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The Hidden Jews of ‘Dune’

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As the film opens in the UK today, Nathan Abrams explores the Jewishness of the famous novel and its film adaptations.

Dune opens in the UK today and while its secret Jewish history has been explored here, the full story has not been told.

Much of Frank Herbert’s original 1965 science-fiction novel is explicitly influenced by a melange of religions, including Islam and Zen. But while they have been recognised as an influence, Jewish connections are rarely so.

Messianic Eschatology

The lead character of Paul Atreides is revealed to be the Messiah. The secretive desert-people, the Fremen, whom Paul comes to lead, much like the Jews, have a messianic eschatology in the sense that they have been ‘waiting’ millennia for Paul.

In fact, alt-right and fascist readers have made the same analogy:

Herbert’s Fremen are, of course, following an Islam-derived religion. But Herbert has Judaicized them in subtle ways and I believe they are meant subtly to depict the ultra-Orthodox Jewish mentality. They are extremely secretive, such that the Empire has never been able to take an accurate census and has vastly underestimate their numbers; they are superstitious, supremacist, hyper-ethnocentric, insist on blood purity, fanatically obsessed with maximizing and retaining possession of their tribal water reserves (here water=money), and have established de facto control of Spice (=oil) production by the sandworms (=Arab oil-producing states), which they have secretly domesticated and turned into weapons of war. Like the Bene Gesserit (=secular Jewish elites) they wield vast power behind the scenes. Importantly, the Fremen have a Bene Gesserit priestess as their chief religious figure.

Paul is the son of Lady Jessica, whose name recalls that of the daughter of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The desert tribe, the Fremen, look stereotypically Israeli — dark-skinned and curly-haired. Paul’s Fremen wife and legal concubine, Chani, has a name of Hebrew origin, meaning ‘He (God) has favoured me’. When Paul orders that every one of their Harkonnen enemies be wiped out, it recalls the biblical injunction to erase the Amalekites.

As the leader of the Fremen, Paul has been described as ‘a young white man who fulfils a persistent colonial fantasy, that of becoming a God-king to a tribal people’. Along with the native and mysterious Fremen, Paul brings rain to the desert planet, helping it to bloom, suggesting clear parallels with Israel.

Against Paul and the Fremen stands the mysterious Bene Gesserit order which practices a form of eugenics not unlike the Nazis’ racial ideology.

Antisemitic Readings

By contrast, the alt-right has tried to draw out antisemitic messages from the novel; for example, this video which suggests analogies between the Bene Gesserit and Jews. The lesson that ‘the prescient science fiction writer Frank Herbert was trying to get across covertly in his six-novel Dune saga’, they argue ‘was that the ‘Jewish homologs were master manipulators of ordinary humanity, aiming for total control via monopoly of endogamy and eugenics. They were only thwarted by counter-eugenic groups.’

 The Dune novels are essentially a warning that the greatest danger to humanity is eternal subjugation by a hostile, sociopathic, super-human elite, because their utopia/dystopia (depending on whether you are ruling or ruled) leads to eternal dysgenic stagnation–a closed, static, and predictable future. The heroes try to avert this hellish, totalitarian outcome and seek to return humanity to The Golden Path, which essentially represents an open unpredictable future in which humanity and its many distinct superhuman descendants radiate through an infinite universe and thereby become forever invulnerable to despotic (i.e. Jewish) exploitation and control.

By their reading, Paul’s foresight helps him defeat a shadowy conspiracy including the Spacing Guild and the House Harkonnen, figures which they characterize as greedy (Jewish) parasites. As one poster on the Vanguard website wrote, ‘I sensed subtext about Jews too when I read Dune, but I thought it was Harkonnen=Hebrews and Fremen=Palestinians. (For entirely unrelated reasons, film critic Jordan Hoffman suggests that Mel Brooks would have made a great Baron.)

For them, the eugenically created ubermensch is a blue-eyed hero whose Hellenic surname (Atreides) implies whiteness.

Further Jewish Echoes

In the oft-repeated mantra in Dune, ‘I must not fear, fear is the mind killer’, one might hear an echo of ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’.

On a further Jewish note, in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, humanity heeds the warning of the myth of the Golem by rejecting artificially intelligent computers and robots. Instead, humans known as ‘Mentats’ are trained for computer-like mathematical and logical computations.

One group within the Dune universe, however, does engage in the creation of golems. Known as ‘gholas’, these are artificially created humans, replicated from the cells of dead people. 

