And so, of course, is Borat–a fictional character created and played by the brilliant British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, himself an observant Jew. The ADL knows both of these facts–indeed, the organization has praised Cohen for being “proudly Jewish” and for trying “to use humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism”–and yet it is still fretting about Cohen’s forthcoming film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The reason? The ADL, according to a statement it released last week, is “concerned … that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke.” 


Just consider the case of Borat. While the ADL may kvetch, there is no greater critic of Borat than Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, who evidently finds nothing funny about Borat’s portrayal of his country–and, by extension, his regime–as benighted and backward. Last year, a Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman issued a public denunciation of Cohen’s Borat performance and threatened to take legal action against the comic; around the same time, Nazarbayev’s government also stripped Cohen’s Borat website of its original domain name, .kz. The Kazakh Embassy in Washington has already denounced the forthcoming Borat film, and a foreign ministry spokesman has said that Nazarbayev’s government will do everything in its considerable power to stop it from playing in Kazakhstan. Indeed, there were even reports–later denied–that Nazarbayev planned to ask President Bush to do something about Borat during their meeting at the White House last week. 

All of which has only served to illustrate the true character of Nazarbayev. Long accustomed to ruling his country with relative impunity–earlier this year, the State Department rated his government’s human rights record as “poor,” citing its encroachments on political rights, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion–Nazarbayev refuses to tolerate even a fictional character like Borat. And, in that refusal, Cohen has revealed Nazarbayev’s intolerance in a way that no State Department report ever will. Here’s hoping the ADL’s plea to keep audiences away from Borat’s film works as well as it did for The Passion of the Christ. ~The New Republic

Naturally, instead of taking consolation in the reality that the success of the Borat character shows how broad and instinctive the English-speaking world’s rejection of anti-Semitism actually is (Cohen’s jokes about “the dirty Jew”–which he uses to refer to himself, i.e., to Cohen, while in character to answer the Kazakh government’s complaints about his Borat act–and “The Running of the Jew” are funny only to people who already regard anti-Semitic attitudes as inherently ridiculous and obnoxious), the ADL assumes that someone watching this satire will fail to realise that it is a satire.  C’mon, folks, it’s not that subtle of a joke.  More than that, they claim that the movie might “reinforce” existing bigotry in some people, because, of course, so many anti-Semites (and we are supposed to believe there are so very many of them in this country) are going to run out and watch Cohen’s comedy routine and come away thinking, “That Borat guy made a lot of good points about the Jews!” 

Th ADL’s contempt for the decency and “sophistication” of ordinary Americans is not surprising, since they evidently assume that a lot of us must be anti-Semites in hiding, but it has to be an all-time first for them to complain about something that actually exposes anti-Semitism to ridicule.  Their complaining about the movie provides a perfect contrast and explains why Borat is popular and why the ADL is widely loathed: Cohen-as-Borat accomplishes the goal of fighting anti-Semitism in a way markedly different from their own humourless, activist method of denunciation and intimidation, and there is nothing more annoying to the dreadfully serious than the delightfully comic people who ridicule with laughter what they spend their entire lives combating with venom.    

Update: The ADL also laments that Cohen chose to make fun of Kazakhstan in particular, rather than making up a “mythological country.”  But then the joke wouldn’t be nearly as funny.  It isn’t crucial to the joke that he uses a real country (not that a lot of Cohen’s audience would know one way or the other, judging from geography tests in this country), but it probably helps make the joke work (if only to underline the satirical nature of the act) and does no real harm to the Kazakhs.