Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion Religion News

Why Sacha Baron Cohen matters

Actor Sacha Baron Cohen as character Col. Erran Morad on his new Showtime series “Who Is America?”. Image courtesy Showtime

OK, I admit it: I am a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen.

I love his humor, his satire, and his way of exposing the small and large idiocies of people. It also doesn’t hurt that he is a proud and affirming Jew: the product of a Zionist youth movement in Great Britain, with a distinguished and well-accomplished family, and a man who speaks Hebrew.

I love the personae that he first revealed to us on HBO’s “Da Ali G Show.”

  • Borat, the naive but well-meaning journalist from Kazakhstan.
  • Bruno, the gay Austrian fashionista.
  • And, of course, Ali G himself — the faux gangsta interviewer, who weaponized his own ignorance.

My favorite moment: when he interviewed the late author, Gore Vidal, he confuses him with Vidal Sassoon.

To which the now embarrassed Ali G responded: “These next few questions might not make much sense, then…” – and then goes on to ask him which First Lady’s hair he would want to cut.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s stock in trade is duping people — of all stripes, but in particular, politicians — and getting them to say stupid things — albeit things that they would have said anyway.

In this sense, he reveals the horrible soft white underbelly of America, stripping away our pretensions and showing how quickly and easily we can be seduced into bigotry. Recall how Borat got a bunch of people in an Arizona bar to sing along with “Throw The Jew Down The Well!”

In his new Showtime special, “Who is America?”  Cohen creates a few new alter egos – but in particular, an Israeli anti-terror expert, Col. Erran Morad.

In the first episode, Col. Morad convinces right-wing gun rights supporters to endorse his new idea — not only arming school teachers, and young students, but toddlers as well. It’s the kinderguardians.

Because at that age, Morad says, they would be too young to have developed either fear, nor a conscience.

Yes – Col. Morad/SBC really does get politicians to sign onto this loony and lethal agenda.

It is dark humor at its best — not least of all because it is really not funny at all. The politicians in that sketch really do believe — or, allow themselves to be manipulated into saying — that there should be no age limitations for the exercise of the Second Amendment.

In a subsequent episode, Col. Morad interviews former Vice President Dick Cheney (he pronounces the ch as in challah), and together they wax eloquently about their favorite forms of torture (they both have a soft spot for water boarding).

I howled with laughter — which then morphed into deep fear (as in: is this what our country is coming to?) — which then morphed into my usual head-scratching shtick.

Cohen is presenting his viewers with a classic stereotype — the macho Israeli Jew.

It has a venerable history. Zionism was a re-masculinization of the Jew. Jews, who had been powerless for centuries, could re-assert themselves on the stage of history.

The Zionist thinker, Max Nordau, believed in a muscular Judaism that would shatter the image of the ghetto Jew. In the words of the old Saturday Night Live skit, Zionism was Hans and Franz saying to the Jews: “Ve vant to pump you up!”

American Jews found inspiration in that image.

Check out the classic movie “Exodus,” which taught us that Israelis look like Paul Newman — or, they should.

Check out, as well, the deliberate subversion of “Exodus” — “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan,” in which Adam Sandler plays a superhuman Israeli counter-terrorist, who ditches it all to become a hairdresser in Brooklyn.

So, yes: we get the joke.

But, what is not a joke is the perception that Israel has, more and more, tethered itself to American right-wing politics.

The perception is not without cause; witness what has been happening in both Israel and in the United States in recent times.

I mean the growth of a dark nationalism that seems to have less and less room for the Other. It is now a cliché: Israel is a red state; American Jews are a blue state.

As Israel becomes redder, the more American Jews will experience an emotional and political disconnect from the Jewish state. Not because they are anti-Zionists, or because they are “self-hating Jews,” but because they will no longer sense that their values have much currency in Israel. At best (and let us hope so), they will align themselves with those forces in Israeli society that do, in fact, mirror their most cherished beliefs.

But, there is another problem with Col. Morad.

In my many discussions with my Israeli friends, the conversation inevitably turned to American politics. Left, center, right: Israelis expressed horror at America’s ubiquitous gun culture.

Understand: many Israeli homes have firearms within them, because Israelis serve in the IDF, and then in reserves. Ever wonder why there have been no mass shootings in Israel? Perhaps because, paradoxically, the gun is so close at hand. Perhaps because Israelis understand that the gun is for national defense.

Perhaps, also, because Israel sharply limits and constrains non-military access to guns. It is very difficult to get a gun permit in Israel — and when you do get one, there are numerous requirements, such as mandated safety training.

And so, Col. Morad is a stereotype of Israeli military macho.

But, as far as guns is concerned, he represents a viewpoint that simply doesn’t exist in Israel — the free-flowing availability of guns.

Sacha Baron Cohen is portraying a distorted view of Israel and Israelis. In this political environment, it is not helpful.

Nevertheless, I still have to laugh. In the most recent episode, Col. Morad interviews Georgia state representative Jason Spencer. As easily as Borat got the denizens of the Arizona bar to sing an anti-Semitic song, Morad inspires Spencer into making Islamophobic remarks — even to the point of calling Arabs “sand n—-ers” and, well, you’ll have to watch the show.

Spencer is now in deep political trouble.

As he should be.

Sacha Baron Cohen has pulled back the curtain on American political culture.

If we don’t like what we see, it is in our power to change it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

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