Jewish viewers who tuned in to an episode of “Da Ali G Show” two Sundays ago were in for an arresting moment of television from Sasha Baron Cohen, one of today’s hottest and most irreverent comedians.
One of the show’s characters, a reporter from Kazakhstan named Borat, walked on stage in a country-western bar in Tuscon, Ariz. Like all the characters in the show, Borat is played by the British comedian, who is Jewish. Unlike his creator, however, Borat is a raving anti-Semite.
Dressed in a rumpled suit and a straw cowboy hat, Borat sang a song called “In My Country There is a Problem.” After complaining about the state of transportation in Kazakhstan, the song’s lyrics took a surprising turn; the second verse claimed that the problem was “the Jew/he take everybody’s money,” and the chorus urged to “throw the Jew down the well/so my country can be free/you must grab him by the horns/and then we have a big party.”
The crowd, unaware that Borat was really Cohen, sang along with gusto; while a few were visibly uncomfortable, most of the bar’s patrons hooted and hollered, repeating Borat’s inflammatory lyrics enthusiastically.
As soon as the show was over, the Anti-Defamation League and HBO, the pay-per-view channel that airs Cohen’s show, were flooded with calls.
In a letter to Cohen, ADL national director Abraham Foxman said his organization received hundreds of complaints concerning Borat’s ditty.
“While we understand this scene was an attempt to show how easily a group of ordinary people can be encouraged to join in an anti-Semitic chorus,” the letter read, “we are concerned that the irony may have been lost on some of your audience … in attempting to expose bigotry and prejudice you also bear a responsibility to be sensitive.” Cohen had not responded to the ADL by midweek.
The Jewish Week, too, received several letters and phone calls. One Westchester caller, a self-described fan of comedy who thinks Cohen is “very, very funny,” said she was nonetheless troubled by the bit. “I was really horrified,” said Merrill, who did not want to use her last name. “The group that he sang in front of was a redneck group that I’m sure has never even seen a Jew before. You could see that there was really anti-Semitism there. I thought it was kind of dangerous.”
Quentin Schaffer, a spokesperson for HBO, said that those protesting are missing the mark. “Through his alter-egos,” he said of Cohen, “he delivers an obvious satire that exposes people’s ignorance and prejudice in much the way ‘All in the Family’ did years ago.”