Eden Concept Document (ihobo)
Behaviour as Addiction

Religion in Science Fiction (5): Star Trek

Contains spoilers for the original Star Trek and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and minor spoilers for other Star Trek franchises. There are no spoilers relating to the new Star Trek movie.

StarTrek No television show has had greater influence on science fiction than Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, which has given rise to six different TV series and eleven feature films. Sold to TV executives as “Wagon Train to the stars”, Roddenberry told his friends he was creating a modern version of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels – stories that would work as an exciting adventure story on the surface, but as a morality tale on a deeper level. Although the original series was cancelled in 1969 after just three seasons due to low ratings, it enjoyed tremendous support from science fiction fans and over the years that followed worked its way into popular culture. When the Harve Bennett Star Trek films, starting with Wrath of Khan in 1982, successfully revived the fortunes of the franchise it paved the way for new TV series based upon the original show.

The highest rated of these spin-off TV series was Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was set seventy years after the original show and featured an entirely new cast, although four of the 1960's Star Trek stars were to guest on the show and its movie successors. The pilot episode aired in 1987 and pulled in 27 million viewers, while the finale seven years later attracted 27.8 million viewers – the most-watched science fiction TV finale of all time. Roddenberry was personally involved in establishing the new format, but his declining health led to him handing the reins over to Rick Berman two years later.

Overtly, Star Trek: The Next Generation is quite secular in its approach, with its morality (delivered during its first two seasons in a painfully clumsy manner) being a coupling of humanist ethics and the political notion of Westphalian sovereignty, known in Star Trek terms as the Prime Directive. Yet the series and its successors enjoy tremendous support from religious fans, particularly Christians. A likely reason for this is that the ethics of secular humanists and modern Christians concord to a great degree; as the philosopher Charles Taylor has noted, they are “brothers under the skin”, having emerged over the centuries from the reform of Latin Christendom.

Thus, despite and because of the absence on-screen references to the religious affiliation of the characters, it is perfectly possible for the viewer to imagine religion playing a part in the lives of the crew of the Enterprise off-camera. So a Catholic Trekkie might imagine Deanna Troi, the half-empath, half-thesaurus ship's counsellor, taking a trip to a holodeck confessional after a particularly unhelpful day on the bridge, and telling her virtual confessor that she feels “guilt, shame, remorse”. This capacity for the viewer to fill in the metaphysical gaps allows both atheists and theists to connect to a common ethical stance in the shows (although those who sway more to a neo-Nietzchean morality tend to find the incessant moralising and hand-wringing utterly infuriating!)

The secular veneer successfully conceals Roddenberry's own views on religion for the most part, although critical analysis repeatedly shows up an anti-religious thread in the shows he was involved in. Yvonne Fern (wife of the original show's producer Herbert F. Solow) interviewed Roddenberry shortly before his death, and challenged him on his position in respect of religion. She asked:

You're liberal and tolerant – about racial equality, abortion, homosexuality, women's rights, sex, all the popular issues – but when you meet up with, say, a Baptist, for example, you will unhesitatingly condemn him to oblivion. You choose your points of tolerance very carefully. It seems to me that when you say you've evolved beyond something, that's just another way of saying that whatever you are beyond, or think you are, is by definition inferior, that your views are superior.

Roddenberry replied:

I never meant to give that impression. If I did, then I will correct it. I condemn charlatans. I condemn false prophets. I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will – and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.

This antagonism towards traditional religion manifests itself in the original Star Trek show by means of a recurrent plot concept – that of the ‘false gods’ story, in which god-like entities (quite often super-computers) are destroyed or unmasked. This plot appears in numerous episodes of the original show including “Return of the Archons”, “The Apple”, “The Paradise Syndrome”, “And the Children Shall Lead” and “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”. Of these episodes, “Return of the Archons” is the most explicitly hostile to organised religion: an “all-seeing, all knowing” entity known as Landru deploys people known as lawgivers (priests) to absorb people into “The Body”, a repressive telepathic collective. Kirk and Spock reveal Landru to be (surprise!) a super-computer, and defeat it by the infamous “non-sequitur” plot device whereby the computers of the future are strangely prone to self-destruct when delivered contradictory information. The episode was based upon a story suggested by Roddenberry himself.

