Most of the discussion about Borat and anti-Semitism misses the point. The ADL wonders if he’s not playing a dangerous game since “not everyone will get the joke.” But they may be missing the point: The prejudice that Borat is promoting is not against Jews, it’s against Kazakhs, branding them with one of the most toxic slurs in Western discourse — the charge of anti-Semitism.
There are a couple of reasons, I think, that humor based on ethnic slurs tends to be the mostly exclusive province of comedians who share the ethnicity of those he or she is caricaturing: The first is obviously simply the awareness bred of intimacy; they know their subject better than any outsider. But there’s a second, more complex set of reasons: Ethnic slurs are going to be make people very, very uncomfortable for no reason other than their ethnicity, and that’s not something we like to do in polite society. It puts the victim in an awful position, really: Either he or she laughs along with a caricature in which they can’t recognize themselves, only the prejudice through which others see them. Or else they’re a party pooper. Either way, as my vague memories of being around the occasional Hymie joke as a kid tell me, it’s a deeply uncomfortable experience.
So Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle can rant about “niggers” and get a laugh — and make a double-edged point about stereotypes applied to black males both within and outside of the African American community. Margaret Cho can mock the Korean immigrant nuclear family; Jon Stewart or Adam Sandler can do the Jews; John Leguizamo can do Puerto Ricans etc. But things get complicated when comedians target another group with the same venom they reserve for their own. Not saying that’s the way it should be, but that’s the way it is. Nor does it mean that it shouldn’t happen, although I think people have to take responsibility for what they say and do, and the impact that could have.
I always liked Sascha Baron Cohen’s Ali G character, who seemed to me to be less of a caricature of Black Britain than of hip-hop obsessed white boys trying very hard to seem like they come from “Yard.” But the first time I saw Borat, I cringed: That “throw the Jew down the well” segment in which his Kazakh bumpkin leads a Texan Country and Western crowd in a song with that as the chorus seemed to me a bad, bad joke — not bad taste humor, which I rather like, but a bad joke. Not only did his Texan audience seem to be rather innocently indulging him, it immediately struck me that he was painting an horrendously inaccurate picture of Kazakh attitudes — horrendous because, in the West, there is no charge quite as toxic as that of being an anti-Semite. And the reality is that Kazakhstan is one of the least anti-Semitic polities in the Muslim world today.
This from the U.S. State Department report on anti-Semitism in Kazakhstan last year: “In August 2004, the Chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan, addressing an international religious conference in Brussels, stated that in 10 years in the country he had never faced a single case of anti-Semitism. He praised the Government of Kazakhstan for its pro-active protection of the Jewish community.”
Similar sentiments are echoed by just about every other source I’ve read on the issue.
So, you wonder what the Kazakh’s must make of being tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth? I’d say that Sascha Baron Cohen is a prat, and a racist prat at that: Essentially, he’s operating his own stereotype, i.e. that Muslims are inherently anti-Semitic. And I can entirely sympathize with the exasperation of the Kazakh government in having to respond to this nonsense.
Let’s just say Baron needs to go back to Oxford and learn a little history — he might learn that over the long haul of Jewish history, we’ve done a lot better under Islamic rule than we’ve fared in the Christian West. Then again, if Sascha Baron Cohen did a skit of some provincial Catholic bishop singing “throw the Jew down the well”, he wouldn’t be opening his movie all over America right now.