Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Anti-Semitism in Borat

            It is rare to see overt anti-Semitism in popular culture today. Due to infamy of the Hitler and the Holocaust, the ideals of the Nazi party have become synonymous with evil.  To say someone is a Nazi is to identify him or her as knowing and complicit accomplice, or at the very least a sympathizer, with one of the worst crimes against humanity in our recent history. What we tend to forget is that anti-Semitism was rampant prior to the Third Reich. Hitler did not create anti-Semitic sentiment; he used existing fear and hate, to unite people against a common enemy. In Europe’s Jewish population, the third Reich found a scapegoat to blame for all their problems.

            Why would anyone hate Jews?  Yoda tells us that it’s because of fear. The little green wise man in star wars famously argued, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Okay, so what is there to fear about Jewish people?

            The 2004 movie Borat, opens with the title character Borat, created and portrayed by Sasha Baron Cohen, explaining what life is like in his backward Kyrgyzstanian village. He explains that Kyrgyzstan has three major problems, “Social, Political and Jew.” A scene is played from the villages annual “running of the Jew,” in which someone dressed up as a big-headed monster with horns, a huge hooked nose, giant ears and green skin chases children through the street. Behind the male monster is a female version said to be his wife. The female monster pauses from chasing after children with a cleaver to lay an egg. The children are directed to crush the egg before it can hatch.  Later the movie shows Borat and his traveling companion absolutely terrified by the idea of staying in a bed and breakfast run by a lovely Jewish couple. Borat points out in sheer terror, after learning that his host is Jewish, that you can barely see her horns.

From Borat 2004

            According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, the idea that Jewish people have horns likely came from a mistranslation of the word “keren” in the Old Testament. The word can either mean horned or radiant. The myth was exacerbated by Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in which he sculpted the prophet with horns. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that Jews should be forced to wear hats and other identifying garments because the Jewish population had become so integrated that it was not always possible for Christians to identify Jews and avoid having sex with them. The pointy nature of these hats led to speculation that Jews wore the hats to conceal their horns.

12th Century Jewish Hat

            The other stereotypes are similarly linked to middle age beliefs about Judaism. The Jews chasing the children is representative of the Blood-Libel Myth. The hooked knows continues to be a stereotypical identifier, although not a good one because if it were a universal trait the Lateran Council would not have felt the need to require identifying garments. The egg laying Jew was likely lifted from the Baba Yaga myth, another tale for frightening children. Even the importance of hospitality has real roots in Jewish mythology. The Jews of the Ottoman Empire put out chairs for ghosts and believed that even demons should be treated well, if only so that they would not harm their hosts.

If anyone could be a Jew, could anything?

            Fortunately Cohen’s depiction of modern eastern- Europe is more satire than reality. The Kyrgyzstani village portrayed in the film - actually a Romani village – was appalled by their portrayal as backward anti-Semitic hicks. Cohen himself is Semitic. His mother was born in Israel and he was raised Jewish. Still, behind all the humor is a real truth. It is incredibly dangerous to stereotype people based on rumored characteristics. If we don’t make the effort to understand other cultures, we run the risk of beginning to fear them and fear followed to its logical conclusion is suffering.


  1. Cohen is a European Name, not a Semitic name. Most Jews in Israel are not Semitic Jews, only the Arab Jews are Semitic.

    1. That is misinformation. While 'Semitic' is a linguistic group made up by German academics in the 19th century, 'antisemitisim' has always referred to a hatred for the Jews.

      Kohen or cohen (or kohein; Hebrew: כֹּהֵן‬ kohén, "priest", pl. כֹּהֲנִים‬ kohaním, "priests") is the Hebrew word for "priest".