This weekend, I’m looking forward to seeing G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. For most, it may be just a silly action flick. But for me, it’s a strange bit of nostalgia, a memento from my childhood days, when cartoons helped make sense of the world around me.
I grew up in Israel, which meant that, as a kid, I idolized soldiers. How could I not? My homeland, after all, gained its independence thanks to the sheer bravery of a few armed men, an army, we were told repeatedly, dedicated to self-defense and deeply beholden to ethical standards.
But I grew up in the 1980s, which meant that the objects of my infatuation shifted, along with popular culture, from the Israel Defense Forces to the crafty commandoes of that most awesome military outfit, G.I. Joe. How could they not? The action figures were the ultimate status symbols for every self-aware 10-year-old out to make a good impression at recess, and the cartoons they inspired were followed and analyzed more closely than most reality-based events.
And although we didn’t know it at the time, there might have been one more element drawing me and my friends to the world of Joe: known stateside as real American heroes, the cartoon characters, dubbed into Hebrew, sounded suspiciously like native sons of the IDF.
Consider this: in 1987, at the peak of the G.I. Joe craze, Hasbro produced a feature-length animated film to promote its miniscule plastic warriors. Far from a towering cinematic achievement, the film relied heavily on a musical credit sequence, which showed Cobra, the evil organization bent on world domination, trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty.
Some changes are immediately evident. As the notion of G.I.’s made little sense outside the United States, some international editions of the popular cartoon went by the more universal title Action Force. Similarly, the Israeli theme song presents Joe not as America’s saviors but rather as the world’s top-secret, top-notch counter-terrorism team.
But Joe’s conversion into the particular world of Israeli military lore didn’t end there. Here’s how the theme song, in its Hebrew version, begins:
Action Force fights a just war for mankind
There are no equivalent lines in the English version. In America, G.I. Joe is
Fighting for freedom
Wherever there’s trouble
Over land and sea and air
The Hebrew version includes a direct translation of these lines, but they appear much later in the sequence. For us Israelis, the important concepts were always these: a just war, a fight for peace.
It’s hard to overstate the centrality of these ideas, at least in theory, to the IDF’s understanding of itself. Even as children, we could all effortlessly parrot our parents, teachers, and older relatives in reciting what many Israelis still take to be the army’s mantra: we never fight if there’s another way. We adhere to the just war theory, picking our battles carefully. The ultimate goal of conflict is to bring about peace. Israeli Joe expressed these values elegantly and succinctly. The animated soldiers might’ve been named Gung Ho, Hardball, and Backblust, but we saw in them every Ariel, Ehud, and Yitzhak we ever revered. In the American-exported action figures, we saw the best of ourselves.
This verse, however, wasn’t Israeli Joe’s sole departure from the American original. An even more daring feat of cultural conversion occurred regarding that dastardly nemesis, Cobra. Both the American and the Israeli versions present Cobra as an evil terrorist organization trying to take over the world. But whereas the American version begins with a menacing montage of Cobra’s faceless soldiers parachuting over New York (“Armies of the night / Evil taking flight / Cobra! Cobra!”), the Israeli version eliminates nearly every mention of the enemy.
This, again, was art imitating life: in the 1980s, mere mention of the PLO, Israel’s most bitter foe at the time, was considered taboo. Israel’s soldiers, therefore, were brave men who fought against a shadowy rival best left unmentioned, and Israeli children watching G.I. Joe were immersed in a similar reality, a world of concrete heroes and amorphous villains with unclear goals and aspirations.
When Cobra was mentioned, however, the Israeli translators chose a telling adjective to describe the organization. It wasn’t simply an evil terrorist organization: it was nifsha, a Hebrew word connoting criminality that is still reserved, in the national vocabulary, for describing terrorists and other villains posing an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Unsurprisingly, the word has biblical origins. It is first mentioned in the book of Proverbs, chapter 18, verse 19, translated into English as rebellious. “A nifsha [rebellious] brother,” the book tells us, “is deprived of a strong city.”
By describing Cobra not only as evil but as rebellious, the theme song’s translators assigned Destro, the Baroness and their cabal of no-goodniks not only worldly malice but celestial blame. Because they rebelled against justice, and waged war on God’s chosen people, they’re forever doomed. It’s a potent theology for a cartoon, and even more so in real life.