Of Borat, America, anti-Semitism, Israel, ADL, and Kazakhstan

By Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency

Jerusalem ---- January 16, 2007..... Every so often we are enlightened with a truly "gifted" movie.
A cinematic Hollywood adventure which actually make us think, laugh and even shed a tear.
Borat - Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is one such movie.

Borat is a movie about a fictional Kazakh TV news reporter who is dispatched to the United States to report on the "greatest country in the world." British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays the role of Borat who leads a documentary crew around the US and becomes obsessed in marrying Pamela Anderson.

Cohen, who wrote part of screenplay and Larry Charles who directed Borat, created a film which has made many smile. In the movie's first week Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan took in $26.5 million from around 1,100 screens at 837 theaters, boasting the highest-grossing wide opening ever for a picture playing at less than 1,100 theaters.
As of this news report, Borat has grossed over 200 million.

But Cohen's true agenda was to unmask American arrogance, ignorance and prejudice.

America is arrogant. But so is Israel, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other nations which wrap themselves up in nationalistic cloth. But the US makes the sweetest target. It is the largest, most powerful nation on Earth. The distinction though between the US and Iran, China, Syria and Saudi Arabia, is that the US practices free speech. The US is able to laugh at itself and even provide Borat and Cohen with a prestigious award for creative excellence.

America accepted Borat's sarcastic, Groucho Marx style joke and criticism by bestowing upon Cohen last night a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy.

Why was Borat or Cohen so successful? Because it fed into the perceptions that average Americans have about a third world country i.e. - Kazakhstan. It also fed into the average American psyche on Jews.

In the role of Borat, Cohen comes off as deeply anti-Semitic. He "reports" from Kazakhstan on the "Running of the Jew" a farce taken from Pamplona, Spain and it's legendary Running With the Bulls.
This scenario played itself out in real life recently after an Israel soccer team won a match against Paris Saint-German. A mob of up to 300 attackers chased four French Jews screaming "Death to the Jew." The four ran in different directions and one Jew was cornered alongside a black plainclothes police officer who had bravely come to his aid. When his tear gas failed to dissuade the attackers, he fired one warning shot in the air, which apparently hit two of the mob, later resulting in the death of one.

Borat is also seen hunting and asked in an interview if it was legal to shoot Jews, to which his host replied that he would have no problem with that although others would. At a dog pound he asked his host if he could test if a dog was trained. He had the interviewee place a finger on each side of her head (like a horn) and say Shalom, then he told the dog: "Attack! Attack the Jew."

But as many are laughing at Borat, the real last laugh is coming from Cohen.

No one knows this fact better than movie goers in Israel. What many believe what Borat is speaking is Kazakh, it is actually Hebrew.

The 35-year-old British comedian is no stranger to Israel. He is an observant Jew, his mother was born in Israel and his grandmother still lives in Haifa. In high school, he belonged to a Zionist Jewish youth group, Habonim Dror, and upon graduation spent a year working and studying on a kibbutz, or collective farm, in northern Israel. Cohen has since returned for several visits, his Hebrew is excellent and he has a good understanding of Israel culture.

"By himself being anti-Semitic, Borat lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice," Cohen said.

Some American Jews fear Cohen's potent humor will go over people's heads and reinforce bigotry.

On September 28, The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued the following statement on Sacha Baron Cohen's new film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" starring his farcical anti-Semitic character "Borat" in the lead role:

"The premiere of Sacha Baron Cohen's new film featuring his farcical character "Borat" has raised anew concerns among some in the Jewish community about the character's notoriously boastful expressions of anti-Semitism and stereotyping of others. When approaching this film, one has to understand that there is absolutely no intent on the part of the filmmakers to offend, and no malevolence on the part of Sacha Baron Cohen, who is himself proudly Jewish. We hope that everyone who chooses to see the film understands Mr. Cohen's comedic technique, which is to use humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear."

The ADL news release continues: "We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry. While Mr. Cohen's brand of humor may be tasteless and even offensive to some, we understand that the intent is to dash stereotypes, not to perpetuate them. It is our hope that everyone in the audience will come away with an understanding that some types of comedy that work well on screen do not necessarily translate well in the real world -- especially when attempted on others through retelling or mimicry. It is unfortunate that Mr. Cohen chose to make jokes at the expense of Kazakhstan. It would have been better to have used a mythological country, rather than focus on a specific nation."

