Bo­rat taps into a familiar strain of prej­u­dice

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

When Sacha Baron Co­hen, now fa­mous ev­ery­where as Bo­rat, col­lected his Golden Globe two weeks ago as the best ac­tor in a com­edy, Jews ev­ery­where asked each other a familiar ques­tion: “But is it good for the Jews?”

Jews who laugh with Bo­rat, the wild and crazy jour­nal­ist who sat­i­rized anti-Semitism in the movie “Bo­rat: Cul­tural Learn­ings of Amer­ica for Make Ben­e­fit Glo­ri­ous Na­tion of Kaza­khstan,” think he’s the Jewish coun­ter­part of Archie Bunker, the lov­able bigot in a sit­com of yes­ter­year. But other Jews think Bo­rat fans the fires un­der the stew of prej­u­dice and fa­nati­cism al­ways ready to boil on a back burner. Colum­nist Charles Krautham­mer, ob­serv­ing how eas­ily Bo­rat taught the lyrics of his “Throw the Jew Down the Well” to an as­ton­ished au­di­ence in an Ari­zona tav­ern, ac­cuses him of look­ing for anti-Semitism in the wrong places: “Can a man that smart [. . .] re­ally be­lieve that in­dif­fer­ence to anti-Semitism and the road to the Holo­caust are to be found in a coun­try and west­ern bar in Tuc­son?”

But that may not be the point. Bo­rat shows how easy it is to tap into prej­u­dice, to lure a man to ex- press bias openly when he thinks he’s in friendly ter­ri­tory. On the day Sacha Co­hen won the Golden Globe, the New York Times Sun­day mag­a­zine pro­filed Abra­ham Fox­man, the di­rec­tor of the Anti-Defama­tion League, who is of­ten ac­cused of look­ing for an­ti­Semites un­der ev­ery bed like those who imag­ined com­mu­nists were lurk­ing ev­ery­where in the 1950s.

But that’s not the point, ei­ther. A cur­sory ex­am­i­na­tion of anti-Semitism over the cen­turies shows how swiftly big­otry can show it­self once Jews — or any­one who de­cries it — let down their guard. Al­though Mr. Fox­man frets that un­so­phis­ti­cated movie­go­ers will find Sacha Baron Co­hen’s “comedic tech­nique” en­cour­age­ment for their big­otry, the ADL nev­er­the­less de­fends his un­mask­ing of the ab­surd and ir­ra­tional side of an­tiSemitism.

Mr. Fox­man’s own story as he de­scribes it in his book, “Never Again: The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism,” is in­struc­tive. When his par­ents were forced into a ghetto in Vilna, Lithua­nia, dur­ing War World II, they put the in­fant Abra­ham in the care of an un­e­d­u­cated Chris­tian nanny, a warm and de­voted pro­tec­tor whom he came to love as a mother. But he also learned from her the se­cret prej­u­dices that can be hid­den in a “good per­son.” In his nanny’s care, the lit­tle boy learned to spit at a Jew in the street, to mock him as “dirty Jew.” He re­mem­bers now the warmth at her hearth and bo­som, but she un­wit­tingly gave him the cold, crit­i­cal eye he casts to­ward big­otry now.

Abra­ham Fox­man’s fo­cus on anti-Semites in Amer­ica, where Jews pros­per and bask in un­ques­tioned ac­cep­tance, seems ob­ses­sive to his crit­ics — many of them Jews — but he’s the needed re­minder that the haters of Jews in Ger­many were once dis­missed as merely un­pleas­ant but harm­less cranks. Jimmy Carter, a for­mer pres­i­dent, is not the typ­i­cal an­ti­Semite, but in his re­cent book he likens Is­rael’s deal­ing with Pales­tinian rad­i­cals to South Africa’s apartheid, and con­dones vi­o­lence against Is­raelis un­til the Jewish na­tion gets on with the “road map to peace.” “Pres­i­dent Carter’s em­brace of rhetoric fre­quently used in ex­trem­ist cir­cles has had the un­in­tended con­se­quence of en­cour­ag­ing anti-Semitic ex­trem­ists to ex­ploit and run with it,” Mr. Fox­man ar­gues.

In the wake of this con­tro­versy, a for­mer Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cial says the for­mer pres­i­dent sought “spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion” in 1987 for a one­time mem­ber of a Ger­man SS Death Squad who was proven to have mur­dered Jews in the Mau­thausen death camp in Aus­tria. Neil Sher says he went pub­lic with the in­for­ma­tion now be­cause Mr. Carter’s book ex­poses “where his heart re­ally lies.”

Anti-Semitism is never funny, but Bo­rat is funny in the way he makes us aware of what we had rather not ac­knowl­edge. Vaudeville, ra­dio, the movies and early television were awash in Jewish comics, but they van­ished from the pub­lic eye for a time af­ter World War II. Jewish char­ac­ters and Jewish jokes were dropped from scripts by Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­ers, many of them Jews. “When Hitler forced Amer­i­cans to take anti-Semitism se­ri­ously,” writes Henry Pop­kin in a widely cir­cu­lated ar­ti­cle in Com­men­tary mag­a­zine in 1952, “the Amer­i­can an­swer [. . .] was the ban­ish­ment of Jewish fig­ures from the pop­u­lar arts in the United States.”

Bo­rat’s Golden Globe shows how far we’ve come since then. He’s not only good for the Jews, he’s good for oth­ers, too.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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