, in Al Andalus and the vast lands of the Ottomans and as far as western China, Jewish communities spread and prospered under the disinterested gaze of non-Jewish governments. Such minority communities—and in this, Jews are in no way unique—sometimes endured spasms of brutal violence. We remember the victims of those horrors, and are right to do so. But that is not the only story of Jewish life; it seems profoundly disrespectful to our history to forget the rest, or to subordinate it so profoundly to Jewish suffering. 

This Judeopessimism, which centers Jewish identity around past and potential future trauma, grants a strange kind of privilege even as it elevates danger into the ubiquitous and decisive aspect of Jewish life. That danger can be real—antisemitism is real—but centering it like this also extends the entitlement of myth, of living in the four-color world of propaganda, of being at once eternally strong and desperately weak. Conceptualize history in this atavistic way, as many diaspora and Israeli Jews do, and you might see nationalistic power as a necessity. If Professor Xavier’s integration can never come, then the hour of Magneto must always be around the corner. 

It’s notable that in 2008, amidst this slow transition, Magneto finally became canonically Jewish, officially and incontestably, in the pages of Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico’s Magneto: Testament. The book, an extensively researched and often brutal retelling of his origin amid the Holocaust death camps, reveals his original name of Max Eisenhardt and follows him from the passage of anti-Jewish laws to his time as an Auschwitz Sonderkommando, disposing of the camp dead. By stripping away the heightened sci-fi logic of other X-Men comics, Testament forces readers to consider Max not as a metaphorical mutant minority, but a recognizably human one. 

Mostly, though, this dark past serves as textual justification for an era in which Magneto is rendered, in effect, as power fantasy. In his 1980 essay, Evron dryly observed that American and Israeli Jews both clung tightly to “a double, contradictory image—the virile [Israeli] superman, and the potential Holocaust victim.” The former construction, he argued, offered American Jews a chance to indulge their fantasies of toughness and manliness. By 2014, for example, a 21-issue series written by Cullen Bunn had positioned Magneto as a modern Nazi-hunting vigilante, operating out of hotel rooms and killing anti-mutant bigots. The series mined a pulp thrill from Magneto’s moral ambiguities, but ultimately justified them. “People say he’s some sort of monster,” a young mutant says. “But I’m just glad that mutants have someone like him. Someone who can be angry, who can do the bad things, so that we might survive.”

That’s the fantasy. Here is a man against whom every bigot, every neo-Nazi, every gay-basher will find that they have bitten off far more than they can chew. Isn’t this the way it should have happened? No weapon formed against him can prosper: The mechanical, mechanized means of death that killed so many of our ancestors can be set back on their perpetrators with a contemptuous flick of the hand. And despite his demonstrated ability to level a city, Magneto will always hit the correct targets, the ones that have it coming. He will be a superhero, and always Right. He will not have to reckon with himself. He will not have to change. 

And yet, miraculously, Magneto has. In 2019, after years of languishing in a narrative holding pattern, the X-Men franchise relaunched with a wildly ambitious five-year story, spearheaded by a group of writers initially led by Jonathan Hickman. Formed from multiple interweaving series, it is rooted in a simple premise: Mutants have again established their own sovereign nation on the living island of Krakoa. This time, however, Xavier and Magneto are working together as leading partners, and mutants have worked out how to use their powers to resurrect the dead. The world may hate and fear them, but it can no longer kill them. 

For most of its existence, the Krakoa era has been an impressively precision-engineered setup, something that can be plausibly read in multiple ways. You can, if you like, interpret it as a metaphor for the promises and failures of Zionism, or ethnonationalism more generally. Here is a state formed out of, and justified by, the memory of atrocity. It is built on a dream of establishing a new cultural identity (complete with a new language) and a quasi-socialist yet techno-capitalist setup

And yet its government never quite gets around to creating a real constitution; its spy agency is too busy pursuing foreign policy debacles and internal power politics to catch the threats rising around them. As time goes on, the beautiful Krakoan dream is brutally undercut by the agendas of the monsters they allow in—people who see the nation as an avenue to their own power and want to twist it into something horrific, and who nearly get their wish. You can also read Krakoa just as easily as an invocation of the original Zionist nightmare: a small nation surrounded on all sides by enemies bent on its elimination, who poison its reputation and are ultimately successful in destroying it via brutal sneak attack. (The status quo, recall, can never be transcended for long; Marvel-time is mythic Jewish-time; the next pogrom for the X-Men is always coming.)  

Over the course of the narrative, Magneto—subjected to a remarkably sustained bit of authorial examination—finally begins to evolve. Under Hickman’s pen, he opens the series in fine old form, as a swaggering nationalist atop the Krakoan embassy in Jerusalem, browbeating deceitful ambassadors, playing power politics at Davos, indulging in feats of incredible strength. Yet as the story winds on, Magneto finds that mutant nationalism, with all its attendant compromises and failures, is not actually the balm he sought. In his growing disillusionment, he abandons the project. “I tried to build something,” he muses in the pages of 2022’s X-Men: Red #1, written by British writer Al Ewing. “But when I tried to wrestle my dream into the world—to make it real—it broke apart. Shattered to pieces. And they cut me to the heart.” 

