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January 5, 2023 9:15 am
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Why I Changed My Mind About Borat

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avatar by Alan Zeitlin

Opinion

Sacha Baron Cohen in character as Borat at Comic-Con International: San Diego. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

When Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s hilarious character, Borat, famously launched into his song “In My Country There is Problem,” it featured the chorus, “Throw the Jews down the well.”

This was 20 years ago, but some people in an Arizona bar eagerly sang along with him.

Borat — the character from HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” which eventually was featured in film — is memorable, and anyone who has a problem with this brand of humor should watch “The Great Dictator,” a great film made by Charlie Chaplin to mock Adolf Hitler.

When I heard that Baron Cohen mocked Kanye West in his Borat character, rather than as the real person, the other day, I was annoyed. With few celebrities openly speaking out, I thought it would have been better for the Jewish actor to use his own voice.

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Then I watched his performance at the Kennedy Center, where he appeared in his trademark gray suit and absurd accent, and his purposefully poor English.

“Before I proceed, I must say I very upset about the antisemitism in US and A,’ he said as Borat. “It not fair. Kazakhstan is number one Jew-crushing nation. Stop stealing our hobby. Your Kanye, he tried to move to Kazakhstan and he even changed his name to Khazakstanye West. But we said, ‘no, he too antisemitic even for us.’’’

Well said.

Comedy is a weapon against bullying, and that is likely why there are so many great Jewish comedians.

The first film starring Borat was a hit; the second, filmed during the pandemic, and also where Borat is known to be a character by most people, was still funny, but had less shock value.

Aside from his joke about West, Borat threatened the rock group U2 (the event honoree) for making songs against oppression, warning that if they came to Kazakhstan, they would be placed on a stretching machine, and their bodies would move in “mysterious ways” a nod to one of the band’s hit songs.

When I think back to the incident of “Throw the Jews down the well,” I wonder if now, nearly 20 years later, the people still want to throw the Jews down the well.

Interestingly, I found an article online from 2004, from Tusconweekly.com, in which a writer noted there was a Confederate flag on the wall, but also quoted the owner of the establishment, who said there was a diverse crowd with no bigotry seen. Sure.

While Borat’s performance likely won’t make Jew-haters change their minds, it was a performance that hit the mark.

Chaplin’s film didn’t stop World War II or the Holocaust. But he did a lot more than many did. Let’s hope we come to a time where comedy or satire is not needed against evil people, and that they can find something better to do with their time than spread hate.

The author is a writer based in New York.

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