Jews and Other “Aliens” -or- The Merchant of LV-426

May 29, 2012 at 11:19 am, by

There is an old Jewish joke from pre-Holocaust Europe about a Jewish man who walks into a travel agency asking to move to a country without anti-Semitism. The travel agent hands him a globe and asks him where he would like to go. After spending several minutes examining it carefully, he looks up at the travel agent and says, “Excuse me, do you have another globe?” Had this man seen the movie Aliens (Dir. James Cameron, 1986), he may have had to ask, “Excuse me, do you have another Universe?”

In Aliens, the chief antagonist, Carter J. Burke, played by Paul Reiser, continues on a sad tradition in Western culture of portrayal of Jews as shallow, conniving, greedy, immoral, and in some ways even less-than-human. Perhaps the best and most well-known examples of this are Shakespeare’s Shylock from The Merchant of Venice and Dickens’ Fagin from Oliver Twist. These popular notions of Jews are part of what allowed regular people to both participate in and stand by and do nothing while innocent Jews were being slaughtered by the millions, with these very same stereotypes used as “justification.” This is not to imply that James Cameron, or even Charles Dickens (who later edited out every reference to Fagin’s Jewishness) and Shakespeare are/were anti-Semites, or that Paul Reiser is self-loathing (for a fact, he is not), but it does mean that the association of Jews with greedy—some might say parasitic—corporate self-interest runs so deep in Western consciousness that a character such as Carter Burke, the “corporate man”, while never explicitly identified as a Jew in the movie, can still qualify for nearly every criteria of Jewish stereotype to such a large degree that it is a wonder more people (very likely including Paul Reiser himself) have never realized it. Upon a close examination of Aliens, the conclusion that the “J” in Carter J. Burke stands for “Jew” becomes inescapable. In the movie Aliens, the character Carter J. Burke is not evil because he represents a corporation, but rather, that is the most explicit part of the greater evil he represents as a stereotypical Jew, a fact that, while hinted at subtly throughout the film, is made most obvious in juxtaposition to his foil, the android Bishop.

There is no question that the producers of the film intended Carter Burke to be seen as evil, or that they intended for the audience to connect his corporate greed with the alien parasites the protagonists are fighting. This connection is established early on in the film. In the scene where Ripley is meeting with Weylan-Yutani officials trying to convince them the aliens she encountered fifty-seven years ago are real, an Extrasolar Colonization Administration rep describes the alien as, according to Ripley, “a creature that gestates inside a living human host…and has concentrated acid for blood.” Immediately after he says this, Ripley glances at Burke, who says nothing but looks grim. Later on in the film, when some in the crew find some of these creatures trapped in glass in a lab, Burke seems to find them especially fascinating. So intense his gaze into the glass that Ripley has to shout to him “Careful Burke!” It is unknown whether the creatures behind the glass are alive or dead until Burke gets his face so close to the glass, the facehugger he is fixated on behind it reacts to seeing him, causing the soldiers to quip, “Looks like love at first sight to me,” and “Oh, he likes you Burke” (1). With these two incidents, an intimate connection between Burke and the aliens is established not only for the audience but for the Sulaco crew on LV-426 as well. His partnership/association with them is further established in the scene where he tries to kill Ripley and Newt by trapping them in a room with some facehuggers and when they return the favor in the next scene by cutting the power just as Hicks is about to “waste him” in retribution for his plot (3).

So it is known Burke is like one of the xenomorph parasites with acid for blood, but why? The most apparent answer is his corporate greed. Indeed, this is the first thing the audience knows about him, as his first words are, “Nice room. I’m Burke. Carter Burke. I work for the company, but other than that I’m an okay guy.” His connection with parasitic corporate greed is shown through editing later. Directly following the scene where Ripley is telling Newt that there are real monsters comes, with a hard cut, the scene where Bishop is telling Ripley that the eggs are all coming from the same source. She says she wants all the specimens destroyed as soon as he is done working on them, but he tells her he cannot—Burke has prohibited it. Then, again without any transition, it cuts to Burke telling Ripley she’s not being smart, the eggs could be worth millions (1). Thus, through a single stream of editing, the film goes from monsters are real to they lay eggs that come from one source to Burke’s greed. His association with corporate greed is made so blatant in this scene that it is even in the script. When Ripley confronts him here about his role in the deaths of the colonists and his only response is that it was a “bad call,” Cameron writes in the stage direction after Ripley yells at him, “She steps back, shaking, and looks at him with utter loathing, as if the depths of human greed are a far more horrific revelation than any alien” (3). Once again, the acid-blooded one’s reaction to this is just a snide remark that he thought she was “smarter” than that. Clearly Burke, whatever he is, is intentionally worse than the aliens.

