The 5 Types of Jewish Characters in Sci-Fi Movies
The other day, I finally gave in to the Internet's demands and watched Joss Whedon's Firefly series. Good call, Internet. I enjoyed it, but that has nothing to do with this article. Y'see, although the show takes place in a different galaxy 500 years in the future, one episode still features a minor Jewish character.
It got me thinking about the limited times I'd seen Jews in sci-fi shows. Even though racists will tell you that Jews control each and every decision made in the entertainment industry, it occurred to me that you don't see a lot of Jews in sci-fi, and when you do, it's usually not Han Solo stuff. (Yes, I know Harrison Ford is 1/4 Jewish, but I'm talking about the actual characters.) I mean, if I had full creative control over a science fiction project, I'd probably make the protagonist Jewish, name him Gladstone and give him chances to have lots of hot sex with neo-punk 20-something Goth girls.
But clearly I'm not calling the shots, because Jews in science fiction usually come off pretty badly. So I decided to examine five science fiction universes inhabited by either actual Jews or characters meant to represent Jews, and rank them from least to most favorable.
One interesting addendum before we get started. Know who else is really into this topic? Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. My research kept bringing up hate group forums. In one, a certain member expressed deep concern to find out that there were Jews in the later books of Frank Herbert's Dune series and asked if that meant all the books were riddled with propaganda. If you're sympathetic to those views, I'd be happy to give you the link, but be sure to ask your dad if he's done raping you before you check it out.
Star Wars: Jawas and Watto
I'm not the first or 800th person to draw this conclusion. Not that grotesque racial stereotypes are limited to Jews in the Lucas universe, but we do seem to have a special place. Don't get me wrong. Like all non-insane people, I still love A New Hope and hate Phantom Menace, but let's just say there's something to the way Lucas presents his merchants.
It started with A New Hope. There were certain tiny, unreliable, shifty salespeople in the sand he called Jawas.
Hello, hello, hello!
Now, I know some of you are saying, "Wait a second. So what if the Jawas share some undesirable traits that are consistent with the negative stereotypes of Jews? Gladstone, aren't you being the racist here by seeing greedy little creatures and instantly thinking 'Jews'?" That is a very fine point! And yes, that's entirely possible. All I have to say in response to that is um, well, he does call them Jawas. Seems less than accidental that they have a "J," "W" and "S" in one word like that. I tried longer than I care to mention to see if there any other such words in the English language. Aside from the obvious "jaws," the closest I came was "JelloWombats."
But hey, it's not like I was ready to call the JDL and stage a protest. I love the original movie and still have my original-issue Jawa action figure. But then Phantom Menace came out and ... ouch.
Enter Watto, who has walked off the pages of WWII Nazi propaganda and into the Star Wars universe. Here's a quiz: Which picture below portrays an immoral, greedy, big-nosed monster with a funny hat? Oh wait, they both do, but one was commissioned by the Nazi party and the other by a man hellbent on setting your childhood memories on fire.
Star Trek: Ferengi
I don't want to spend too much time on this, because people have been calling Ferengi "Space Jews" since their first appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Also, once again, these are fictional characters, not necessarily intended to be Jews. Having said that, there's virtually no difference between the Ferengi and Watto above. All the same greed and capitalism stereotypes are there. Oh also, for some reason, the Ferengi religion forbids autopsies (just like Judaism), and four of the most famous Ferengis are portrayed by Jewish actors. Anyway, if they are meant to be Jews, I still rank them a sliver less reprehensible than Watto, and they come in at number 4.
The Ferengi are also racially insensitive toward flying baby elephants.
It should also be mentioned that some argue that another Star Trek race, the Bajorans, are meant to represent Israelis and are fairly positively portrayed.
Firefly: Amnon and Mr. Universe
OK, now back to the show that got me thinking about all of this. Firefly is Joss Whedon's short-lived series about humanity's colonization of a new universe 500 years in the future. In "The Message," I was pleased to learn that Jews still exist, and one of them apparently owns an intergalactic post office or something.
See, he's got a yarmulke and everything. His name's Amnon, which I believe is Hebrew for "really difficult to pronounce."
In the Firefly universe, Jewish characters aren't particularly conniving or bad; they just succumb to evil super quick. They're cowardly, if you will. For example, Amnon tries to keep quiet about Capt. Mal Reynolds' secret package for about 0.4 seconds before falling to the threats of a rogue Alliance officer.
No big deal. Most Jewish or gentile characters in this 'verse would do the same, but I wondered why it was so important to make this pushover Jewish in the first place. But on the other hand, who cares? I soon forgot about it, until I saw Serenity -- that's the movie Joss Whedon made a couple of years later to tie up the series' loose ends following Fox's uber-terrible cancellation.
