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Essay

Strangers in a Strange Land: Jewish sci-fi, Afrofuturism and visions from Palestine

Jewish, Black and Palestinian writers imagine persecution and liberation across the universe.

When God decreed Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars, did he imagine they would one day fly among them, say Kaddish for dying planets, or find themselves ghettoised on Venus? 

These are among the scenarios that arise in the 1974 science fiction collection, Wandering Stars. ‘Science fiction’, a term popularised in the 1920s by Jewish writer and inventor Hugo Gernsback, has long drawn on an imagined future to comment on the past and present. The genre’s fondness for politics, philosophy, and comedy makes it a natural vehicle to examine Jewish themes. A recurring theme in Wandering Stars is the reenactment of oppression. William Tenn’s story ‘On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi’ sketches a history of Jewish exile stretching long into the future. In AD2859, in the Jewish ghettos on Venus, the First Neozionist Conference plans a return to Earth and the land of Israel: “Let the Third Exile end in our lifetimes. Let the Knesset be rebuilt in our age.”

‘Jews in Space’ from Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I (1981)

By imbuing the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) with the same sacred status Jewish liturgy confers on the Temple, Tenn imagines the ways in which today’s Jewish world could be rendered mythological. The result is a weary ambivalence towards Zionism. The story’s narrator, Milchik, argues that Jewish presence in the land of Israel has always been short-lived, rendering a return futile. Zionism becomes just one chapter of the history of Jewish exile rather than its conclusion. Centuries into the future, what prevails as Judaism is a cultural and religious practice and, notably, collective persecution: “There are aliens who know what a pogrom tastes like and who also know the sweetness of our sabbath”. The Neozionist Conference is disbanded by the authorities before the idea of return can even be discussed. What preoccupies the narrator is not a vision of Zion or a homogenised nation, but celebrating an inclusive Jewish diaspora, now scattered not only internationally but across species and planets.

Centuries into the future, what prevails as Judaism is cultural and religious practice and, notably, collective persecution.

Jews on the brink of destruction resound through Wandering Stars. Tenn constructs an 800-year long history of Jewish disenfranchisement, prophesying that security in Israel only ever lasts for a couple of centuries. Robert Silverberg’s ‘The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV’, takes place in a Jewish colony on a distant planet, a product of mass exodus. In ‘I’m Looking For Kadak’ Harlan Ellison’s stereotypically Ashkenazi hero, Evisise the Zsouchmoid, spouts an endless stream of Yiddishisms as he seeks a tenth Jew to complete a minyan and say Kaddish for the Jewish community facing forced relocation.

Evsise the Zsouchmoid, by Tim Kirk. From Wandering Stars (1974) ed. Jack Dann

The collection replays histories of Jewish trauma and persecution but expresses a very contemporary anxiety, one that echoes throughout Jewish speculative fiction into the twenty-first century, present, for example, in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007). Although American Jews, as now, enjoyed relative safety at the time of Wandering Stars publication, the collection came out only a year after Israel’s Yom Kippur War which renewed anxieties of exile for many Jews. In George Alec Effinger’s ‘Paradise Last’, Sharon speculates that the planet Jews are sent to cultivate is exile rather than Eden. Her husband Murray denounces this as “racial paranoia” and asks, “What’s the matter, you need to be persecuted?” This question could be aptly put to many of the collection’s writers. Tenn has stated in an interview that inherent in his Jewish heritage is the conviction that “in the end, everything fails.” Wandering Stars, the title of which is derived from the exiled figure of the Wandering Jew, captures this pervasive fear – regardless of inventions or ideologies, the future will resemble the past.

The tradition of Jewish futurism developed in Wandering Stars has its roots in early Zionism. Inspired by contemporary socialist utopian novels and responding to rising European antisemitism, Zionist utopian literature flourished in the late 19th century. Edmond Eisler wrote An Image of the Future (1882) in the context of Russian pogroms and the prospect that Hungary might deport its Jewish population. Ehanan Leib Lewinsky despaired of Jews as “slaves […] to the factory workers in Moscow” before articulating his own vision of Zionist redemption in Journey to the Land of Israel in the Year 2040 (1892). Jacques Bahar’s Anti-Goyism in Zion was published in France in 1898 amid the Dreyfus affair. 

Contrasted with Wandering Stars relentless pessimism seventy years later, Altneuland presented a firmly optimistic vision; Herzl’s imagined Israel does not even have an army.

The most famous text of this type is Theodor Herzl’s 1903 novel Altneuland (Old New Land) which presents a vision of a Jewish state just two decades into the future. Unlike Herzl’s 1895 diary entry recommending the forced transfer of Palestine’s indigenous Arab population, Altneuland envisages civic equality and harmony between Jews and other minorities (the imagined state’s borders seem to extend as far North as Syria). Contrasted with Wandering Stars relentless pessimism seventy years later, Altneuland presented a firmly optimistic vision; Herzl’s imagined Israel does not even have an army.