But many people in films are greedy corporate tools and this does not make them malignant Jewish stereotypes. However, in addition to ruthless corporate greed, Carter Burke embodies almost every other Jewish stereotype culled from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in many, less immediately obvious ways. On the Web site of the Anti-Defamation League, a non-profit organization committed to combating and pointing out global anti-Semitism, there is a list of common Jewish stereotypes with (ironically) data indicating that common belief in these stereotypes had declined from 1992 to 1998. The first items mentioned on the list are: Jews have too much power, Jews have too much influence on Wall Street, and Jews have too much power in the business world. Paul Reiser’s obviously Ashkenazi Jewish appearance and New York accent embodying Carter Burke would do nothing to assuage these fears in a general audience. The next two on the list are: Jews are more willing to use shady practices to get what they want, and Jews are [not] as honest as other businessmen (2). Once again, Burke stands guilty as charged. But negative Jewish stereotypes go beyond the business world, even if those are the most common. A common stereotype is that Jews control the media—the Company, a metonymy for Burke, had Personal Data Transmitters implanted into every colonist so they can constantly keep track of their whereabouts. This is seen again in the scene where Ripley and Newt are trapped in the room with the facehuggers and Burke shuts off the monitor in the control room so that Hicks can’t see them screaming for help, and again in the scene where Ripley confronts him about his role in the deaths of the colonists. His tentacles extend to monitor and control all information. This made apparent right from the beginning when Burke brings Lt. Gorman to Ripley’s house in an attempt to persuade her to go back into space. In this scene, Burke knows what Ripley’s job is, knows what her psych evaluation said, and promises to use his deep connections to get her a better job if she accedes to his blackmail. This all-knowingness is seen to a lesser degree in scenes throughout the movie: When characters on LV-426 are planning something, it is practically a motif that Burke will always be there, hovering over their shoulders like an uninvited intrusion into their plans. This “Burke lurk” is seen when Ripley is driving the tank to rescue the soldiers in the midst of their first encounter with the aliens and Burke’s face is almost floating in the background behind her shoulder, and again when the surviving crew is looking at the APC’s blueprints on a screen much later on and Burke is almost on tiptoes behind them trying to nose into their plans, to name just two instances of many. The latter example, however, is particularly telling, because if anybody should have been invited to that session, it’s Burke. As much as they hate him, he would know more about how the APC is built than anybody else, yet he is still forced outside their inner circle; he is the ultimate outsider—the Jew.

There are virtually zero Jewish stereotypes Burke does not embody at some point or another. In the middle of the film, Lt. Gorman gets a bad head injury; the next time he is seen he is walking out of a closed room in a bloody head bandage with Burke’s arm around his shoulder—that’s right, Burke is a doctor too. His mother must be so proud.