That disillusionment, too, might sound familiar. By the 2000s, an increasingly right-wing Jewish nationalism had both the American and Israeli mainstream in a chokehold. The dream of peace had been replaced by a fantasy of a perpetual managed apartheid. Powerful and increasingly reactionary lobbies like AIPAC came down harshly on insufficiently deferential politicians; institutional programs like Birthright worked to funnel diaspora Jews through hasbarist fantasies. Over time, as previous Holocaust survivors and Israeli writers had predicted, the gravitational pull of the state increasingly twisted the more liberal elements of diaspora Judaism out of true. Transferred nationalism, as George Orwell caustically observed in 1945, proved “a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct.” Move over, Hashem; we have new gods now. 

Amidst a perpetual occupation whose brutality was, in all senses, unspeakable, the Holocaust memory culture that sustained the state took on an increasingly acid and farcical edge. Germans scolded refugees for daring to identify with persecuted Jews; the increasingly white-nationalist Elon Musk performed the stations of the cross at Auschwitz alongside Ben Shapiro, to show how much of an antisemite he wasn’t. Even before the October 7 massacre, the Likud and its partners even further to the right in Israeli politics had grown fat on entitlement, unaware or disdainful of the fact that they were badly overspending their credit. A fault-line yawned open within the global Jewish community, exposing the divide between those who had understood “Never Again” to be a humanistic warning, and those who saw it as permission in advance for whatever they deemed necessary to ensure it. As a villain and antihero, Magneto easily stood in for the latter camp; those decades of endless, intermittently coherent historical rage, and the way in which it made every response allowable and indulged. 

And yet if superhero comics can be a site of bubbling anxiety and creaky metaphor, they can also offer flashes of genuine grace. Let us return, then, to where we began: the realm of judgment. In 2022, amid the excellent “Judgement Day” crossover, Magneto died, falling in combat against a physical embodiment of genocide, in order to save the world. Ewing writes him a deathbed epiphany: “We must fight together—all of society's so-called undesirables,” he whispers. “Or our enemies will destroy us simply for daring to exist.”

It wasn’t going to last. Death in superhero comics is an illusion; the only question was what shape that return might take. In Ewing’s Resurrection Of Magneto, it’s a tour-de-force examination of the character, one that sifts and dissects and synthesizes his entire creative history, from Kirby/Lee to Claremont and Morrison, as the man himself wanders past walls of monumental concrete and fire. There are names, too: the names of all who died by his hand or through his inaction, for the sake of his dream, and the too few that he has saved. 

In death, of course, he’s still Magneto. He’s still swift to anger and quick to lash out and prone to expediency; his suffering has not necessarily ennobled him. He is as he’s been written. But, Ewing gently suggests, he might also be something else as well. Magneto can not just evolve, but repent. In the Jewish tradition, repentance is a long and difficult road, and one that offers no guarantees—not of comfort, and not of a return to a pleasant status quo with one’s sins absolved. It asks us instead to give up our illusions, our resentments, our stiff-necked devotion to our own self-determination. It asks us to accept both the reality of our sins and our capacity for good. It demands that we abandon our belief in easy miracles. There is only the walk; there is only the work. 

“Throughout my life, I have repressed the rage in me until it exploded, or I have given it free reign over all decision,” Magneto says, confronting his old Kirby/Lee self on the road back to life. “But I cannot return to the world and return to the same path. I must change... So I acknowledge all that I have done. I admit all that I am. I own the shadow that is in me. And if this is the engine that drives me—let it drive me to a better world. A world for all who are hated and feared.” 

For all who are hated and feared. “The true guarantee against ideologically-based extermination is not military power and sovereignty,” Evron wrote in 1980. That is, not in the building of more and higher walls, but in the “eradication of ideologies which remove any human group from the family of humanity.” Such a pursuit offers fewer opportunities to swagger and punish, and tickles no atavistic fancies. Yet it is, in its way, a far more grand and radical desire. 

Change in corporate superhero comics is as much of an illusion as death, of course, and about as permanent. Any character development is subject to reversion, and rare indeed is the development that doesn’t get walked back somewhere down the line. But at this moment, this is what a reborn Magneto has come to stand for—not the wary and vengeful paranoia of “Never Again,” but the greater aspiration of “Never Again” for anyone

If to be a Jew of the diaspora is to be, in the Kirby/Lee/Claremont formulation, a mutant, then this is what we must remember. We are not immune to hatred and fear, and we are not the only ones subject to it. And we cannot be safe until we create that better world for everyone, together. It’s a hard road to such a world, and haunted. It might, perhaps, be an impossible one. The judgment of Magneto is that all of us have to walk it anyway.

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