A few years back, when I was rediscovering Star Trek as an adult fan, my now-husband introduced me to Deep Space Nine. “That’s Sisko, he’s the captain,” he explained. “That’s Dax, her species has worms in their gut that make them live forever, kind of. Oh, and that’s Kira. She’s a Bajoran. They’re space Jews.”
He thought, correctly, that I would be intrigued by Kira, being Jewish myself. Over the years, that comparison has always stuck with me, and every time I watch or rewatch Deep Space Nine or any other Star Trek episode with Bajorans, I look for connections, clues that the Occupation of Bajor was inspired at least in part by the Jewish diaspora. And while I’ve seen moments where our real and fictional histories line up, there are also times that the allegory falls short.
Obviously, a fictional allegory can never be a perfect one-to-one stand-in for its real-life counterpart. In this case, part of the challenge is that there was not just one Jewish diaspora. Most people are familiar with the Holocaust and the lives of Jews in general under Hitler in the 1930’s and 40’s, but that was just the latest in a millennia-spanning history of the Jewish people being attacked, blamed for problems, and driven from their homes by one method or another.
Take, for example, the occupation of Judea by the Selucid Empire and the subsequent Maccabean Revolt of about 170 BCE. The Maccabean Revolt is most famous as part of the story of Hanukkah. After being invaded and oppressed by the Greeks, a group of Jews in Jerusalem responded by taking up arms. The Jewish people are not pacifists per se, but this is one of the only notable times when our people successfully ran a military campaign against an empire seeking to eradicate us.
There are certainly parallels to be made between the Maccabean Revolt and the Bajoran Resistance Movement, but it’s not clear if the end of the Occupation of Bajor could be attributed directly to the Bajoran resistance. Even in this fictional world, both sides had their own explanation for what happened, and the truth is either nuanced or completely unknown, perhaps even to the writers.
Considering the Cardassian Occupation, you can see many parallels to oppression tactics experienced by Jews throughout history. For example:
- They drove the Bajorans out of their homes and homelands and into refugee camps, and then into forced labor camps if they didn’t behave. The first time I ever heard the word “ghetto,” was actually in Hebrew school, where I learned that many Jews in Europe were forced to live in these isolated communities, cut off from many resources their gentile neighbors enjoyed. Diseases festered in these ghettos. If you’ve ever heard of Tay-Sachs, Familial Dysautonomia, or other genetic illnesses that are specific to people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, this is where they started, and they cling to our bloodlines to this day. While it does not seem that any genetic illnesses arose in Bajorans as a result of the occupation, the episode “Duet” mentions an illness, Kalla Nohra Syndrome, which could only have been contracted by Bajorans or Cardassians who were present for a specific mining accident at a specific labor camp.
- They took sacred Bajoran artifacts and didn’t always return them willingly after the Occupation was over (see the episode “Rapture”). This is very common with pretty much any colonizing or domineering nation, but in the context of Jewish history, it echoes the Nazi plunder of World War II, and the subsequent fight by Jewish families to get their property back, a battle that continues to this day, and which doesn’t always have positive outcomes.
- They forbade Bajorans from practicing their religion, or at least they forbade Vedeks, the Bajoran equivalent of priests or rabbis, from preaching. Suppression of a conquered race’s religion is a common tactic of oppressors, and one Jewish people are very familiar with. With pretty much every diaspora or struggle, practicing Judaism became forbidden, and forced conversions into other religions were common.
- They considered themselves the superior race and asserted that belief again and again, even once the Occupation was over. This is one aspect that stood out to me during my re-watch, the doubling down that the Occupation was, overall, the right thing to do. Even my favorite character Garak made such an assertion in the episode “Things Past.” Nazi Germany may be gone, but there are still plenty today who either outright deny the Holocaust happened, or assert that overall, it wasn’t as bad as we’ve been taught, or that the Jews and other victims were in some way the instigators.
But one notable thing missing is some kind of “final solution,” some grand plan by the Cardassians to eradicate the Bajorans altogether, which is not to say that the absence of genocide makes the Cardassians any more sympathetic.
This does, however, highlight another difference. Throughout history, Jews have not generally been completely separate from the communities and countries in which they live. Even in Israel, they share their land with Christians, Muslims, and people of other religions or no religion at all. There are some Orthodox communities that isolate themselves, but even then they don’t live in a completely separate world than their more secular or non-Jewish neighbors. They are still subject to the same laws, and they still walk the same streets and if nothing else, live under the same sky.
The regimes that have sought to control, oppress, or eradicate Jews have almost always targeted the Jews already in their own communities, who are often already integrated into their cultures and in many cases consider themselves part of that culture first, and Jewish second. They demonize the Jews and make them part of the “other,” turning their own neighbors and friends against them. This is a common tactic we see in many authoritarian regimes that target a group within the population that can easily be blamed for society’s real or perceived ills.
However, the relationship between Cardassians and Bajorans seems to be more analogous to, as an example, the relationship between conquering Europeans and Indigenous people of the Americas: the subjugation of groups completely outside of the conquering force, who possess some resource the conquering party seeks to exploit and who are cast as lesser to justify the conquest. The Cardassians were not looking to use the Bajorans as a scapegoat; they wanted their land, and to assert their dominance as a supposedly superior race. While many Bajorans did die under the Cardassians’ watch, that’s often presented in Deep Space Nine either as a byproduct of the forced labor tactics the Cardassians used against the Bajorans, or isolated incidents where a few Bajorans committed crimes, or were accused of committing crimes, against the Cardassians.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are plenty of other groups that might stand in for the Cardassians and the Bajorans, including Great Britain and Ireland (the IRA has been noted as an influence for the Bajoran Resistance), and, sadly, the Israelis and the Palestinians. Jews might have a long-standing history of suffering under the thumbs of others, but we don’t have a monopoly on it.
So why claim a Jewish allegory at all, especially in modern times when the Holocaust is behind us, and the Jews have their own country?
Well, first, though progress has been positive, we’re not quite out of the woods yet. Anti-Jewish sentiment is still alive and well all over the world, and there are plenty of people and groups who believe stereotypes and lies, ranging from cosmetic (I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I don’t “look” Jewish) to outright harmful (Fun fact: Blaming George Soros for Black Lives Matter protestors is an antisemitic dog whistle).
And while yes, the people of Israel have their own country now, and yes, the rulers of that country have certainly committed acts worthy of criticism or rebuke, one must always ask if there is an undercurrent of antisemitism to those critiques (for example, calls for boycotts of Israeli products in order to protest the Israeli government, without calls for products of countries that have had similar criticisms lobbied against them). And certainly, there are Trek comparisons to be made to Israel as well: the Bajoran Provisional Government certainly was not free of sin (see episodes such as “Progress,” or really anything involving Kai Winn).
Ultimately, fiction is a lens through which we can view many histories and cultures. It’s a very useful tool for contextualizing concepts that others may have difficulty relating to otherwise. Ironically, if a person can’t sympathize with a real-life culture that has faced forced relocation, threats of genocide, and other atrocities, they might be able to relate to a fictional one instead.
We can’t ignore the many cultures whose present-day struggles could be easily related to the struggles of the Bajorans against the Cardassians. But at the same time, we should not ignore a culture that has come far, but still has a long way to go, and how Star Trek can help us better understand their journey. And as a Jew who has studied my people’s history and loves Star Trek, I can think of no better alien race to compare myself to than one which has suffered and struggled for so long, but finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel.