Monday, December 18, 2006


Before I turn to Holocaust denial, here are some thoughts about Borat. [This was originally written for the Wexner Foundation Newsletter.]

I saw Borat on a Saturday night in November. The movie had only opened the previous night. I laughed uproariously at Sasha Baron Cohen’s antics.

When we emerged after the film, the lobby of the New York theatre was filled with people waiting for the next show. I saw some friends. As I approached them to say hello, one of them said, only partially in jest, to his friends: “Whew, it’s ok to see Borat. Deborah Lipstadt just did.” When I praised the film one said: “So it’s not anti-Semitic?”

The only other time I had been used to give a hechser to a film was The Passion of the Christ. [I hated this film in which the filmmaker seemed to consciously choose every possible way in which to depict Jews negatively. I told people that if they really wanted to see it, they should go to a multiplex, buy a ticket to another film and sneak into the Passion.]

Borat antisemitic? Heck no. If anything the film shows the ludicrousness of prejudice. Borat’s antisemitism as well as that of the people he skewers [admittedly, some were unfairly taken advantage of] is depicted as just plain stupid.

Since that exchange in the lobby of the theatre, I have been struck by the passion with which some people and organizations have condemned this film. Have they never heard of sarcasm and irony? I acknowledge that there may be some people who will use the film to validate their negative feelings about Jews. But anyone whose anti-Semitism is reinforced by this film did not need the film to give expression to his or her Jew hatred.

I am writing this from Washington were I have come to meet with approximately fifteen other scholars and journalists to discuss the rise of contemporary anti-Semitism. In Iran the conference on the Holocaust convened by Iranian President Ahmadinejad has just opened. Despite depicting itself as a scholarly gathering, it is nothing but a forum for deniers and antisemites.

Throughout the Arab/Muslim world Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are growth industries. It is expressed there in a way that shocks those who live in the “Western” world where, since the Holocaust, expressions of unambiguous antisemitism are considered unacceptable in polite circles.

That does not mean, of course, that anti-Semitism has disappeared in the Western world. It is expressed in far more subtle and, consequently, insidious ways. When Israel’s actions are described as “Nazi” like or Israeli soldiers are called storm troopers, this is anti-Semitism. [Whatever one may think of Israel’s policies, to compare it to Nazism is to reveal not only a deep animus towards Jews but a failure to understand what Nazism was all about.] Some people would even say that someone who uses “Apartheid” in the title of a book about Israel is suffering from, at the very least, from a streak of antisemitism.

What then about Borat? One could say that it is just a very funny movie made by an incredibly talented person. Actually, I think it is more than just that.

Sasha Baron Cohen seems intent on demonstrating just how stupid anti-Semitism is. Ultimately, anti-Semitism is a form of prejudice and prejudice is itself irrational. As I recently wrote in the Washington Post [ ]“Prejudice means pre-judging. It amounts to saying, ‘Don't confuse me with the facts; forget evidence; I have already made up my mind.’”

When I teach about anti-Semitism I tell my students the joke about the Jew and the Chinese man who were sitting in a bar getting drunk. Suddenly the Jew knocked the Chinese man off his stool. As the man struggled to his feet he asked “What was that for?” “THAT,” the Jew emphatically replied, “was for Pearl Harbor.” “PEARL HARBOR??!!,” the Chinese man responded incredulously, “Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese.” “Chinese….Japanese,” the Jews responded, “It’s all the same. Let’s drink to it.” After a few more drinks the Chinese man knocked the Jew off his stool. As the Jew struggled to his feet, he asked “What was that for?” “THAT,” the Chinese man responded, “was for the Titanic.” “THE TITANIC??!!,” the Jew replied, “that was an iceberg.” “Iceberg… Goldberg,” the Chinese man responded, “it’s all the same. Let’s drink to it.”

Prejudice and anti-Semitism are irrational. Borat knows that. Sasha Borat Cohen makes us laugh at the stupidity of anti-Semitism and those who would indulge in it. He does so without in any way diminishing its importance or threat.

If you are one of those who worries about hatred of Jews and its implications and works to try to combat it, go see this film. For 85 minutes you will have a bit of a respite. And, God knows, you deserve it.

No comments: