Jonah Goldberg can surprise me every now and then and come up with a good column; his piece on the film Borat and its star Sacha Baron Cohen was not such an occasion. He basically sees the film as an attempt to make America look like a racist and militaristic nation for the benefit of those who hate America, especially in Europe, and Cohen as someone with a grudge against America, I do not see it that way.
I went to see the film Borat twice since it has been out. The first time I saw it at a big multiplex in the St. Louis suburbs (St. Louis Mills Mall) and the second time I saw it at a more upscale urban theater at the Chase Park Plaza. Both audiences laughed throughout the movie and at most of the same scenes; however there were a few scenes that flew over the heads of those at the suburban mall and that hit home to the audience at the Chase and those were the jokes that people who are not familiar with Jewish history and issues will not get. The crowd at the Chase, by my estimation, was heavily Jewish, and again by my guesstimate, the crowd at the Mills contained few Jews.
Why do I make this point? Because in order to understand Borat, or any of the other characters that Cohen plays, you must first understand who Cohen the Jew is and how his Jewishness colors all of his brilliant work. This is a man with a strong sense of a Jewish identity, a commitment to the faith, and the product of an observant Jewish home.
Borat is an anti-Semite not just because Cohen seeks to highlight the fact that in many cultures anti-Semitism is a part of the national fabric; but also to draw out the anti-Semitism of others who at first appearance are more refined and sophisticated. Goldberg points to the fact that there are only two real instances in the film, at the rodeo and with the frat boys, that Cohen is able to usefully do this, and that is incomplete.
First let us look at the character of Borat on Da Ali G Show on HBO. On that show Cohen was given hunting lessons by a man who supported the killings of Jews by Nazis in the holocaust and said he personally would not mind if Jews were hunted on his ranch, a bar full of people joining in on an anti-Semitic sing-along (“throw the Jew down the well”) at a country western bar, a Mississippi politician who said all Jews or going to hell and as he character of Bruno a man at a gun show who goes on an anti-Semitic rant. You will also notice that during the film Borat Cohen, who did research on the American Civil Rights Movement in college, happens to bring a black hooker to a Southern mansion on Succession Drive and he falls and breaks the goods in a store dedciated to the memory of the Confederacy. It should also be noted that while at the right-wing Pentacostal Church, where fiery political rhetoric was given, a general stood on the stage and cheered the whole time.
The point Cohen is trying to make is that behind the niceties and political correctness, anti-Semitism still exists below the surface amongst many and on this issue I agree with him wholeheartedly and I can somehow identify with the character of Borat on this issue.
If the work of Cohen can bring this to the service he has perfumes a mitzvah in my humble opinion.
This topic is increasingly important in an era of a new anti-Semitism, the resurgences of classical anti-Semitism, and a generation of lost (and in many cases self loathing Jews) in the Jewish Diaspora. Cohen should be applauded for addressing this issue, unlike many prominent Jews in entertainment who run away from all tings Jewish and as the award winning American-Jewish documentarian Marc Levin has said “ you can get Jews in Hollywood to talk about anything….except Jews.”