When Sacha Baron Cohen, now famous everywhere as Borat, collected his Golden Globe last week as the best actor in a comedy, Jews everywhere asked each other a familiar question: "But is it good for the Jews?"
Jews who laugh with Borat, the wild and crazy journalist who satirized anti-Semitism in the movie "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," think he's the Jewish counterpart of Archie Bunker, the lovable bigot in a sitcom of yesteryear. But other Jews think Borat fans the fires under the stew of prejudice and fanaticism always ready to boil on a back burner.
Columnist Charles Krauthammer, observing how easily Borat taught the lyrics of his "Throw the Jew Down the Well" to an astonished audience in an Arizona tavern, accuses him of looking for anti-Semitism in the wrong places: "Can a man that smart . . . really believe that indifference to anti-Semitism and the road to the Holocaust are to be found in a country and western bar in Tucson?"
But that may not be the point. Borat shows how easy it is to tap into prejudice, to lure a man to express bias openly when he thinks he's in friendly territory. On the day Cohen won the Golden Globe, The New York Times Sunday magazine profiled Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, who is often accused of looking for anti-Semites under every bed like those who imagined communists were lurking everywhere in the 1950s.
But that's not the point, either. A cursory examination of anti-Semitism over the centuries shows how swiftly bigotry can show itself once Jews -- or anyone who decries it -- let down their guard. Although Foxman frets that unsophisticated moviegoers will find Cohen's "comedic technique" encouragement for their bigotry, the ADL nevertheless defends his unmasking of the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism.
Foxman's own story, as he describes it in his book, "Never Again: The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism," is instructive. When his parents were forced into a ghetto in Vilna, Lithuania, during War World II, they put the infant Abraham in the care of an uneducated Christian nanny, a warm and devoted protector whom he came to love as a mother. But he also learned from her the secret prejudices that can be hidden in a "good person."
In his nanny's care, the little boy learned to spit at a Jew in the street, to mock him as a "dirty Jew." He remembers now the warmth at her hearth and bosom, but she unwittingly gave him the cold, critical eye he casts toward bigotry now.
Abraham Foxman's focus on anti-Semites in America, where Jews prosper and bask in unquestioned acceptance, seems obsessive to his critics -- many of them Jews -- but he's the needed reminder that the haters of Jews in Germany were once dismissed as merely unpleasant but harmless cranks.
Jimmy Carter, a former president, is not the typical anti-Semite, but in his recent book he likens Israel's dealing with Palestinian radicals to South Africa's apartheid, and condones violence against Israelis until the Jewish nation gets on with the "road map to peace." "President Carter's embrace of rhetoric frequently used in extremist circles has had the unintended consequence of encouraging anti-Semitic extremists to exploit and run with it," Foxman argues.
In the wake of this controversy, a former Justice Department official says the former president sought "special consideration" in 1987 for a onetime member of a German SS Death Squad who was proven to have murdered Jews in the Mauthausen death camp in Austria. Neil Sher says he went public with the information now because President Carter's book exposes "where his heart really lies."
Anti-Semitism is never funny, but Borat is funny in the way he makes us aware of what we had rather not acknowledge. Vaudeville, radio, the movies and early television were awash in Jewish comics, but they vanished from the public eye for a time after World War II. Jewish characters and Jewish jokes were dropped from scripts by Hollywood producers, many of them Jews. "When Hitler forced Americans to take anti-Semitism seriously," writes Henry Popkin in a widely circulated article in Commentary magazine in 1952, "the American answer . . . was the banishment of Jewish figures from the popular arts in the United States."
Borat's Golden Globe shows how far we've come since then. He's not only good for the Jews, he's good for others, too.