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October 20, 2020 3:38 pm

Sacha Baron Cohen on Speaking Out Against Antisemitism: ‘I Needed to Do That to Live With Myself’

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Presenter Sacha Baron Cohen poses at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards, at the Royal Opera House in London, England, Feb. 14, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Toby Melville.

British actor Sacha Baron Cohen talked about his advocacy against antisemitism while speaking to the The New York Times in a piece published on Saturday.

In a rare interview as himself, and not one of the many characters he plays on screen, the Jewish “Borat” star, 49, recalled how he had criticized social media giants for allowing hate speech to thrive on their platforms in a speech last year upon accepting the Anti-Defamation League’s International Fellowship Award.

He told The New York Times that doing the speech was “completely out of my comfort zone” because “I’ve always been reluctant to be a celebrity and I’ve always been wary of using my fame to push any political views, really.”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” star added, “It was the first time I’d ever given a major speech in my own voice but I felt like I had to ring the alarm bell and say that democracy is in peril this year. I felt, even if it was going to destroy my career and people are going to come at me and say, ‘Just shut up, the last thing we need is another celebrity telling us what to do’ — I fully understand people who do that — I felt I needed to do that to live with myself.”

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The actor’s speech catapulted the ADL’s “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign, which prompted a 24-hour boycott of Instagram in September in protest of Facebook’s failure to address hate speech and election disinformation on its platforms. Nearly two dozen Hollywood celebrities took part in the initiative.

Baron Cohen studied antisemitism at Cambridge University, where he wrote his thesis on “the Black-Jewish alliance” and identity politics in the US civil rights movement. In his interview with The New York Times, he compared the world when he filmed the first “Borat” film 15 years ago to earlier this year, when he made the sequel, and the current climate in the US.

“In 2005, you needed a character like Borat who was misogynist, racist, antisemitic to get people to reveal their inner prejudices,” he said. “Now those inner prejudices are overt. Racists are proud of being racists.’’

Baron Cohen also brushed on the topic of his Jewish family, specifically his grandmother Liesel, a ballerina. She fled Germany in 1936 and settled in Israel, where she worked as a fitness instructor. Baron Cohen filmed her lessons for a video — “Exercise for the Over 60’s” — and sent her a bouquet of flowers every week until she died, he said.

His mother also worked in fitness.

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