Jewish World Review May 13, 1999 /27 Iyar 5759
The search for Jews in outer space continues
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AS AN ANXIOUS WORLD awaits the big day next week, the suspense heightens.
How will it turn out? What will the outcome mean to us as individuals and
as a people?
Are we discussing next week's Israeli election? No.
Unless you have been hanging out on Mars lately, you know the answer has
nothing to do with characters named Bibi or Barak. News junkies may be
obsessed about the chances that there will be a new prime minister of
Israel elected next week, but it is hard to escape the impression that
everybody else on the planet is thinking about the opening of "Star Wars:
The Phantom Menace" film on May 19.
As a literary and dramatic genre science fiction has been with us for a
long time. Yet with each year, the popularity of films, television shows
and books devoted to fantasy about the future grows.
To say that the contents of popular science fiction say a lot more about
ourselves and contemporary society than they do about the possibilities of
the future is to do no more than state the obvious. Which makes the
question of the state of Jewish sci-fi - or the lack thereof - an
intriguing topic for observers of the Jewish world at the end of the 20th
LOOKING FOR TROUBLE
On the face of it, there is no Jewish content in "Star Wars." The events
depicted in the series exist in a fantasy universe ("A long time ago in a
galaxy far, far away..."). But that hasn't stopped some people from looking
for connections and parallels. The search for Jews in outer space tends to
bring out the paranoid in many of us.
My favorite example of this obsessive need to find anti-Semitism where it
does not exist dates back to the opening of the first "Star Wars" movie in
1977. Within months, "Jewish Currents," a lively leftist monthly published
an article claiming that the mega-hit contained dangerous anti-Jewish
stereotypes. The article said that one of the fictional races depicted in
the movie - the Jawas - were an obvious reprise of traditional anti-Semitic
caricatures of European Jews. The Jawas were dwarf-like creatures who
bought and sold used and stolen goods. They reminded the author of a
combination of Richard Wagner's Nibelungen dwarfs and Charles Dicken's
Fagin. It was enough to make an ADL survey of anti-Semitic vandalism look
The problem with this kind of thinking is that mythic archetypes of this
sort permeate all of literature and needn't have anything to do with Jews.
Unless, of course, we are determined to find them. The notion of "Star
Wars" as anti-Semism is patently ridiculous.
Silly speculations have also enlivened many a Jewish discussion of "Star
Trek," the perennial sci-fi television and movie favorite.
NO JEWS IN THE FUTURE?
For me, the interesting thing about "Star Trek" is that after hundreds of
episodes of the original "Trek," its successor shows, Star Fleet has yet to
trip over a single Jew in the 24th century. There have been many alien
cultures encountered as well as a host of humans spotted running around
loose in the stars - including French, Irish, Africans, Japanese and even
But no Jews.
Does this mean that all of worries about assimilation, intermarriage and
Jewish continuity are more justified than we thought?
That "Trek" was conceived, directed and acted by many real life Jews may
provide an explanation. Perhaps only totally assimilated Hollywood Jews
like the late Gene Roddenberry (who brought "Trek" to life) could have
imagined a universe without Jews (Any resemblance between "Trek's"
government of the future known as "Federation" and Jewish philanthropy
begins and ends with the name).
THE CHANGING ROLE OF RELIGION
Interestingly, one can see how much America has changed in the past thirty
years by tracking the role of religion on "Trek." In the original series,
religious belief was relegated to the shamanistic practices of primitive
alien cultures. But that patronizing attitude has been dropped in recent
seasons. In "Deep Space Nine," the Federation's Captain Sisco is depicted
sympathetically as the "emmisary" of one planet's religion. And on
"Voyager," one of the heroes is an active practitioner of the animistic
religion of the Lakota Sioux.
Those devoted to the uncovering of non-existent sci-fi anti-Semitism have
not ignored "Trek." There is a school of thought among some Jewish fans of
the show that believes the Ferengi - a fictional race of short stature,
huge ears and a fanatic devotion to free enterprise --- are Jewish
stereotypes. They see the Ferengi's sacred text which are rules of commerce
as a sendup of the Talmud.
As far-fetched as that might seem, there are more positive analogies which
can be drawn out of "Star Trek." The logical and highly ethical Vulcans can
be seen as having strong Jewish influences (not to mention the fact that
their spread-fingered greeting conceived by the original Mr. Spock, Jewish
actor Leonard Nimoy, was lifted from the blessing of the Cohanim). Another
fictional race called the Bajorans - a spiritual people who suffered under
the occupation of less attractive aliens - can also be seen as the Jews of
the 24th century.
However, a recent sci-fi competitor to "Trek" has managed to come up with
some Jewish characters. "Babylon Five," a darker vision of the future than
the optimistic "Trek," featured a regular character who was Jewish.
"Babylon Five's" second-in-command was a female Russian Jewish pilot. In
one episode she sat shiva for her father with her rabbi uncle (played by
the ubiquitous Theodore Bikel). Another featured an Israeli militarist who
tried to take over the station. Unfortunately, some anti-Zionist
stereotypes do persist in the future.
Those paranoids who want to find anti-Semitism or positive Jewish
influences in the "Phantom Menace" will probably be able to find something
if they look hard enough. Does the role of Jews in fictional outer space
matter? Jews and Judaism have persisted when most intellectuals from the
age of the Greeks and Romans to 20th century socialists - not to mention
various sci-fi writers - who believed our survival was impossible.
So I will continue to hope that one of these stardates, the "Enterprise"
will have have to cope with a shomer Shabbat science officer or a group of
interstellar Jewish colonists who insist on keeping kosher (Question: Is
the synthetic food manufactured on the ship's "replicators" kosher?).
Affirming the Jewish future, even on "Star Trek" is not a trivial
JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
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©1999, Jonathan Tobin