Virtual Talmud

“Throw the Jew down the well” is the chorus to a Kazakh folk song brought to us by Borat, starring in his own movie opening in just a few days. Of course as everyone knows, both the song and the character of Borat himself are made up, inventions of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

The Kazakh government is up in arms, and the Kazakh Embassy even devotes space on its home page to rebutting the movie’s assertions. Less predictable is the response of the organized Jewish community, which usually jumps at the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, reflexively bringing down the full force of its anger on any perceived infraction. For once, however, it seems that they actually get the joke–the Anti-Defamation League, for example, released a statement saying that Borat is not anti-Semitic, winking along with the viewer as it mocks the red-neck character and everything he stands for.

Of course, all this is easier because Sacha Cohen himself is Jewish. He’s one of us, so of course he’s in on the joke.

A pro-gypsy group, in contast, is not nearly so understanding of the film’s mockery of gypsies, launching a lawsuit in Germany to try to prevent the film’s distribution there. And of course, the Kazakhs are up in arms. And it’s a safe bet that the ADL and other groups wouldn’t be so blasé if Cohen weren’t “safely” Jewish.

This is a shame. Satire is an important part of comedy–the part that has the ability not only to make us laugh, but to make us wince and make us think. What’s more, reflexively decrying anti-Semitism at the slightest whiff of something offensive is not the way to combat this scourge.

We all remember how the ADL’s campaign against Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” backfired and helped drive up the movie’s profile and ticket sales. Yes, Mel Gibson is unquestionably a jerk and an anti-Semite, but how many press releases do we need to send out about it?

The fact is, constantly crying wolf or going into red-alert mode at every perceived slight does Jews a disservice, making us less likely to respond seriously to the very real threats that do exist. Similarly troubling is the trend to use the charge of anti-Semitism as a cudgel to silence opposing points of view, as some have recently tried to do with the political activist group or with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan last year.

The fact is that anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, and we would do our best to combat it by addressing its real underlying causes–the mistrust and anger that exist toward Jews in many parts of the world–rather than by bullying and cowing easy targets, which only increases resentment.

Sometimes we need to poke fun at our sacred cows to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. Sacha Baron Cohen provides this necessary service.

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