The Israel News Agency supports the ADL which has been confronting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry since 1913. But we respectfully disagree with its knee jerk reaction to Cohen's Borat.

Borat, just might accomplish what the ADL has tried to do - creating a keen, effective mass awareness of our own prejudices with a smile. The INA also gives much more credit to the common man. We do not believe that Borat will simply fly over the cerebral elements of mankind or that the public is not "sophisticated enough to get the joke." Borat is making people laugh at themselves. Borat is forcing the media to educate the masses on the making of the movie. It will not only be those who live in Israel who will know that Borat is a Jew speaking Hebrew.

Cohen recently arrived in full Borat drag, in a cart pulled by four peasant women, taking the Toronto Film Festival by storm, holding a news conference outside the Kazakh embassy in Washington and, while accepting a magazine award, praising Mel Gibson, saying, "It is you, not me, who should receive this GQ award for anti-Jew warrior of the year."

As an American who lives and works in Israel, I and many other Israel Anglo Saxon's understand where Borat is coming from. We suffer from anti-Semitism, not from remarks made at a restaurant, or Nazi swastikas painted on our front doors, but rather from wars which are forced upon us.

Terrorism that one can view as Katusha rockets from Lebanon land in the North and Qassam missiles slam into our southern cities from Gaza. Israel lives daily with anti-Semitism as innocent civilians riding buses, walking through shopping centers and sitting at coffee shops become the targets of Islamic terrorism.

Recently this writer posted a story on one of America's finest and most respected Conservative Internet forums - FreeRepublic. Thousands of fine minds, caring Christian and Jewish souls who support democracy, free speech and Israel debate there on a daily basis. But one remark which was recently posted openly to me stands out in my mind: "I value the lives of American servicemen much more than innocent Israelis who die from terrorism."

My open response in that forum was that the remark was racist. It was not American. It was not Israeli.
It was plainly anti-Semitic.

And this is what the unsophisticated, dimwitted, boorish, sexually obsessed Borat is all about.
Of those who are truly anti-Semitic, most practice their hate in silence. Borat gets these same people to come out of the closet and then has the world view them as they are. So when Borat makes a visit to a gun shop in the US where he asks the proprietor, "What is best gun to defend against Jew?" we examine the response, we laugh at it and as a civilized society we correct it through education.

Borat is education.

Many are now taking Borat or should we say Sacha Baron Cohen and Fox to court.

Cohen has slammed the people who are trying to sue him and his production team over their depiction in ‘Borat’. Everyone from the villagers seen at the beginning of the film to the drunken teenagers Borat meets near the end tried to take the filmmakers to court as they felt they had been misrepresented. But Cohen has criticized them.

“This wasn't Candid Camera. There were two large cameras in the room. I don't buy the argument that: 'Oh, I wouldn't have acted so racist or anti-Semitic if I'd known this film was being shown in America.' That's no excuse."

The government of Kazakhstan has not been pleased being depicted as a poverty stricken nation of Jew hating rapists and prostitutes. Borat describes Kazakh wine as fermented horse urine and teaches a folk tune called Throw the Jew Down the Well.

In a recent press interview (which attracted more reporters than one given by the actual Kazakhstan president held at the same time) Borat threatened his country would "commence bombardment" of Uzbekistan cities with catapults if their anti-Kazakhstan propaganda did not cease. He also claimed that while he was studying "English, journalism, and plague research" to have "Made two new ones [plagues] that killed over five million goats in Uzbekistan." He also asked the Oklahoma City Traffic Commission to stand in silence for ten minutes to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the massacre, but only got about a minute and a half. In the meeting, which was broadcast live on local TV, he thanked them for letting him join the meeting and then asked to give "short speech" which lasted 17 minutes. The speech covered traffic and American democracy. He made several comments that dumbfounded the commission, including how the only women allowed into government buildings in Kazakhstan are prostitutes.

He was shocked to discover that American women have the right to vote, while horses do not, whereas in Kazakhstan, the opposite holds true. On said discovery, he recited the "chain of importance" — "God, man, horse, dog, woman, then rat, then small krutzouli" — to a female voter. When looking for a home in the US, Borat stated that his wife was afraid of "men with chocolate face," referring to black people. Some of Borat's interviews carry homoerotic undertones. Interviews can involve discussion of "khram" or the sexual preferences of the interviewee or other celebrities, such as Freddie Mercury. Borat enjoys not being politically correct as he touches and holds men, but has a noticeable aversion toward women. Often he will kiss men on the cheek (and occasionally the lips) but when approached by a woman he will shy away or merely offer a handshake, an example of this being his report on Henley Royal Regatta where he kisses all the male members of a winning crew but not their female coxswain.

