Star Wars Unites the Middle East
Despite political differences, Israel’s 501st Legion outpost is welcomed
As Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker premiered last week, perhaps the Force is stronger than geopolitics.
In a world with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and anti-Israel sentiment, the Jewish state’s branch of the 501st Legion has been welcomed with open arms by the international community, including those in nearby Arab countries.
The 501st Legion is a global volunteer organization whose members don film-accurate costumes of the dark side, with approximately 400 get-ups to choose from. There are about 14,000 active members in 68 countries, all with unique operating numbers. About 21% are women. The US has the most members – more than half of all members in the world – followed by Germany.
Adam Nahoum (operating number TK-51948), the commanding officer (CO) of Israel’s outpost (a group of up to 24 members; larger groups are called “garrisons”) of the 501st Legion established the cluster of two (almost three) members (one soon-to-be member needs accurate boots to be an official representative of the legion) in early September.
Nahoum, whose official costume is that of a stormtrooper, had done previous Star Wars charitable events in costume before founding Israel’s 501st Legion branch but wanted to be part of something more official.
“It’s a bit like not having a kosher certification,” he told The Media Line.
Nahoum hopes the group will continue to grow as Israel reaches the end of its test period around February. All new groups in the legion are in a probation phase for the first half-year of their existence.
“We’ve got a few people on the way. I’m hoping in the next six months there will be quite a bit more,” he said. “If you have one stormtrooper [it is OK], but when you have 20 storm troopers with an emperor and imperial officers walking together … it’s a different ballgame.”
The 501st Legion goes to great lengths to ensure that it is as inclusive as possible.
“It’s an organization where there is no religion, there’s no politics, there’s no sexual discrimination; it’s all about spreading the love of Star Wars,” Nahoum said. “Many of our members join for charity reasons. There’s a hashtag, #BadGuysDoingGood; in our case, we go to children’s hospitals.
The openness of the 501st Legion is evidenced by the warm reception Israel has received, even by members in nations that are not explicitly friendly to the Jewish state.
“People from around the world contact us,” Nahoum said. “They were very happy that there was another place where the empire established a foothold.”
While Nahoum says that there have been a few untoward comments about Israel, by and large, the reception the group has received from the international 501st Legion community has been overwhelmingly supportive. The love of the series seems to be the common denominator that unites people.
“We’re just the same as anyone else who likes Star Wars around the world,” he said. “We’re in touch with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey … countries that don’t all have diplomatic relations with Israel.”
David Calvao Chebach, a member of Israel’s 501st Legion, agrees.
“Star Wars connects people because it’s neutral. I read and write Arabic and I got contacted by someone in Saudi Arabia,” he told The Media Line. “[Star Wars] is like sports: It’s a unifying activity.”
Omar Al-Bahiti of the 501st Legion in Saudi Arabia is one such member who has embraced Israel’s outpost. He originally was in the UAE’s branch before moving to Saudi Arabia several years ago.
“Reaching out to fans, fellow 501st members, is at the heart of what we all do and it does not know politics or boundaries. We now have four groups in the Middle East (including Turkey) and we couldn’t be happier and congratulate new friends who join in,” he told The Media Line.
“Other than galactic politics, Star Wars overrides local politics!” Al-Bahiti continued.
Ates Cetin (operating number SL-3983), the CO of Turkey’s outpost, believes that in an easily divided world, Star Wars provides an escape from life’s hardships that should be celebrated.
“In the world of Star Wars fandom, we are all ‘brothers and sisters’ to each other and we support each other in any way we can,” he told The Media Line. “There may be real-world conflicts between Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Israel but in our world, there is neither the space nor the necessity for discussing such tensions.”
“We want to get away from that reality by sharing a common bond, which is Star Wars,” he continued. “Only a very few things can bring people together from all around the world, so we should all appreciate it.”
Neta Shermister, who is almost a full-fledged member of Israel’s 501st Legion outpost, wants the opportunity one day to convene with members from other branches in the Middle East, which is something the average Israeli cannot do.
“I’d like to meet them one day, in an event somewhere, because I can’t meet people from Saudi Arabia in my everyday life,” she told The Media Line.
Israel’s 501st Legion CO Nahoum says the organizations in the region are trying to make this happen at what will most likely be a neutral location overseas, for it would be politically challenging for some members to go to Israel or for Israelis to go to other Mideast outposts.
In the meantime, one can only dream of a world in which conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere are solved by the Force.