Enter a new Jewish character, Mr. Universe. Mr. Universe is the ultimate tech geek, and he lives alone on a moon. Oh wait, not alone. He's married to a robot wife, because clearly he's less than a man. Oh, and how do we know he's Jewish? Well, for one, he's portrayed by David Krumholtz.
When Krumholtz has lunch with Larry David and Adrien Brody in LA, he's known as the "the Jewy one."
The second bit of evidence is that we're shown footage of Mr. Universe's wedding, where he wears a yarmulke and breaks a glass as per Jewish tradition. Oh, and he exhibits that classic Firefly Jewish trait -- he caves under pressure instantly. Yep, Mr. Universe bends over for "The Operative" faster than Whedon can remove his female protagonist's shoes. Is that racist? No. Is it awful? No. But it's just weird that two characters who cave under evil are revealed to be Jews, even though their religion is completely irrelevant to the plot.
It's even more weird because WWII imagery is already in Firefly on a symbolic level. The Alliance has clear Nazi overtones as a totalitarian regime bent on controlling more and more worlds, espousing only one correct way to live, experimenting with psychic warfare and, ultimately, committing genocide. Indeed, my favorite moment in the series is when Simon and his sister, River, hide on the outside of the ship, almost like Anne Frank in the attic, as the Alliance interrogates the Firefly crew. So when you already have symbolic Jews in your show, it's a little jarring to suddenly see real ones, especially when they only seem to show up to be lame.
Still, Firefly is less insulting than Star Wars and Star Trek for portraying two minor Jewish characters as just flawed, unheroic humans instead of subhuman villains. Now we're getting somewhere!
V: The Scientists (Figuratively) and Abraham Bernstein (Literally)
Hey, remember V? No? Congratulations, you're young! Even though it's left very little trace on the public's consciousness, V was one of the biggest miniseries of the '80s. It even spawned a TV show that crashed and burned instantly. V is about a bunch of lizard people who come to Earth to eat us. But because it's hard to do that undercover, and because lizard masks are expensive, they look just like us. They're really pretty folk who pretend to come in peace, infiltrate our society, show us a brighter tomorrow, get humans to join up and then eat us.
Here's how they recapped it in the '80s. It was a different time: We could wait 10 minutes to have a premise explained. But if you make it through this clip, you'll see that in order to maintain control, the aliens fabricate propaganda to disenfranchise the intellectuals, specifically the scientific community. The scientists become outcasts, driven from their homes and attacked by these alien troops who all dress alike and have a symbol that looks like a digital swastika.
Now, if this analogy wasn't clear enough for you, the show also features a Holocaust survivor, Abraham Bernstein, who is most certainly Jewish and takes in the show's main scientist as a fugitive. (Jump to 3:07, where Bernstein actually explains that this is totes like the Holocaust -- presumably with more lizard men.) Bernstein is kinda badass as exhibited in this clip, where he helps give spirit to the revolution.
Still, he's not the hero. Much like Cracked.com, the heroes of V are all Irish. Plucky reporter Mike Donovan saves the day. (He's portrayed by Jewish actor Marc Singer, but shhh, we'll keep that on the down low. He can pass.)
Independence Day: Julius and David Levinson
Independence Day is about as close as you can come to Jew pride in a science fiction movie. For anyone who doesn't know, it's the story of a plucky band of resistors, including a jet-flying president, a flying-saucer-flying Fresh Prince and a Jewish computer genius, who all help save the world from an alien invasion.
Yes, right off the bat, the Jewish character is the least cool and the only one in the movie wearing glasses. Having said that, it is his plan (giving the alien ships a computer virus) that saves the world. Yes, it's a completely ridiculous plan that could never work anywhere but the movies, but let's not be picky. After all, this movie has some Jew depth. In addition to Jeff Goldblum as David Levinson, it also has Judd Hirsch as his father, Julius Levinson. Neither character is greedy. Both are smart. Both are brave. Perhaps most startling for a Hollywood movie, Julius Levinson is actually a religious practicing Jew who leads a group of characters in a multidenominational prayer before the big battle.
But the payoff is really the ending, after Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum return to Earth having downed a mother ship. We see that Jeff Goldblum is cool enough to rock a tight undershirt, smoke cigars with a real-live black guy and get the girl!
Is it sad that Jeff Goldblum, who spends half the movie doing Woody Allenesque gesticulating, is the coolest Jew ever in a sci-fi movie? A bit, but we'll take what we can get.
Both Jews and gentiles are free to watch new episodes of HATE BY NUMBERS. Also follow Gladstone on Twitter and stay up-to-date on the latest regarding Notes from the Internet Apocalypse. And then there's his website and Tumblr, too.
For more from Gladstone, check out The Top 5 Worst Lines of Dialogue (From Movies That Don't Actually Suck) and TV's Greatest Off-Screen Quotes and Catchphrases.