Sacha Baron Cohen won the Golden Globes Award for Best Actor in a Comedy Film.
Cohen, 35, had the audience in stitches as he recounted the scene where he engages in an impromptu naked wrestling match with co-star Ken Davitian. 'I saw some amazing, beautiful, invigorating parts of America, but I saw some dark parts of America, an ugly side of America, a side of America that rarely sees the light of day.' "I refer of course to the anus and testicles of my co-star, Ken Davitian. "Ken, when I was in that scene and I stared down and saw your two wrinkled golden globes on my chin, I thought to myself, 'I'd better win a bloody award for this'."

The first fake-Kazakh vs. Kazakhstan showdown came after Borat made an appearance at an MTV Europe awards show last year. Kazakhstan's response, through foreign ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev, was to threaten legal action against Cohen. Those savvy to the PR world know the inherent folly of attempting to combat sarcasm or satire with earnestness. Kazakhstan was not savvy. As could be expected, Borat's response was devastating(ly funny).

It features the now well-reprinted highlight:

"In response to Mr. Ashykbayev's comments, I'd like to state I have no connection with Mr. Cohen and fully support my government's decision to sue this Jew.... Kazakhstan is as civilized as any other country in the world. Women can now travel on inside of bus, homosexuals no longer have to wear blue hats, and age of consent has been raised to 8 years old…. We have incredible natural resources, hardworking labor, and some of the cleanest prostitutes in whole of Central Asia."

Kazakhstan's next attempt was only slightly less of a failure. Kazakh authorities suspended Borat's website, which originally had a dot-kz domain name. Association of Kazakh IT Companies president Nurlan Isin said to Reuters, "He can go and do whatever he wants at other domains." Which is, naturally, exactly what Borat did. Of course, by continuing to take the absurd seriously, Kazakhstan was playing right into Borat's hands. The in-character comedian showed up recently at the White House (camera crew in tow) to issue a press statement during an official visit by Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan has also begun a New York Times and International Herald Tribune ad campaign and there are reports that TV commercials are in the works. One feels for Kazakhstan but it's difficult to imagine the nation being on the losing end because of one telling detail about the whole scenario; though Cohen chose Kazakhstan for his fake character's real homeland, he could have used any one of the bordering nations without it affecting the joke at all.

But Kazakhstan's PR efforts suffered a set back recently. Kazakhstan's central bank printed millions of new notes - and misspelled the word "bank". Plans to issue the notes anyway, worth 2,000 tenge (£8) and 5,000 tenge (£20), and then gradually withdraw them to correct them provoked a political row.

Can bad PR equal good PR?
Kazakhstan should see this as a golden opportunity to put itself on the map in the minds of wealthy Western tourists. It is hard to argue that Borat may be harming the image of a country that had no image to begin with. And recent news indicates that Kazakhstan is finally coming to realize this.

An October 19, 2006, Reuters headline titled "Grumpy Kazakhs invite Borat to 'his' land, at last" and features Kazakh first deputy foreign minister Rakhat Aliyev saying, "I understand that the feelings of many people are hurt by Cohen's show but we must have a sense of humor and respect the creative freedom of others."

As for charges that Cohen and his crew had exploited the residents of Glod, Romania: a remote mountain outpost with no sewerage or running water, the INA senses attorneys at work. Looking for a quick buck to be made on the tail of Borat they have approached the many who appeared in the movie.
The villagers were paid and signed releases. So were all others who appeared in Borat.

The feelings in Glod though are running so high that journalists witnessed angry villagers brandishing farm implements chase out a local TV crew, shouting that they had enough of being exploited. It is small comfort that few, if any, of them will get to see the Borat film. Not a single villager had ever been able to afford a trip to the nearest cinema, 20 miles away. So if the villagers did not see the movie, perhaps attorneys chasing a buck did and went to the village in an attempt to incite and retain new clients.

In accepting his Golden Globes award last night, Cohen confronted those who were now greedy for his hard earned money with: "Thank you to every American who has not sued me so far."

