Planet of the Apes: A Movie About Jews?

Anti-Semites have long associated Jews with body hair and savagery. But they're not the only ones who've made the comparison.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

The latest Planet of the Apes installment opens in July. Titled "The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", the film yet again features a typical caste system that would be all too familiar to humans.

The orangutans at the top represent the ruling elites, or WASPs. The gorillas are hunters, soldiers, and menial laborers at the bottom and serve to symbolize African Americans. Sandwiched in between are the chimpanzees – the rational, virtuous, and admirable professionals, scientists, intellectuals, and pacifists of the ape planet. They are discriminated against and denied power and influence through the use of quotas – a position analogous to Jews in America, not long before the first Apes film was made.

This was surely no coincidence: that film was made by Rod Serling, creator of "The Twilight Zone," who was himself Jewish and had long wanted to make a film about racial discrimination based on his own experiences of anti-Semitic prejudice.

Serling wasn't the first to make the ape association. Jews and primates have long been associated in art, literature, Christian theology, the anti-Semitic imagination – and even, arguably, in the bible.

Esau: Savage and hirsute

Hairiness has long been associated with savagery. Genesis 25:24-34 tells of Esau, the eldest son of Isaac and a hairy, outdoors man. Even then body hair was evidently viewed as a sign of wildness and a lack of civility – which were believed to be hallmarks of the Jews.

Christian theologians of the Renaissance period connected apes and Jews, referring to Satan as “God’s ape.” Apes were a common motif in Medieval and Renaissance art: note the monkey in Paolo Veronese’s "Feast in the House of Levi" (1573).

Leaping ahead to the modern period, anti-Semites and racists often characterize the Jew as apish and abnormally hairy. Adolf Hitler, for example, wrote in Mein Kampf that Germans must dedicate marriage to the goal of “bring[ing] forth images of the Lord, not abominations that are part man and part ape.” It is not a stretch to link his use of the word “ape” here to Jews.

Caricatures of Jewish apelike creatures by filled the pages of Der Stürmer. Jews were depicted as slouched over with dangling arms and receding foreheads. The image still comes up in anti-Semitic cartoons in Arab countries today. In 2010, Egypt’s then president, Mohamed Morsi, called Jews the “descendants of apes.”

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To be fair, Jews have also compared themselves to apes. In November 1919, Franz Kafka published a short story “A Report to An Academy” comparing the experience of a captive ape to that of the Jew in Western civil society. He was reflecting on the anti-Semitic accusation that, as Sander Gilman wrote, “Jews will never become true Germans… The more they try to change, the more they reveal themselves as fundamentally defective.”

Later, the philo-Semitic author Vladimir Nabokov, whose wife and son were Jewish, explained the origins of his infamous novel, Lolita (1955): “As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

Nabokov then went on to characterize Lolita’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, in apelike terms. He was “attractively Simian.” Humbert has “ape eyes,” an “ape-ear,” and an “ape paw.” Some scholars suspect Nabokov intended Humbert to be read as Jewish – but more to the point, Humbert is certainly (mis)taken for one at several points in the book.

When Jewish director Stanley Kubrick made Lolita into a film in 1962, he chose the hirsute – though non-Jewish - actor, James Mason, for the leading role.

Created in God's image

Whether the apes in Planet of the Apes were deliberately modelled on Jews is arguable. But the vision of their society certainly apes Judaism.

The apes believe they were created in God’s image. They revere the “Sacred Scrolls” and a “Lawgiver,” whose breastplate bears more than a passing resemblance to those worn by the High Priests in the Temple. The society is a theocracy, run by a priest like caste of Orangutans, blinded by religion.

Plamet of the Apes

Therefore, we can read the whole society as Israelite: the orangutans are the Sadducees, the chimpanzees are the Pharisees, and the gorillas are the common people. If so, if all the monkeys symbolize Jews, then all the humans represent Gentiles.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"stars Gary Oldman as a character named “Dreyfus,” which may be read as a nod to the underlying Jewishness of the original 1968 movie, as well as to the links between apes and Jews throughout history. So, as we watch the latest installment of the Planet of the Apes saga, whether Jewishness is extant or not – we may want to ponder the ties between apes and Jews in culture, history, and theology, and how these links inform a Jewish reading of the films.

Cornelius and Dr. Zaius, two characters from Planet of the Apes... Are they Jewish?Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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