But the two most damning evidences of Burke’s implied Jewishness come, strangely enough, in scenes centered around the phrase “no offense.” The first comes when the main characters and the surviving soldiers are on a drop-ship after experiencing heavy-losses, including their leader, Sergeant Apone (a controlling black man who was the first major character in the film to die), and are trying to make sense out of what just happened. Everyone is in favor of nuking the APC except for Burke, citing the great cost of the instillation and chiding them for making “snap judgments” in an “emotional moment.” In his delusions of power and authority, he says he’s not “authorizing that action.” Ripley points out he does not have that authority, the film’s chief male protagonist, the aptly-named all-American boy Hicks does, following the death of Sgt. Apone. Incensed, Burke says, “Look, this is a multimillion dollar operation. He can’t make that kind of decision. He’s just a grunt!” He then glances at Hicks and says, “No offense.” Hicks responds, “None taken,” then says into his headset, “Ferro, you copying?…Prep for dust-off. We’re gonna need an immediate evac.” He then turns to Burke,“I think we’ll take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure” (2). When Hicks wants to go over the Jew’s head, wants to tell him his authority is inferior, who does he call on to foil his plans? The one named “Ferro” (pronounced “Pharaoh”), the blonde pilot who will fly them to safety while Burke’s empire should have been destroyed, a reverse Exodus, of sorts. The second comes at the beginning of the third act when Hudson, Hicks, and Ripley are surrounding Burke, ready to kill him for his plot against Ripley and Newt. The scene begins with Ripley describing Burke’s plot to get them impregnated with alien embryos so that he could smuggle them back to earth unnoticed and then rake in the cash. Burke, looking calm, but with a cold sweat, responds, “This is a total paranoid delusion. It’s pitiful.” Then Ripley says something very interesting. She says, “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them screwing each other over for a fucking percentage.” After this is when Hicks says, “Let’s waste him…No offense,” and Burke’s life is momentarily spared by the lights going out (3). When Ripley asks “which species is worse,” which species is she referring to? She clearly is not implicating herself, Hicks, Hudson, or any other human we’ve seen in the film, nor do any of the other humans in the room think for a second she means to indict either of them also in her global statement. So then which species is Ripley referring to? The evidence suggests it could only be the Jewish species, something less-than-human. Humans Ripley, Hudson, and Hicks don’t fuck each other over for a percentage, the aliens wouldn’t even do that; but Jews would, according to her. This is confirmed by Hicks’ statement earlier—Burke denied his humanity by referring to him as a mere “grunt,” and now Hicks gets to return the favor. Ripley’s accusation of Burke’s wanting to impregnate her and Newt with his parasite embryos for the sake of his own personal financial gain—bringing aliens back would benefit the Company, but he himself would gain the most from it not only because of the money it would bring but because of the power as well—has the feel of an accusation culled straight from Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which includes discussions by the Jews of plots to take over the world and enslave non-Jews (6). And that Burke’s plot to impregnate the women was foiled by, of course, heroic Hicks, furthers the classical anti-Semitic overtones of this scene. But of course, Protocols is forged, and Burke tries to tell them as much—“This is a total paranoid delusion. It’s pitiful.”—but the others have seen enough evidence to be convinced, calling to mind Henry Ford’s statement from 1921, “The only statement I care to make about the Protocols is that they fit in with what is going on….[T]hey have fitted the world situation up to this time. They fit it now” (5). The only response is to “waste him,” to exterminate him before he can exterminate you. The Jew is the real alien parasite they should be concerned with. Burke shows his revulsion to the idea of mass slaughter of a particular species back in the first “no offense” scene—when the idea of nuking the APC is first suggested, his raises two objections: first is of course the “substantial dollar value attached to it,” and second, “This is clearly an important species we’re dealing with here. We can’t just arbitrarily exterminate them.” (to which Ripley and Vasquez [who is, ironically, played by a Jew] respond “Bullshit!”) (3). Who could have known at the time how wholly self-serving both motives were?