Cohen has been successful in landing interviews with such luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Buzz Aldrin, Brent Scowcroft, Ralph Nader, Donald Trump and Sam Donaldson. While some of his guests have been good-natured about their appearances, a few have claimed they were misled. Others have complained that Cohen just goes way too far. In January 2006, Cohen's Borat drew the ire of several Jewish groups and Kazakhstan officials, after he led patrons of an Arizona bar in a song called "Throw the Jew Down the Well," which he declared was a popular ditty in his native land.

Borat was produced by Jay Roach (director of Meet the Parents ), who likens Mr. Cohen's comedy technique to the work of a gifted magician.

"You know it's a contrivance and that you're going to be fooled, but then there's this extra layer of reality that takes you past the amazement factor and to a place where you're not even sure that it's a trick anymore," he explains. "Sacha's a real student of comedy, so he's incredibly thorough." Born into a middle-class family in London, Cohen had early dreams of being a basketball player or a break dancer. He spent a year on an Israel kibbutz as a teenager and was a member of Habonim, a Socialist-Zionist youth movement that he jokes "basically meant that we shared our sweets." He was ambivalent about becoming a performer.

"I think I was embarrassed to admit to my friends or myself that I wanted to be a comic – it was sort of like admitting you wanted to be a model." At Cambridge, Cohen read history, spending a summer in the United States researching a dissertation on the prominent role Jews played in the American civil-rights movement titled "The Black-Jewish Allies: A Case of Mistaking Identity."

As the title suggests, he was already fascinated by the notion that irony and identity play a big role in cultural differences. "I was writing this at the time of the Crown Heights riots when the Jewish community was obsessed with black anti-Semitism," he explains.

"And I argued that this obsession came out of Jews feeling betrayed by their old blood brothers from the civil-rights movement. But while it was perceived in the Jewish community that Jews were disproportionately involved in civil rights, my conclusion was black Americans didn't see Jews as being more involved than any white Americans.

"The Jewish kids were all there in the South, but because they were there as part of church organizations like the (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), they weren't seen as Jews but as white liberals. So there was this deep irony that the Jewish establishment took martyrs like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner" – two civil-rights workers from New York who went to Mississippi to register black voters and were killed by the Ku Klux Klan – "and used them as symbols of a Jewish-black alliance when, in fact, they didn't really see themselves as Jews at all." Cohen pauses, drolly adding: "The dissertation is a lot funnier than I depicted it."

Not long after graduating from Cambridge, Cohen found himself drawn to the early hip-hop scene in London, where he became a fan of a hip-hop DJ named Tim Westwood. "I'm sure he helped inspire Ali G," he says. "I'd thought he was black, because he sounded like a New York gangsta, but he was actually a tall, skinny white guy who was the son of a bishop." Soon Cohen was creating Ali G-style sketches for TV, which spawned the character that became Borat.

A stickler for authenticity, during filming for the movie he never washed his gray Borat suit and never wore deodorant. "The smell is an added thing for people to believe that I'm from a country where hygiene wasn't a necessity," he explains. By his count, people called police 37 times during filming, not counting the time Secret Service men showed up when he was outside the White House "figuring we must be al-Qaeda, since why else would two guys be driving around the White House in an ice cream truck."

His closest escape came in Louisiana, when a woman whose family had once been plantation owners was insulted by a question he asked her and instructed her husband to call the police. "We had 30 seconds to make our getaway in an ice cream truck whose top speed was 50 mph," he recalls. When asked what he said to insult her. He furrows his brow for a moment. "I'm not sure," he finally responds. "But I think I might have been trying to sell her some Kazakhi slaves."

The Cambridge University-educated Cohen said the real thanks for his award belongs to his fiancee, actress Isla Fisher: "She agreed to sleep with Borat for 10 months." Borat is said to keep kosher and observe the Jewish Sabbath, and Fisher, an Australian actress, has converted to Judaism.

A top Kazakh official recently extended an invitation for the British comedian: Come visit. Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliyev said in an interview that he understands why Kazakhs are unhappy about Sacha Baron Cohen's character, Borat. "But we must have a sense of humor and respect other people's freedom of creativity," Aliyev was quoted as saying by Kazakhstan Today. "I'd like to invite Cohen here," he said. "He can discover a lot of things. Women drive cars, wine is made of grapes, and Jews are free to go to synagogues."