Yet religion does manage to creep into the original show's corners. In “Balance of Terror”, we see that the enterprise has a chapel containing various religious symbols, including a cross. In “That Which Survives”, a lieutenant has a traditional Hindu bindi symbol upon her forehead. In “The Empath”, Dr. Ozaba quotes from Psalms. In “Who Mourns for Adonis” Kirk notes: “Man has no need for gods. We find the one quite sufficient.” And most bizarrely, in the episode “Bread and Circuses”, the Enterprise visits a planet which has a society which parallels ancient Rome but with twentieth century technology. Not only does McCoy state that the crew represents many beliefs, in the conclusion of the episode it is discovered that the “sun worshippers” of Magna Roma are actually son worshippers, that is, followers of Jesus: as Kirk comments at the end of the show: “Caesar ... and Christ; they had them both...” It's a finale impossible to imagine in a modern science fiction television show.

When the franchise was handed over to Rick Berman and Michael Piller in the summer of 1989, it began to alter its attitude towards portraying religion. The most marked break from ‘Trek tradition’ came with the creation of the next TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, set on a space station orbiting the planet of Bajor (which first appeared in the Next Generation episode “Ensign Ro”). The Bajorans are portrayed as a deeply spiritual people with a religion drawn from many influences, including Hinduism with which it shares in common a “Festival of Lights”, and the name for a Bajoran priest – Vedek – is resonant of the term “vedic” referring to the Vedas, a Hindu sacred text. Nana Visitor became the first Star Trek star to portray a character of faith (unless one counts Worf's sketchy relations with Klingon religion), in the role of Major Kira Nerys, a quick-tempered former terrorist who constantly faces conflicts between her religious beliefs and her duties.

Bringing religion into the forefront of Deep Space Nine had a number of notable effects. Firstly, it undermined to some extent the ability for individuals to project their own metaphysics into the gaps of the show, since by showing an alien religion, it tended to demonstrate more clearly that the Federation is largely absent of religion. However, this is more than compensated for by the greater depth and breadth of themes that the show was thus able to explore – Star Trek's capacity to take on the social issues of the day and project them into a science fiction was greatly enhanced by being able to tackle both religion and spirituality, and this allowed for stories that showed the treacherous interface between politics and religion.

An example of this is the first season finale “In the Hands of the Prophets”, which focuses on a conflict between Vedek Winn, brilliantly portrayed by Louise Fletcher (best known as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and Kieko O'Brien who runs the school on the station. The gods of the Bajoran religion, known as “The Prophets” are encountered by station commander Benjamin Sisko in the pilot episode, and interpreted in typically scientific terms as “wormhole aliens”. Vedek Winn thus accuses the school of blasphemy by teaching that the Prophets are merely trans-dimensional beings. Fletcher's role worked so well in this episode she was to return as a recurring character throughout the show, her political machinations never falling into cartoon villainy, but instead showing a highly believable religious malleability, always able to make her religion work for her benefit. As Jimmy Aiken has observed, she is even able to deliver the line “Heretic!” in a later episode with absolute aplomb – something few TV shows could plausibly facilitate!

The Prophets themselves are something of a mixed bag. At their worst, especially in later episodes, they descend into a ridiculous ‘good gods versus evil gods’ pastiche which repeatedly falls flat, as in episodes such as “The Reckoning” which tries to set up a climactic show down between the Prophets and the ‘evil Pah Wraiths’ but always feels terribly hokey. However, at their best, their existence as entities who exist outside of time, and do not understand linear time, creates an eerie atmosphere which plays well in episodes such as “Image in the Sand” and “Shadows and Symbols” (the opening episodes in the show's final season) and provides the set-up for “Far Beyond the Stars”, widely considered to be one of the finest Star Trek episodes ever aired, in which Sisko has an intense vision of his being a black science fiction writer in 1950s New York City, facing intense prejudice from the editor and owner of the pulp magazine he works for.

