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Jewish World Review May 13, 1999 /27 Iyar 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The search for Jews in outer space continues

(JWR) ---- (
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 century.

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 complacent.

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.

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 Native Americans.

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).

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 concern.

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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3/22/98: Anti-Semitism then and now
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1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

©1999, Jonathan Tobin