If Carter Burke is not fully human because he is a Jew, he can be compared to the other Sulaco crew member who is not fully human, the android Bishop. Bishop is Burke’s foil in every way. To begin with, their names: Carter J. Burke is probably the most non-Jewish-sounding white name ever created. This serves two purposes: One, it frees the filmmakers from any charges of anti-Semitism—how could a guy named Carter J. Burke be a Jew?—and two, it actually fits his character quite well. Burke is a liar, a deceiver, and as such, it is not hard to imagine him perhaps changing his name from Berkowitz to Burke in a failed effort to shed or disassociate himself from his Jewishness in order to either move up in the world or, if the corporate world is run by the Jews, then to fool the gentiles he would be working with, like the crew of the Sulaco. Bishop, on the other hand, is completely who he is on the surface, which is to say completely trustworthy and completely good. Indeed, it is impossible for him “to harm or, by omission of action, allow to be harmed a human being.” As such, he lives up to his name “Bishop” (a curious name for an android if ever there was one). He administers faithfully to those under his care, and is willing to sacrifice everything for them if need be, just like any good Christian clergyman in a position of power would be. But their polar opposite trustworthiness is perhaps their most obvious juxtaposition. When Burke is first introduced in the film’s second scene, Ripley completely ignores him to focus on her cat. The next several scenes feature Burke unsuccessfully trying to persuade her to go back into space. When she finally does decide, in the middle of the night, to go in order to quell her reoccurring nightmares, she calls Burke, demanding, “That you’re going out there to kill them. Not study. Not bring back. Just burn them out…clean …forever.” To which Burke says, “That’s the plan. My word on it” (3). Needless to say, he does not keep his word. Compare this to Ripley’s introduction to Bishop, whose very first words in the film are “trust me.” In the mess hall, no sooner does he sit down next to her than does she get up and move away. It becomes known that the android, or “artificial person”, as he prefers, on her last mission malfunctioned and killed people. That’s when Bishop tells her he cannot harm people, though she refuses to believe him. It is also interesting to note the role food plays in this scene—Bishop offers his food to Lt. Gorman, Ripley (both before and after she expresses her mistrust of him), and to Burke. Only Burke the Jewish parasite mooches. In addition to, or perhaps because of, their non-humanness, Bishop and Burke are depicted as probably the two smartest members of the crew, and as such it is interesting to compare how they use their intelligence and what they consider to be smart. Throughout almost the entire movie, Bishop is hard at work either in the lab dissecting the xenomorphs, crawling through narrow pipes, or flying the drop-plane for the benefit of the humans, whereas Burke is caught up in one scheme after another trying to use them or kill them. In the scene where Ripley confronts Burke about his role in the fate of the colonists, he seems genuinely surprised she feels so negatively since she could get rich in this too, telling her sadly, “I expected more of you, Ripley. I thought you would be smarter than this.” For Burke, intelligence equals self-interest. On the other hand, only a few scenes later, when Ripley, the remaining soldiers, and Bishop, realize someone will need to risk their life by going into the APC—which is infested with aliens and estimated explode in about four hours—to get to their one remaining drop-ship, their one remaining hope for escape, Bishop volunteers almost immediately, saying, “I’m really the only one qualified to remote-pilot the ship anyway. Believe me, I’d prefer not to. I may be synthetic but I’m not stupid.” For Bishop, intelligence equals selflessness. Finally, their oppositeness is seen in their deaths: Burke dies after cowardly running away trying to save himself at the expense of the others, while Bishop gives his last strength in self-sacrifice for Ripley and Newt. All this is to say that emotionless non-human does not equal bad in this film, far from it. This comparison could be read as Burke’s embodiment of the greed-driven Corporation’s non-humanness versus Bishop’s self-sacrificing non-humanness; however, since Burke is not always acting solely in the interest of Weylan-Yutani, it seems a better fit to attribute his evil to something else. Time and again, Bishop embraces his role and thrives in it while Burke lives in delusions of grandeur. In this movie, the two most conventional threats to humanity in science-fiction, aliens and robots, are both eclipsed by the far greater evil posed by invader right under our noses, the Jew.

How did this happen? Could it be that the filmmakers only meant to create a greedy corporate shill, and all the other anti-Semitic inferences are merely coincidental? Western history makes this almost impossible. In Christian Europe, and increasingly in the Muslim Middle-East, anti-Semitic libels and stereotypes grew out of fear, religious ignorance, and, especially in the case of Jewish business stereotypes, unavoidable social conditions that the Christians themselves created. All of them unfounded in real life and completely antithetical to the values of Judaism which have always been the primary factor in shaping Jewish culture. Nonetheless, these stereotypes have worked themselves so deeply into our culture that “wandering Jew” is the name of a species of flower, in several parts of North America “jewed down” is a perfectly acceptable synonym for “haggled,” and women in college are constantly harassed with the “JAP” (Jewish American Princess) label. The fact that these images are so well-ingrained into our society that such a reading of a character nowhere identified as Jewish is not a stretch says much, just as the fact that, in this same movie called Aliens, the headstrong black characters are the first to die, the one Latina character is the target of a cheap illegal immigration joke, and that the whole plot basically centers around the struggle—lives being sacrificed even—to prevent two young white women from becoming impregnated by foreign bodies, also says much about our culture. Even if it was subconscious, there still must have been a reason the character clearly meant to be Burke’s foil is named Bishop. There must have been a reason the producers wanted Carter Burke to be played by Paul Reiser, a comedian with little prior dramatic experience. Something approximating a reason for this casting decision is actually mentioned in the DVD extra “Preparing for Battle: Casting and Characterization.” In the featurette, the story of how each new character in the film was cast is discussed at length, all except for one: Carter Burke. While several minutes are spent giving the story of the decisions behind all the main marines and Newt, only two insights are given into the casting of Burke: one a brief mention in an interview with Jenette Goldstein, who plays Vasquez, and the other a short interview with Paul Reiser, where he says, “It’s been a lot of fun because I am an outsider. And just conspicuously it works physically, because…these guys are all in their military gear and I’m a guy with a pencil. So I look at them and I look [he pauses] blazingly inappropriate.” He then comments on incidents on set caused by his markedly un-marine-like wardrobe and is neither mentioned nor heard from further (4). In other words, such an obviously Jewish-looking person as Reiser could never belong among butch space marines, clearly his purpose there was for something different. Almost any actor could be made to stand out amidst the company to look like he doesn’t belong, but they specifically chose Paul Reiser—the obvious New York Jew—for this role as the outsider corporate weasel and they will say no more about it. This conspicuously brief anecdote seems to reflect the producers’ anxiety at reflecting upon their casting of Burke.