The tendency towards a greater willingness to deal with religious issues continues in the following series, Star Trek: Voyager, which frequently deals with questions of spirituality (although rarely in the context of recognisable religions). This show also features the first openly spiritual human to appear in a Star Trek show in the form of Robert Beltran's Chakotay, although as Bernd Schneider has pointed out his religion comes across more as a “conglomerate of New Age rituals” rather than as anything palpable. There are a number of interesting perspectives on spirituality explored throughout the show's run, including the idea of the Borg having a “religion of perfection”, although it also falls into more traditional Star Trek territory with episodes such as “False Profits” and “Distant Origin”, a Galileo-esque story which offers nothing new, but is at least an entertaining tale.

One final aspect of the connection between Star Trek and religion should be addressed in closing: the intensity of fandom the franchise has fostered does itself border on the religious. Trekkies and Trekkers may not consider their dedication to be religious, but sociologically it is at least a nonreligion (like Marxism), as Michael Jindra has observed in a detailed account published in the journal Sociology of Religion in 1994. Jindra concludes:

ST fandom does not have the thoroughgoing seriousness of established religions, but it is also not mere entertainment. This interplay of seriousness and entertainment, I argue, is a sign of its vitality. The communities, both symbolic and geographic, that are formed by ST fandom are evidence of the ongoing sacralization of elements of our modernist culture that express hope in the future. It is a phenomenon that relates to deep-seated American beliefs about the nature of humankind, the world and its future, and encourages the practices that parallel religious processes of codifying, forming a community and developing institutions to guide its practices.

Thus, in an ultimate irony, Gene Roddenberry's anti-religious humanism ultimately resulted in a new form of humanist nonreligion, one in which his own faith in the future potential of humanity has been taken up by legions of followers – both religious and otherwise – who believe in the dream that mankind might yet “boldly go where no-one has gone before”.

Next week: Doctor Who

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.

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A Star Trek quiz...Boldly going where no quiz has gone before
By David Buckna
Special to ASSIST News Service
http://www.assistnews.net/Stories/2009/s09050064.htm

A Heavenly Enterprise
'Star Trek'
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/06/AR2009050603913.html?wprss=rss_print/style

Thursday, May. 21, 2009
Can we live long and prosper? Trekkers hope so
By SAMANTHA GROSS - Associated Press Writer
http://www.thestate.com/324/story/795938.html


David: I appreciate the links, but I would have liked to hear your thoughts even more! :)

First, the thing about the end of Bread and Circuses is that the evil Roman Empire in the show represents the contemporary US. The Christian oppostion is not validation of Christianity as such but an implicit criticism of the self image of the US as a Christian nation.

Second, In the Hands of the Prophets has the theological dispute turn out to be merely a ploy by a self serving hypocrite. Once Louise Fletcher's character fails, the bigoted rabble disappear. This is profoundly dishonest, not brilliant.

s johnson: I hadn't seen this take on Bread and Circuses as a satire of the US, but now you mention it that interpretation works rather well.

And I'm not sure what your point about In the Hands of the Prophets is... Vedek Winn stands in for any rabble-rousing demagogue who uses religion for political gain. Is your complaint that the episode ties up too neatly?

Thanks for commenting!

Thanks for the kind words.

The thing about In the Hands of the Prophets, which is a metaphor of evolution vs. religion, is that the negative effects of religion are due solely to abuse for personal motives. Only the most extreme religionists would not concede this, if only in words. In real life, quite ordinary people, not just the perennial rabble waiting to be roused, can and do reject evolution (or any rationalism, for that matter.) They themselves say it's because of their religion. The problem doesn't go away with Louise Fletcher's defeat. To me, that seems rather more than "tied up too neatly."

s johnson: thanks for coming back to expand your position.

I agree that the thematic elements of In the Hands of the Prophets includes the conflict in US schools between evolutionary theories and creationism, but this is only part of the episode's content. The tensions between traditional Bajoran beliefs and the Federation's secular and scientistic beliefs re-emerges at several points later in the show's run; the neatness of the end of this episode has as much to do with it being the series finale as anything else. Just choosing to tackle this subject in mainstream TV drama in 1993 was quite a step, as most shows shied away from such controversial issues.

