What’s the ADL’s beef with Sacha Baron Cohen?

Currently in Israel, Abraham Foxman says he tried to strike a deal with the British comedian to condemn bigotry

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Abraham Foxman (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)
Abraham Foxman (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)

Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman criticized comedian Sacha Baron Cohen this week for making bigoted jokes in his new film. Foxman claimed the wider public does not understand the irony of Baron Cohen’s humor about Jews and other minorities, and warned it could incite racism and anti-Semitism.

“I’m still concerned because [anti-Semitic jokes] reinforce [stereotypes], it doesn’t educate,” Foxman told The Times of Israel. “We have developed all kinds of programs to educate and sensitize, and we haven’t eradicated it. You’re not going to eradicate it by making fun of it.”

Baron Cohen is famous for making anti-Semitic and other politically incorrect jokes in an apparent effort to expose bigotry as such. To promote his forthcoming movie, “The Dictator,” the British-born, Jewish comedian currently appears on television shows and press conferences dressed up as a fictional Middle Eastern despot, often addressing the journalists as “devils of the Zionist media.”

In an interview with former CNN journalist Larry King, Baron Cohen — playing a “General Admiral Aladeen” — said his nation “is 1,300 miles from Tel Aviv, as the Scud flies.” When King asked him if he ever failed at anything, he replied: “If you look up Israel on Wikipedia, everything is still in the present tense. That’s clearly something I need to work on.” When King responded that he was Jewish, the dictator spat next to King’s chair, saying he is not offended to talk to a Jew but just wanted to insult the floor.

Baron Cohen’s humor is widely popular — “The Dictator” is expected to become a huge hit — yet Foxman fears that most viewers won’t get the joke.

Foxman traced Baron Cohen’s humor back to TV’s Archie Bunker, the loudmouthed bigoted head of the household in the 1970s sitcom “All in the family.”

“The argument then was that people are laughing at Archie Bunker. We said: No, they’re not laughing at him, they’re laughing with him,” he said. Foxman said that America will be laughing with Baron Cohen too.

The ADL spoke out against Baron Cohen’s humor as early as 2004, when his fictional character Borat, a Kazakh journalist, sat in an Arizona bar and sang about his desire to “throw the Jew down the well,” to the raucous applause of bar-goers.

“While we understand this scene was an attempt to show how easily a group of ordinary people can be encouraged to join in an anti-Semitic chorus, we are concerned that the irony may have been lost on some of your audience — or worse, that some of your viewers may have simply accepted Borat’s statements about Jews at face value,” the group wrote to Baron Cohen.

‘I don’t think we’ve reached yet the millennia where we can use humor to defuse prejudice’

Two years later, when the comedian released a feature film about Borat, the ADL again voiced concerns. The audience may “not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry,” it stated.

In response to such criticism, Baron Cohen once said in an interview that Borat “shows the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether it’s hatred of African-Americans or of Jews.” Borat talks to ordinary citizens about his hatred of Jews, and by doing that “lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it’s anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism.”

In the same interview, Baron Cohen quoted historian Ian Kershaw’s dictum that the road to Auschwitz was paved with apathy. “I know it’s not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.”

But Foxman believes that bigoted humor should at least be labeled as such. Speaking to The Times of Israel, Foxman recalled meeting with Baron Cohen and his agent several years ago. “I offered them a deal: if you want me to believe that Sacha is fighting prejudice this way, why doesn’t he do a public service announcement which says: ‘Prejudice is not funny’? If he does it, fine,” Foxman said. “He didn’t do it. Because that’s his shtick.”

Foxman added that he got upset this week when he saw “Jew York Cheesecake” on the menu of an Israeli restaurant. “I called over the manager and I said to him: ‘It’s not funny.’ The waiter said, ‘Oh, but the Jews love it.’”

In the past, the ADL complained about a brochure about “Jew York” published in Japan and now Israelis are using the same term and thus legitimize it, he lamented. “I don’t think we’ve reached  the millennia where we can use humor to defuse prejudice yet.”

30% of Americans believe Jews killed Jesus

While anti-Semitism in the US is lower than elsewhere in the world, it is still a worrying phenomenon, Foxman asserted.

“It’s not an exact science but in terms of religious prejudice there are 10 times as many acts directed against Jews than against Muslims,” he said. Forty years ago, one in three Americans had anti-Jewish tendencies, according to Foxman. That number has since dropped, but there are still up to 40 million Americans who are “seriously infected with anti-Semitism,” he added.

“Despite all the interfaith [work], 30% of the American people still believed that the Jews killed Christ. And one out of three believes that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States. That’s political anti-Semitism, which is a more serious attitude than whether you want to marry a Jew or live next to a Jew. And that hasn’t changed in the last 40 years.”

Foxman admitted that xenophobia and bigotry are alive and well in Israel, too. “It’s serious. We are not immune from racism. Our words kill, too.”

Israeli authorities have been widely criticized for inaction in the face of several racist incidents, for example when soccer fans assaulted Arab workers and customers in Jerusalem’s Malha Mall while shouting “Death to Arabs,” or most recently when firebombs were thrown at African asylum seekers. Foxman said he noticed “a serious, significant response from Israeli society” and leaders to such events, but cautioned that more needs to be done.

The situation isn’t perfect, but compared to the level in which racism is tolerated in Europe today, “Israel is pretty good,” he said. “Is it perfect? No. Have they made mistakes? Yes.”

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