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Wandering Stars is just a speck in a constellation of sci-fi by artists from marginalised communities. Along with Jewish writers, Black and Palestinian artists used the genre to articulate their suffering and express their dream of liberation. Sci-fi’s capacity to envision futures of collective hope and despair is exhibited in the eclectic styles of Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism spans the music and mythologies of Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, and Marvel’s Black Panther; it has influenced the varied aesthetics of FKA Twigs, Kamasi Washington, and Janelle Monáe. “We need images of tomorrow,” Black American writer Samuel R. Delany stated in a 1994 interview on Afrofuturism, “and our people need them more than most”.

Surveying the flora of a distant planet at the beginning of his film Space is The Place (1974), jazz pianist Sun Ra announces “planet Earth sounds of guns, anger, frustration. […] We set up a colony for Black people here.” Ra plans an intergalactic liberation from racism. He tries to persuade members of an African-American youth centre to join him in space: “You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights.” Like early Zionist visions and the postmodern Judeo-futuristic comedy of Wandering Stars, the film provides a playful fantasy of the future, fraught with contemporary anxieties.

Sun Ra in Space is the Place (1974), dir. by John Coney

Yet Afrofuturism can be pessimistic too. Derrick Bell’s story ‘The Space Traders’, adapted for HBO’s 1994 film collection Cosmic Slop, imagines the USA holding a referendum to trade Black Americans to aliens. The motion passes. Like the circular histories of Wandering Stars, ‘The Space Traders’ reprises historical suffering in its accounting of the future, foretelling an inescapable loop of dispossession and slavery and illuminating the enduring nature of racism in America.

In a similar vein, more recent works of Palestinian science fiction struggle to imagine a future unmoored from Israeli oppression.

The stories that make up Palestine +100, a 2019 collection of short fiction, highlight facets of the current Palestinian struggle by projecting them into the year 2048 – 100 years after Israel’s inception and the subsequent Nakba. In Saleem Haddad’s ‘The Song of Birds’, two siblings come to believe that the now-liberated Palestine they experience is a simulated reality developed as a tool of subjugation. They convince themselves that suicide is the only way to exit the dream and reveal the truth of continuing occupation. The story is dedicated to Mohanned Younis, who killed himself in Gaza in 2017 at the age of 22. In Tasnim Abutabikh’s ‘Vengeance’, Israel’s control of Palestinian resources is extended to include oxygen. In ‘The Association’ Samir El-Youssef extends on Israel’s ongoing erasure of Palestinian history to imagine that in 2028 the government prohibits “going back over the past by writing, speculating, or in any way publishing about it.”

Just as Afrofuturism makes a claim about the racism of white America, in its visions of future persecution Palestinian sci-fi does just the same of Jewish Israel. It is itself a kind of Jewish futurism.

Just as Afrofuturism makes a claim about the racism of white America, in its visions of future persecution Palestinian sci-fi does just the same of Jewish Israel. It is itself a kind of Jewish futurism. Anwar Hamed’s ‘The Key’ is the story of Palestinian sci-fi that is most heavily focused on Jewish Israelis. After Israel’s government definitively prevents Palestinians from practising their right of return with a “gravity wall”, Israeli Jews find themselves haunted by the sound of keys turning in their locks. Eventually, even Doctor Naftali, who has prescribed enormous quantities of sleeping pills to Israelis disturbed by the tormenting noise, hears the keys turning. The story insists that Jewish and Palestinian futures are inextricably bound up with one another and so segregating the two group is futile.

The horrors of Palestinian sci-fi rebut utopian fantasies of a Jewish future predicated on Zionism; the 2048 of Palestine +100 contests the imagined future conjured by utopian Zionist writers by pointing to a century of oppression. The anxieties of exile that riddle Wandering Stars undermine Zionism’s capacity to stabilize Jewish life. Instead, the stories advocate for an inclusive Jewishness that embraces the other, the alien, in much the same way that Altneuland dreams of civic equality, but in this case dispensing with the need for a nation state to reach utopia.

A short scene in Bell’s ‘The Space Traders’ depicts a rabbi expressing solidarity with African-Americans at a community meeting. It offers a rare glimpse of hope in an overwhelmingly pessimistic film. This detail provided by an Afrofuturist author presents perhaps our most positive vision of a Jewish future built on solidarity. The alternative resides in the bleak projections of the shared archive of Jewish and Palestinian sci-fi.

Daniel Lubin is a writer, researcher and activist based in London.

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