The people who reject evolution (principally in the United States), who apparently wish to be referred to as Biblical Authoritists, have chosen to base their reality on the text of the Bible. I don't think this is a smart thing for a Christian to do (it is a world away from the teachings of Jesus for a start), but in any society that honours freedom of belief we have to respect this decision. This doesn't mean we have to have such people dictate how other children are educated, but we do have to accept their right to choose how their own children are educated, else we violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

You can read more of my thoughts on this issue in this piece from last year about a Creationism furore in the UK or this piece from earlier this year on the relationship between Science and the Sacred.

If this is a subject that interests you, and it sounds like it is, I welcome your thoughts on any of my other posts on this subject.

Thanks again!

I'm trying again as this didn't seem to go through the first time. Please forgive me if I "double up".

To your comments on religion in Star Trek I would like to add this article I wrote a few years ago (while DS9 was still on the air) which was widely republished in Jewish newspapers around the country.

Thanks,
Don
______________

Anti-Semitism in Star Trek (ver. 2.4)
by D.H. Frew

The other night, I was having dinner with a folklore professor from U.C.Berkeley. As it turned out, we were both Star Trek fans. I mentioned that these days I prefer Babylon 5, citing the presence of religion in the lives of its characters. A good example is one of the lead characters, Commander Susan Ivanovna. Of Russian origin, she has been seen lighting a menorah, sitting shiva for her father, and conferring with her family’s rabbi. After a pleasant evening comparing the relentless optimism of Star Trek with the gritty realism of Babylon 5, I went home with a nagging question...

Where are the Jews in the Star Trek universe? Are there any?

Over some twenty-five years, four primetime series, and seven feature films, Star Trek has had many human characters in its regular cast. I began by reviewing the “regulars” (excluding non-humans)....

Star Trek (so-called “classic”) -- Captain James T. Kirk, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, Lieutenant Uhura, Lieutenant Sulu, Ensign Pavel Chekov, Nurse Christine Chapel.

Star Trek: The Next Generation -- Captain, Jean-Luc Picard, Commander William Riker, Chief Medical Officers Dr. Beverly Crusher & Dr. Katherine Pulaski, Wesley Crusher, and Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge.

Star Trek: Deep Space 9 -- Commander Benjamin Sisko, Jake Sisko, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Julian Bashir, Chief of Operations Miles O'Brien, Keiko O’Brien.

Star Trek: Voyager -- Captain Kathryn Janeway, First Officer Chakotay, Lieutenant Tom Paris, and Ensign Harry Kim.

Twenty-two adult human characters. None of them would appear at first glance to be Jewish.

One could argue that Star Trek ignores religion in general and so this would not be surprising, but there are three problems with this argument. First, Star Trek does illustrate religious practices, just rarely those of humans. In fact, Chakotay’s “Native American shamanism” is the only religion attributed to a human character, but we have seen Klingon religion, Bajoran religion, Changeling spirituality, and a host of others. These are usually portrayed as the primitive beliefs of technically unsophisticated species and are often an excuse for violating the Prime Directive; Kirk’s destruction of the God-computer Vaal in “The Apple” being a prime example. Although Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was raised Baptist, he stated that “it was clear to me that religion was largely nonsense, was largely magical superstitious things... I just couldn’t see any point in adopting something based on magic, which was obviously phony and superstitious.” (Alexander, p. 39-40). Evidently his views carried over into the portrayal of religion in Star Trek, resulting in a future society that is both secular and de-ritualized.

Second, in off-hand remarks “classic” Star Trek did seem to endorse a kind of generic Christianity. In “Bread & Circuses”, Spock describes pagan sun-worship as “a primitive, superstition religion” that would not “develop a philosophy of total brotherhood”, while Kirk expresses support for the nascent Christianity found on planet 892-IV. In “Who Mourns for Adonis?”, Kirk belittles polytheism, saying “Mankind has no need for gods; we find the one quite sufficient”.