Kazakhstan first threatened to sue over a song. Then they shut down his website. In its losing battle with a maverick comic, the government of Kazakhstan even took out full-page newspaper adverts to confront what it saw as damaging slurs. Kazakhstan has now made an abrupt change of public relations tack in its attempts to stifle Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian who has made the oil-rich Central Asian country an international laughing stock. The deputy foreign minister, Rakhat Aliyev, invited Cohen to visit the country he has lampooned across the globe.

"We must have a sense of humor and respect for other people's freedom of creativity," he said. It was two years ago that Kazakh officials first learned of Cohen's new persona, Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakh journalist from the state-run television network. It was created for his TV series Da Ali G Show. The character lampoons people in his supposed home country as primitive, anti-Semitic, anti-gypsy, sexist and stupid, a place where gays wear blue hats and horses are better treated than women, and which is constantly and comically at war with the inhabitants of neighboring Uzbekistan. Aliyev said: "I'd like to invite Cohen here. He can discover a lot of things. Women drive cars, wine is made of grapes, and Jews are free to go to synagogue.

"It's useless to offend an artist and threaten to sue him. It will only further damage the country's reputation and make Borat even more popular." His intervention is a measure of how little impact the counter-offensive has had.

In a laboured effort to show it had got the joke, Kazakhstan has enlisted its own comedian, playing Borat's "brother" Jantik, to go to the premiere. Jantemir Baimukhamedov, 33, Kazakhstan's most popular entertainer, will hand out free horsemeat sausages and tell the truth about his homeland. Last year, he first became a public thorn in Kazakhstan's side when he flew into the MTV Europe Music Awards in an "Air Kazakh" plane flown by a one-eyed pilot clutching a bottle of vodka.

Last month, Kazakhstan ran large adverts in the New York Times and other US papers along with commercials on CNN. The oil-rich state where boiled sheep's head tops the menu KAZAKHSTAN'S national drink, Borat claims, is fermented horse urine. Visitors are more likely to be offered Kumys, a favorite drink made of fermented mare's milk. Borat says that in his country women come after God, man, horse and dog in order of importance. In fact, women have had the right to vote in Kazakhstan since 1920. Horses are an important part of Kazakh life. The Kazakh national dish, beshbarmak, features stewed horse on noodles. Another traditional delicacy, koybas, is boiled sheep's head.

Borat claims to be the sixth-best known person in the country, while Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbahev, is the third. At 66, Mr Nazarbahev has led Kazakhstan since 1990 and last year won a further seven-year term with more than 90 per cent of the vote. His eldest daughter, Dariga, is one of the most powerful figures in the country, controlling several TV channels.

Borat has described Kazakhstan's favorite past-times as disco-dancing, table tennis and rape. A favorite comic dance is actually the Orteke, where dancers imitate the movements of a panicking goat caught in a pit. The world's ninth largest country by area, Kazakhstan has a population of 15 million and is a major oil producer, pumping more than a million barrels of oil a day. Ethnic Kazakhs make up over half the population, while the Russians are a sizable and powerful minority, with smaller minorities of Ukrainians, Germans, Chechens, Kurds, Koreans and Central Asian ethnic groups. Almost half the country are Muslim.

The burden of being Borat took its toll, especially during months of filming when, to keep up the charade, he was Borat from dawn to dusk. "It was exhausting," he recalls, slumped in the booth, fighting off a nagging cold. "I had to be that way all day and all night, because even if the tiniest detail had gone awry, it could've made them suspicious. I mean, even if I went to the bathroom, I had to make sure I went to the bathroom as Borat."

And it appears that Borat may now be taking a well earned break. "I woke up one morning and I was quite hung over, and I accidentally shaved my mustache off. I realized I had no alternative," he said, seemingly serious, backstage at the Golden Globe ceremony.

Sacha Baron Cohen must be saluted by us all.
His creative, brave genius. His dedication to the values of defeating ignorance, prejudice and anti-Semitism through comedy and the use of mass media.
His unlimited energy has produced a "real cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious Nation of the United States".

Israel's governmental public relations media consultants sitting at the Israel Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office and the Israel Defense Forces all need to take notes from Cohen.
How to think out of the box. How not to be politically correct all the time. How to push the envelope.

Borat's next envelope will most likely appear at the Academy Awards Oscars celebrations.
Winning public opinion and defeating prejudice through smiles and laughs is nothing new.
Just ask Charlie Chaplin, Dale Carnegie, Mark Twain or Ronald Reagan.

From Israel, thank you Sacha.




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