So I think Borat is funny. My suitemate and I spend between 30 and 45 minutes a day watching his videos on YouTube (usually reruns, because, alas, there aren’t that many videos available). I don’t suspect Sacha Baron Cohen — the Jewish creator of the character, who regularly visits Israel and who has spent a year in a kibbutz and attended a Yeshiva Camp — of anti-Semitism. But the question I’d like to pose is whether the movie “Borat!” might be anti-Semitic nonetheless.
Let me remind those who have forgotten, or have never seen, the movie, of a couple of scenes from it. One involves an amalgam of a bull-chase and a pinata ritual, where a doll of a Jew with horns and a pitchfork marches out, and is chased and beaten by Kazakhs, to the glee of the crowd. All the while Borat reports excitedly from the sidelines. Another, and the most memorable to my mind, happens during Borat’s journey across America, when he “accidentally” stays overnight in a house of a lovely old couple who turn out to be Jewish. Once Borat discovers their ethnicity, he becomes incredibly frightened by the pictures of Jewish elders and rabbis on the wall, and as the camera hops from one portrait to the next to the sound of daunting music, Borat falls into thinly veiled panic. He refuses to swallow the food he is offered. During the night, he awakes to the sound of something creeping under the door of his bedroom, and as the light goes on, he discerns a few cockroaches crawling on the floor. Inferring that this is the old couple who has devilishly turned into insects in order to attack him in his sleep, he flees the house, while throwing dollar bills at the roaches in order to keep them at bay.
How should we, the viewers, take this? As a joke. As a satire. As a social critique. Borat is a ridiculous character and so, the story goes, is all that he does. The scenes above, put in the outrageous context of the movie, portray just how laughable Borat’s anti-Semitism is.
I would stop here, satisfied, but there is one other thing that catches my attention. Borat, despite his outlandishness, is a fairly nice fellow. Likable, even. While having no regard for the interests of women, Jews or Gypsies, he is trying hard to get along with everyone else. “I like you, US&A; do you like me?” Borat is not evil — just ignorant and hugely eccentric.
So what’s the lesson for the average viewer? Option 1: There is no lesson; it’s just a comedy. Allow me to dismiss this option offhand, for any cultural creation causes some impact, intentionally or unwittingly. A movie watched by millions is no exception. Option 2: Sometimes likable people have prejudices, not out of rottenness, but out of ignorance. Even otherwise well-intending people may hate Jews. This is actually a valuable lesson, it seems to me, one that portrays reality accurately for many communities in the world today. Yet it seems to be missing something. Option 3: Just like the second, with the single, yet critical, addition: All in all, hating the Jews, while possibly ridiculous, is not so big of a deal, because no significant harm is implied by this attitude.
After all, did anyone hated in the movie, besides the pinatas, get hurt — robbed, injured or killed — as a result of the prejudice? Borat, mind you, stopped short of letting his fear of the old Jewish couple who hosted him turn into violence, and did not choose, say, to beat or murder them and escape with the loot he could collect from their house. But in reality, how many trenchant young anti-Semites would have chosen differently? We need not wonder; history keeps its record straight regarding this matter. The movie shows that anti-Semitism is ludicrous, but it doesn’t show that it is also, and primarily, dangerous.
Cohen’s movie is anti-Semitic, I submit — not in the intention, but in the result — in at least two respects. Directly, it is offensive toward those Jews who have been victims of real anti-Semitism, and who now see the subject being treated lightheartedly and portrayed as an innocuous phenomenon. Indirectly, by underplaying the graveness of the phenomenon, the movie impedes the battle against it. It is very difficult to sustain social intolerance toward anti-Semitism, as well as other sorts of prejudice, in the absence of negative emotional response by the majority of the society. Comedy Borat-style, by its facetious approach to the matter, discharges this negativity. By turning the issue into a joke, it makes it what a joke is supposed to be: a laughing matter.
Yaron Luk-Zilberman is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.