Third, most Jews would argue that Judaism is as much a culture as a religion. Star Trek has often gone out of its way to illustrate, or at least mention, the cultural affiliations of its characters:

Star Trek (so-called “classic”) -- McCoy has a southern accent and a predilection for mint juleps (“This Side of Paradise”). Scotty mentions haggis (“The Savage Curtain”), wears a kilt, and plays the bagpipes (“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”). Uhura speaks Swahili (“The Man Trap”) and wears African clothes (“The Tholian Web”). Sulu speaks Japanese correctly (“Shore Leave”). Chekov has a Russian accent and makes constant references to Russian culture and history (most of Season III).

Star Trek: The Next Generation -- Picard praises the "proper" colors of the French flag (“The Last Outpost”) and visits his ancestral home and vineyards in France (“Family”).

Star Trek: Deep Space 9 -- Sisko has a family collection of African artifacts (“The Search, Pt. 1”). O'Brien loves pubs, beers, and darts, and talks about an Irish holiday (“Second Sight”). Keiko married O’Brien in traditional Japanese wedding garb (“Data’s Day”).

Star Trek: Voyager -- Chakotay practices traditional Native American shamanism, leading Captain Janeway on a trance journey to find her “power animal”, and employing traditional healing techniques (throughout).

Ten human characters have been explicitly tied to cultural backgrounds, but none have been Jewish.

Indeed, there is no indication that any of the hundreds of minor and supporting human characters that have appeared in “classic” Trek, Next Generation, and DS9, as listed in The Star Trek Encyclopedia, are Jewish; the sole exception to this being a few historical figures such as Freud and Einstein who only appear as computer-generated holograms on the holodeck.

Are there then, I wondered, no Jews in the Star Trek universe? I found this rather surprising and a little disturbing. I have always defended Roddenberry’s view of the future. He was always committed to presenting the future, not as it probably would be, but as it should be; to be a shining example of humanity’s possible future. Many scientists and astronauts have attributed their fascination with space to the influence of Star Trek on their childhood. Further, I contend that Star Trek: Deep Space 9 was the first primetime TV show to star a black man in a leading role in which the fact that he is black is not central to the role. The same is true for Star Trek: Voyager. The fact that the captain of the ship is a woman is completely incidental. In other words, Star Trek would appear to live up to its claims of an egalitarian future.

And so, I hoped that this was merely an oversight, until I began to suspect that Jews are present in the Star Trek universe, just under another name. That the absence of any positive example of a Jewish character was all the more disturbing in light of the presence of persistent European stereotypes of the “evil Jew”.

There is in the Star Trek universe a group of individuals that are characterized by the following:

* They are short, swarthy, and shifty-eyed.
* They are noted for their outsized facial characteristic.
* They walk with a bent-over, loping gait, rather than upright.
* They are crafty and cunning, rather than intelligent.
* Their males all wear a distinctive piece of headgear.
* They are wanderers, without a home.
* They are greedy and untrustworthy, and obsessed with the accumulation of mercantile profit.
* They are merchants, money-lenders, and tavern-keepers.
* They follow a multi-point plan for the advancement of their group, at the expense of others.
* Their males lust after “our” women.
* They attempt to ingratiate themselves into “our” society with flattery and bribes.
* They are suspected of cannibalism, but there is no proof of this.
* They are portrayed as a threat to “our” society, but this threat is not very credible and used primarily as an excuse to oppress and discriminate against them.

This is a point-by-point description of the Ferengi, an alien race, but it could just as easily be a description of the Jewish people from a pre-War Nazi propaganda tract.

A few points should be expanded...

* “They are noted for their outsized facial characteristic.” The Ferengi have oversized ears. But these are never referred to as “ears”, rather as “lobes”. That this is an intentional pun on “nose” is demonstrated by its use in Ferengi vernacular, e.g. “He really has the lobes for business.” Additionally, Ferengi’s ears are serious erogenous zones for them, while the association of the nose and the penis in folklore is well-attested.

