A century before Sacha Baron Cohen created the boorish comic persona “Borat,” another Jewish satirist was courting infamy with fearless anti-Semitic riffs.
He was Karl Kraus, an Austrian playwright and poet. Although he preached Jewish assimilation and was aghast at the rise of Adolf Hitler, Kraus’s writings may have helped spread Nazi doctrine among Europe’s ruling classes, some historians believe.
One of these is Robert Wistrich, head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Israel’s Hebrew University. So he is quick to voice alarm at the success of “Borat,” a film about a faux Kazakh TV reporter who revels in the crudest Jew-hatred, often to the unwitting delight of Americans he comes across.
“The purpose of this kind of comedy is to show how ridiculous prejudices and stereotypes are. But using the stereotypes can actually perpetuate them,” Wistrich said. “It doesn’t matter that Jews are indulging in it. In fact, it can seem more deadly when it comes from a Jew.”
Yet Wistrich’s misgivings are not shared by many Jews in the entertainment industry, who argue that Cohen -- while perhaps entangled in the age-old satirist’s dilemma of inadvertently promoting that which he seeks to condemn -- has hit upon a way of at once exposing and ridiculing contemporary anti-Semitism.
Sara Marcus, a writer with Heeb, an irreverent Jewish affairs magazine based in New York, credited Cohen with issuing “an important wake-up call.”
“When Borat gets people to go along (and sing along) with his anti-Semitism, his audiences may be surprised at how accommodating some people are to anti-Jewish attitudes,” she said. “I don’t think he (Cohen) is defanging racism; on the contrary, he’s documenting bigoted attitudes that still exist.”
The fact that Cohen, 35, identifies unreservedly as Jewish appears to offer some immunity against charges of race-baiting.
As Borat, he is wont to eschew “Kazakh” and lapse into Hebrew phrases learned during a year spent on an Israeli kibbutz.
Cohen is represented by Ari Emanuel, a top Hollywood agent who led calls to boycott Mel Gibson after it was revealed that the actor had launched into an anti-Jewish tirade upon being arrested for drunken-driving last July.
A question of contextUnlike the writer Kraus, Cohen filters his anti-Semitic spiels through fictional personae that are clearly designed to be unattractive or at least bizarre beyond reason.
There is Borat, a character that has been blasted by the Kazakh government as defamatory, and whose jokes about persecuting gypsies drew a lawsuit from a German Roma group.
Entertainment journals have said Cohen’s next film role will be as Bruno, a gay Austrian fashionista with a Nazi fetish.
“The message of Borat is this: If you’re anti-Semitic, you’re probably a backward, knuckle-dragging misogynist,” said Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi who hosts an American television show on family values called “Shalom in the Home.”
Louise Greenberg, a U.S.-born literary agent now based in London, suggested that few real anti-Semites would see the film.
“My feeling is that they probably won’t be inclined to spend their money to go, and that if they do go they will think it’s false and silly,” she said.
But Wistrich said Cohen’s comedy should be seen in the wider framework of a resurgent anti-Semitism in emerging nations.
He cited the Holocaust denials of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the charter of the governing Palestinian Islamist faction Hamas, which approvingly quotes from “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a 19th-century Russian forgery postulating a Jewish plot to take over the world.
“The current context is one in which anti-Semitism has been reborn and re-invented or redeployed as a strategic weapon,” he said. “That context does change things, because it is not possible to pretend that this is something we can take lightly.”