Jewish Influences

One of the books that influenced Frank Herbert was Jewish science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books. One can also see the fingerprints of Jewish biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 runaway bestseller The Population Bomb that predicted mass starvation as a result of unrestricted population growth. 

In the 1970s, Jewish producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned Frank Herbert’s novel. Jacobs had been producer on the Planet of the Apes series between 1968 and 1973. Those films have been noted for their Jewish subtext. Jacobs, though, died in 1973 before he could adapt it.

A new consortium then bought the option and brought in Jewish director Alejandro Jodorowsky to helm it. In addition to casting Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger, Jodorowsky wanted his son, Brontis, to play Paul thus bringing to the surface the latent Jewishness of the character (Paul = Saul?). 

Jodorowksy’s failed project was the subject of a 2013 documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune

The now-famous work that artist H.R. Giger did for Jodorowsky evoked the Second World War, mass genocide, and the Nazis. His Dune V features a skull, recalling the SS’s Totenkopf insignia. Dune I suggests the large-scale military formations of Leni Reifenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propagandist film, Triumph of the Will.  

Although his vision never came to screen, the extensive preproduction work Jodorowsky did on Dune subsequently influenced a host of other science fiction films, including AlienStar Wars, and Terminator — all of which have underlying Jewish themes.  

Jewish Cast

David Lynch’s 1984 version (of which I am a fan despite the widespread panning it has received) did feature Jewish actor Paul L. Smith in the role of ‘the beast’ Glossu Rabban (whose last name sounds much like ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Rabin’). Smith, who is most well known for playing Hamidou, the vicious prison guard in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978), had previously starred as Gideon in the ABC miniseries Masada (1981). After Dune, he emigrated to Israel and took the name Adam Eden.  

Lynch’s film also starred actor Jose Ferrer as Emperor Shaddam IV (this name sounds like one of the Israelites’ biblical foes) who, while not Jewish, was known for playing such Jewish characters as Lt. Barney Greenwald in The Caine Mutiny in 1954, Captain Alfred Dreyfus in I Accuse in 1958, and Sammy Glick in 1949.  

At the same time, As Daniel D. Snyder has written in The Atlantic, ‘the Emperor’s court in the opening scenes looks like a relic of imperial Russia’. Thus, the evil, conniving emperor is deliberately staged in such a way as to resemble the Tsar from which many of our ancestors fled. When he orders a ‘genocide’, ‘the deliberate and systematic destruction of all life on Arrakis’, he sounds like Hitler.

Emperor Shaddam IV. Photo: Youtube

Daniel D. Snyder also wrote:

With its bizarre dream sequences, rife with images of unborn fetuses and shimmering energies, and unsettling scenery like the industrial hell of the Harkonnen homeworld, the film’s actually closer to Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) than Lucas. 

If so, then like the hidden Jewishness of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we can detect the same in Dune.

It will be interesting to see what Jewish screenwriter Eric Roth brings to the 2020 version, parts of which have been filmed in Jordan. Timothee Chalamet, whose mother is Jewish, plays the lead role (partially reflecting Jodorowsky’s vision), and the music has been scored by Jewish composer Hans Zimmer. 

Art by Sheree Fadil

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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carole bent
carole bent
1 month ago

Thank you – a brilliant article on Dune – genuinely fascinating as I knew so little about the background.

Having loved the book, I went to see the new film a couple of days ago.

Whilst appreciating the excellent technical / production values and enjoying watching the film in the wonderful new cinema in Marlborough ( The Parade ) – I felt that style overtook soul.

It never felt ‘ hot ‘ to me despite the desert and the need for life-saving still suits.
it never seemed as if the characters were struggling with the heat, even when running up sand dunes in the midday heat.

Lady Jessica seemed a much weaker character than in the book, constantly looking horrified or wringing her hands in despair; the death of Duke Leto didn’t move me in the way that it did in the book.

His posture in death somehow reminded me of Salvador Dali’s Christ painting on display in the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow but failed to bring even a single tear.

Despite the fate of key individuals, I found it hard to feel emotionally connected to any of the characters or their plight in this sophisticated and visually outstanding film – again – in contrast to reading the book.

I’m curious to know if my views are shared by others who see this film version of one of the most outstanding books ever read.

Carole B
Creative Catalyst.Partner.Writer. Advocate for Social Justice.

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