* “They walk with a bent-over, loping gait, rather than upright.” This was true of early appearances of the Ferengi, but has since been abandoned. Still, this description was part of the original background material for Ferengi characters. It was also common in Nazi propaganda to make this claim as part of emphasizing the “bestial” nature of Jews.

* “Their males all wear a distinctive piece of headgear.” All adult male Ferengi except Quark wear a distinctive headpiece that wraps around the back of their head. Compare this with the traditional Jewish yarmulke.

* “They are wanderers, without a home.” Original background material for the Ferengi included the idea that “Federation sociologists speculate that the original homeworlds of the Ferengi may have become exhausted, forcing the race to reach for the stars to replenish their lost resources...” (FASA, p. 110). The writers have since created a homeworld for the Ferengi (“Family Business”), but this is a recent development.

* “They are greedy and untrustworthy, and obsessed with the accumulation of mercantile profit.” This has always been a part of the European stereotype of the “evil Jew”, but the acquisition of “profit” has never included the acquisition of land. In many countries, Jews have been forbidden to own land. A common belief among many contemporary Jews, especially Holocaust survivors, is that it is unwise to put one’s wealth into land. You can be driven off of land; wealth in portable form can be taken with you. While the Ferengi definitely pursue “mercantile profit”, they are never portrayed as acquiring land (e.g. planets).

* “They are merchants, money-lenders, and tavern-keepers.” These are the only professions (other than military) in which we have seen Ferengi operating. Binjamin Segal notes in A Lie and a Libel that, for much of Jewish history in Europe, “the great majority pursued marginal, ‘obnoxious’ occupations, such as moneylending, peddling, rent collecting, and tavern keeping.” (Segal, p. 8).

* “They follow a multi-point plan for the advancement of their group, at the expense of others.” The Ferengi are devoted to their Rules of Acquisition, numbering in the hundreds, including...
#1: Once you have their money, never give it back.
#10: Greed is eternal.
#21: Never place friendship above profit.
#34: Peace is good for business.
#35: War is good for business.
#52: Never ask when you can take.
#60: Keep your lies consistent.
#121: Everything is for sale, even friendship.
#181: Not even dishonesty can tarnish the shine of profit.
#266: When in doubt, lie.
Compare this with the well-known Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Fabricated by the Russian Czar’s secret police (the Okhrana) around the turn of the century, this document purports to be the multi-point plan for world domination by the Jewish people. It advocates lying, murder, seduction, and more, all for the advancement of the Jewish people. It has been circulated among anti-Semites, believed, and become the basis for pogroms and persecution.

* “Their males lust after ‘our’ women.” Ferengi lust for human females is referred to throughout the Trek series, while the lust of Jewish males for gentile females has been a part of this stereotype for centuries, appearing as a part of the plot of the Nazi propaganda film “Jud Süss”.

* “They are suspected of cannibalism, but there is no proof of this.” Once again, original background material for the Ferengi notes that the Ferengi’s sharp teeth have “sparked speculation among Federation [experts] that the Ferengi may practice a form of cannibalism, though no proof of this practice exists.” (FASA, p. 100). Commander Riker referred to this in the pilot episode for Next Generation (“Encounter at Farpoint”), noting that the Ferengi are rumored to eat their business partners. This charge of cannibalism, in the form of the “Blood Libel”, has been made against Jews for centuries. European folklore has perpetuated the legend that Jews use the blood of Christian children in the making of Passover matzoh. Despite a complete lack of evidence, this legend often led to Passover panics and the lynching of Jews.

* “They are portrayed as a threat to ‘our’ society, but this threat is not very credible and used primarily as an excuse to oppress and discriminate against them.” The Ferengi were intended as “the Federation’s new alien threat” (Nemecek, p. 38) “but their ‘silliness quotient’, as [Executive Producer] Rick Berman put it, made them a ‘disappointment as an adversary’” (Nemecek, p. 41). The Jewish “threat” has never been a credible one, but that has not prevented wide-spread persecution and whole-sale slaughter.

To all of the above I would like to add three further points.