With the image of the Jew as the scrawny, greedy, self-interested, conniving outsider amongst compassionate, self-sacrificing gentiles being so widespread and so deeply ingrained—its origin doubtlessly can be traced back through Western culture to the Medieval Passion Play, if not before—it seems unlikely that these virulent images of Jews will go away anytime soon, although the fact that such characters can no longer be directly labeled as Jews and are not meant specifically to cause Jews harm shows how far we’ve come. Yet from Renaissance Venice to Victorian England to LV-426 sometime in the future, the “oldest hatred” has never died; it has been and will be there, malevolently lurking somewhere in the background just like Carter J. Burke. In light of this, the filmmakers’ answer to the man from the joke would probably be, ‘Yes, we do. But it won’t do you any good.’

Works Cited

  1. Aliens. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sigourney Weaver and Paul Reiser. Theatrical Release. Twentieth Century-Fox, 2004. DVD.
  2. “Anti-Semitism and Prejudice in America: Declining Acceptance of Nearly All Anti-Jewish Stereotypes.” ADL: Fighting Anti-Semitism, Bigotry and Extremism. Web. 13 December 2009. <http://www.adl.org/antisemitism_survey/survey_ii.asp>.
  3. Cameron, James. Aliens [First Draft]. “Aliens Script at IMSDb.” The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb). Web. 13 December 2009. <http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Aliens.html>.
  4. “Preparing for Battle: Casting and Characterization.” Aliens. Twentieth Century-Fox, 2004. DVD.
  5. “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Web. 13 December 2009. <http://skepdic.com/protocols.html>.
  6. “What’s the Story with the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’?” The Straight Dope. Web. 13 December 2009. <http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1797/whats-the-story-with-the-protocols-of-the-elders-of-zion>.

(With special thanks to Dr. Jeff Aziz.)

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2 Comments So Far

  1. I just came off the Prometheus board, where some people are actually complaining that the film didn’t have enough black people.

    Carter Burke, with his obviously un-Jewish name, does not make Jews look bad. The author of this article, however, definitely does make Jews look bad – holy cow, what a negative stereotype.

    annoyed, June 6, 2012 at 8:16 pm #
  2. No offense (hah! See what I did there?) but this analysis is delusional and is itself borderline racist.

    You describe Apone as “a controlling black man.” What’s his race got to do with it? He’s a sergeant in the Marine Corps — he HAS to be controlling, because that’s his job. IRL the privates and corporals, the Hickses and Vasquezes and so on, would be 19-year-old kids who function as a unit largely because of NCOs like Apone.

    As for Reiser, an inconvenient fact you glossed over is that he’s named BURKE in the film. Not Rosen. Not Weinstein. Not Cohen. Burke. Should the Irish and Brits be offended and write essays about how they’re portrayed?

    Most people who saw the film saw Reiser and thought, “Oh, there’s the dude from Mad About You, only this time he’s playing a real jerk.” It’s not like he perfected a New York accent for Aliens. That’s how he actually speaks. You know, because he’s from New York and he’s not part of some secret James Cameron/Sigourney Weaver-led plot to make Jews look like scary roach aliens.

    Plan, August 13, 2013 at 6:01 am #
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