The ridiculous nature of antisemitism - opinion

In his new film, Sacha Baron Cohen addresses Holocaust-denial. To that end, he interviewed real Holocaust survivors.

SACHA BARON COHEN appears in ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,’ a sequel to his 2006 comedy, ‘Borat.’ (photo credit: COURTESY AMAZON STUDIOS/TNS)
SACHA BARON COHEN appears in ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,’ a sequel to his 2006 comedy, ‘Borat.’
Young adults in America – the under-30 crowd, a mix of millennials and Generation Z – learn more about politics from late-night comedy shows than they do from newspapers and news broadcasts. The phenomenon predates the general population’s reliance on Internet, Twitter and Facebook for news. What began during the era of Jay Leno and Jon Stewart has skyrocketed, and as those under 30 would say, is now on steroids.
In the old days, we watched TV according to a pre-arranged schedule, and everyone was on the same schedule. Today, many more people watch the skits that were originally broadcast on television, especially on late-night television, on YouTube hours or days after the original broadcast than watch the program when it’s broadcast. They watch at their leisure, when it is most convenient for them, not at the behest of corporate broadcast decision-makers and sponsors.
Johnny Carson and his straight man, sidekick Ed McMahon, on The Tonight Show set the stage for late-night TV watching. While the genre is still known as late-night comedy, today the material itself is most often serious and reliant on the news of the day. It is presented as comedic, even when it is not. Comedians often use their skill to convey important educational and even political messages.
Borrowing a page from that younger generation, I clicked on YouTube and watched the video of Sacha Baron Cohen, or Borat as he is best known to the world, being interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! The program airs on ABC and on the CTV Comedy Channel. I thought the interview was hilarious.
Kimmel invited Cohen to be a guest on his show to promote his new movie – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – which premiered on Amazon, not on local movie theaters, on October 23rd. Cohen arrived in the character of Borat and remained in character throughout the interview. Just as he did in the original 2006 Borat movie, Cohen often flipped into Hebrew when conversing with Kimmel. The theme of the movie is antisemitism. He also touches on anti-Israel sentiment. Borat being Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen being Sacha Baron Cohen, the interview points out the ridiculous nature of antisemitism.
Early on in the interview, Kimmel asks Borat/Cohen about COVID. He replies, “Comes from a place called Wuhan, which is in Israel”.
We hear laughter. It’s a funny response. But more than laughs, Cohen was making a point. As Borat, he was making fun of people who actually believe that Israel is responsible for the virus. The interview continued with a health questionnaire, much like the questionnaires we are all confronted with in the corona era. But rather than asking if Kimmel has been around anyone with the virus, Borat asks Kimmel how many Jews he had been around. Kimmel’s response – remember, he too is a comedian – is, “All our writers are Jewish and none of our cameramen.”
SOME PEOPLE might find this distasteful and, paradoxically, even antisemitic. It is not! It is Cohen’s vehicle of critique. Sacha Baron Cohen is flabbergasted that people, normal people, hold these beliefs, and the medium he uses to teach and critique is humor and film.
It is no different from what Charlie Chaplin did in The Great Dictator.
In 1940, when his movie was released, Chaplin was almost the lone voice in critique of Hitler. And the movie was a hit! It was so popular that Adolf Hitler himself, unaware of the true content of the movie, asked for a private showing. And then, for obvious reasons, he stormed out. The movie was masterful. It contains one of the best scenes in movie history. I am referring to the scene in which the Chaplin/Hitler character gleefully prances and dances with a balloon globe as he dreams of conquering the world.
Sacha Baron Cohen has written op-eds and spoken before groups. But there is no comparing the reach and power of those messages to the reach and power of a blockbuster movie.
In his new film, Cohen also addresses Holocaust-denial. To that end, he interviewed real Holocaust survivors. He did so without telling them the real nature of the film for which they were being interviewed. Some were offended afterward. I can understand their offense.
How, you ask, can the Holocaust be funny? The Holocaust isn’t funny. But there is an entire genre of humor that Jewish victims shared with one another in the midst of the atrocities. For them, it was a survival tool.
And it is not just the Holocaust. Antisemitism, anti-Zionism, pogroms; we either laugh at the catastrophes and crises surrounding us or we would spend our lives crying. It’s how we cope.
The Big Book of Jewish Humor, by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, recalls a spectacular joke. It supposedly takes place after the assassination of Czar Alexander of Russia in 1881. There are numerous versions of the joke.
The simplest is that after the assassination, a Russia police chief comes to the local rabbi and asks, “Do you know who was behind the assassination?”
The rabbi responds, “I am totally ignorant. I know nothing of it. But I will say that you will blame the Jews and the chimney sweeps.”
The police chief looks askance and asks, “Why the chimney sweeps?”
The rabbi responds, “Why the Jews?”
Historically, humor was a coping mechanism. It was also a social critique. For Sacha Baron Cohen, it also is a way to express just how ridiculous certain ideas are. Comedy always has a message.
The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.