1) The Ferengi are led by a council of elders, which is headed by someone called “the Nagus”. In Jewish history, the head of a clan or tribe, the head of the Sanhedrin, and the President of the current state of Israel have all been called “the Nasi”.

2) The Ferengi are hated and distrusted outsiders, foreigners if you will, in Federation space. The Jews have often been seen by their Arab neighbors as hated and distrusted outsiders, foreigners if you will, in the Middle East. The Arabic word for “foreigner” is “al-ferengi”.

3) Finally, whenever the directors have sought someone to play a high-profile Ferengi role, they have almost exclusively cast Jewish actors. Evidently, the directors see some similarity between the qualities of the Ferengi and the qualities that Jewish actors will bring to the part.

Over the span of the several years that the Ferengi have been present in the Star Trek universe, they have grown and changed as characters. Early character attributes have been abandoned and new ones added by later authors. Their “bent-over, loping gait”, their lack of a homeworld home, and their suspected cannibalism, have all been dropped. But the Rules of Acquisition, their lust for “our” women, their attempts to ingratiate with flattery and bribes, and the presence of the Nagus, have all been added. Clearly, later authors are “plugging in” to the same set of assumptions, even if they don’t realize it, and so the stereotype is maintained.

Now, all of this being said, I have to state that I do not believe that there is any conscious or deliberate anti-Semitism at work here. I am well aware that many of the production crew, as well as many of the actors, in all four series are themselves Jewish. However I do believe that when Gene Roddenberry and Herb Wright, the creators of the Ferengi, sat around brainstorming a new alien threat for Star Trek, they unconsciously drew upon an already-existing cultural stereotype of an evil “alien” race, the “evil Jew”. Later writers, I believe, continued to make this connection on an unconscious level and further built on and expanded the associations.

That this unconscious association of Jews with Ferengi is both present and conveyed to the viewers was driven home to me when I started discussing this article with others. I would get one of the following three responses to my saying that I was writing an article on anti-Semitism in Star Trek:

First, disbelief, followed by a challenge to “prove it”, followed by an acceptance of my argument.

Second, disbelief, followed by a challenge to “prove it”, followed by “You know, there was always something that bothered me about the Ferengi, but I couldn’t put my finger on it `til now.”

Third, disbelief, followed by a challenge to “prove it”, and when I got as far as “First, consider that there aren’t any Jewish characters on Star Trek...” the person would interrupt with “Yes there are... the Ferengi!” and laugh. None of the folks who responded this way were serious, nor would I consider any of them anti-Semites, but they indicate that the association of Jews with Ferengi is both present in the Star Trek universe and perceived by viewers, even if only on an unconscious level.

Stop for a moment and think about how you reacted to this article. If your response was the third one, then its conclusions are already proven.

As a great and long-time fan of Star Trek, I am deeply disturbed by the results of my investigations. Both because of the tarnish that I now see on the shining star of the Star Trek universe, and because I do not believe that there is much that can be done about it. Even if the writers accept these conclusions, what can they do? Remove or rewrite the Ferengi? That would be difficult without massive disruption of the continuity of the Star Trek story-line. Try to balance things by inserting a positive Jewish character? Perhaps, but such an act would likely be over-balancing and result in a stilted character that is stereotyped in another way.

If I can recommend any ameliorating course of action at all, it is that the writers continue to develop the Ferengi, adding tidbits here and there to their culture and history. In the process, they should check and make sure that such tidbits do not advance the stereotype of the “evil Jew”, but go in another direction entirely. Over time, one hopes, the association of the Ferengi with the stereotype will be diluted.

(BTW, after publishing this article and sending copies to the producers of Star Trek, this third course manifested in itself in subsequent cultural attributes and actors associated with the Ferengi. Was it because of this article? I'll probably never know.)

I will continue to watch and enjoy the many Star Trek spin-offs and I will continue to laugh at Quark and his Ferengi brethren, but I will do so with a new awareness. I hope that I don’t have to wince too often.

------------------------------------------

My thanks to Ira Steingroot, author of Keeping Passover, for his assistance in researching this article, and to Tim Maroney for his ruthless editing suggestions. I would also like to thank VZH, TrekLorer, and others in the StarTrek section of AOL who helped track down episode titles and other backgound information.

Bibliography:

Alexander, David, Star Trek Creator, Penguin Books, 1995

Dundes, Alan, ed., The Blood Libel Legend, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991

FASA Corporation, Star Trek : The Next Generation Officer’s Manual, FASA Corp. 1988

Hsia, R. Po-chia, The Myth of Ritual Murder, Yale University Press, 1988

Nemecek, Larry, The Star Trek : The Next Generation Companion, Pocket Books, 1992

Okuda, Michael, et al., The Star Trek Encyclopedia, Pocket Books, 1994

Quark & Behr, Ira Steven, The Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, Pocket Books, 1995

Segal, Binjamin W., A Lie and a Libel, University of Nebraska Press, 1995

Wigoder, Geoffrey, Encyclopedia of Judaism, Macmillan, 1989

Don: thanks for posting this, although in general - given the length of the content - I would have preferred you to post it somewhere else and simply provide a link here. It's just a bit long for a comment! :)

I confess, I don't find your thesis very compelling, although it's certainly an interesting and well researched argument. The following flaws in your argument are, I believe, fatal to its credibility.

Firstly, the absence of Jews has to be weighed against the absence of all other Earth religions (until Chakotay). Jewish people are 0.2% of the population of the planet. Christians are 33%, and Muslims 21%. I therefore submit to you that it is strange logic to draw conclusions based on the absence of the smallest group of Abrahamic practictioners, when the two larger groups (collectively half the population of the planet) are equally absent. The few references to Christianity will not cover the absence of Christians, and certainly not the absence of Muslims!

Secondly, it is clear from the portrayal of the Ferengi that the primary cultural element they are intended to lambast (particular once the initial attempt to make them a sinister foe has worn off, and their role as comic relief becomes firmly established) is capitalism. The early reference to the Ferengi as "Yankee traders" is no coincidence: the Ferengi culture is an intentional spoof of US culture, particularly the 'cult of capitalism' and the love of money.

A number of points that you raise don't seem to me to be coherent. For instance, the reference to cannibalism is from Encounter at Farpoint. It's clear that at this point "Ferengi" is just a name being bandied around and no race concept has been actually drawn up at this point. Furthermore, 'cannibalism' would mean 'Ferengi eating Ferengi', which is not entailed in Riker's quip. Writers of these kinds of shows frequently reference things in asides which are later developed coherently, but in this case I don't believe you should be drawing any conclusions from the mention of Ferengi in the pilot. (It seems pretty clear that Riker has no clue what he's talking about here anyway!)

Similarly, the decision to change the Ferengi from a threat to a source of comic relief appears to have been pragmatic. The Ferengi were just not threatening enough to be credible in this role; the reassignment to comic relief followed naturally.

I submit to you that a more likely explanation for the commonalities you find between certain aspects of the portrayal of the Ferengi and Nazi/Czarist propaganda is that both are drawing from older mythological/psychological stereotypes, namely the Goblin (or Kobold). The Czarist and Nazi propaganda was attempting to portray the Jews as Goblins, and the writers were drawing on Goblin mythological tropes in building the Ferengi. If this hypothesis is accepted, any nefarious conclusions are thoroughly undermined.

I think it's important to reiterate that even though there are no Jewish characters, there are equally no Christian or Muslim characters, and furthermore Star Trek did provide starring roles to Jewish actors who have become major celebrities - Shatner and Nimoy to name but two - and this in turn has lead to considerable positive press for Jewish culture.

While each individual is welcome to reach their own conclusions, personally, I don't think Star Trek can be credibly accused of anti-semitism. It can, however, be accused of anti-religious prejudice in general, which I discuss in this post.

Thanks for sharing your perspective!

The first passion I ever had in my life was Star Trek. That show with the silly costumes and the weird aliens contained so much intelligence that people were able to go beyond the 60's hairstyles and the flashy uniforms to get to the message.

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