Readers of Commentary know Joshua Muravchik as a regular and astute observer of political and security affairs for that periodical. That’s why an article by Muravchik, who is also a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in the January issue is all the more surprising in its naivete, on which more later.
In a departure from his usual writing interests, Muravchik takes up the cultural implications of a current hit comedy film featuring British comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen as a Kazakh reporter whose travels through America . . . well, if you want the lowdown on the plot, read the article (notice how I assume that for readers of these words, such will be their sole source of information on the film — talk about naivete!).
Muravchik catalogues the various criticisms that have been leveled against the film, finally arriving at the one that is of particular relevance to Jews. He writes:
This raises another subject of concern to the critics. In ridiculing [Kazakh] sensibilities and practices, Baron Cohen makes relentless use of the rhetoric of anti-Semitism. The character Borat is deliriously frightened of Jews, and of the menace they supposedly portend. They are never far from his mind, and his store of knowledge about them includes every possible anti-Semitic canard. These he articulates with no special venom, merely as the received wisdom of one who has grown up in a village where, we are told, the big annual event is the “running of the Jew.”
Given that Baron Cohen is himself a Jew, and is reported to maintain some degree of religious observance, this has become the most controversial motif of his film. A statement by the Anti–Defamation League expressed concern that “the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.” By contrast, others have applauded Baron Cohen for delivering what they see as an effective slap at anti-Semites or, indeed, as laying bare the anti-Semitism that may be lying just beneath the surface of ordinary American life.
The evidence most often offered for this latter interpretation is less from the movie itself than from a ruse that Borat pulled on Da Ali G Show and that has subsequently become famous. There, passing himself off as a Kazakh folk singer, he got himself booked for a guest appearance at a Tucson, Arizona night club specializing in country-and-western music. Once onstage, he sang a supposed Kazakh song with the refrain:
Throw the Jew down the well,
So my country can be free.
You must grab him by his horns,
Then we’ll have a big par-tee.
The tune was catchy, and many in the audience followed Borat’s urgings to sing along with him.
Now, to begin with, the notion that Baron Cohen is observant or partially observant or, as Muravchik would have it, maintains “some degree of” observance (which in itself is about as vague a phrasing as there is), has been circulating quite a bit in media reports and ought to be clarified, if only to protect the good name of Judaism and observant Jews — and those the least bit familiar with Baron Cohen’s ouevre will understand.
In fact, the extent of his observance, as he described it in an NPR interview, is keeping kosher as a cultural, rather than religious, practice, and attendance at synagogue a few times each year. Another fact, which he did not mention, is that despite being a kohein, he is engaged to be married to a recent convert. (Upon reflection, none of the above would necessarily disqualify him from being counted among the more observant cohort of Conservative Jews.) Far be it from me to second-guess or monitor his religiosity, so long, that is, as his antics are kept equally far from any association with his religion.
Back to our story, where the notion that Baron Cohen has done a service in smoking out the enmity towards Jews lying latent beneath the surface of American society “leaves [Muravchik] cold.” After all, he writes, “Today’s anti-Semitism is rooted in hatred of Israel and in contempt for Diaspora Jews who support Israel. The old, superstitious belief that Jews sprout horns or poison wells—the focus of Baron Cohen’s satire—no longer cuts deep, and certainly not in this country.”
Does Muravchik read the pages of the journal to which he is a frequent contributor, or the daily papers, for that matter? If so, he ought to realize that he has things precisely backwards: it is anti-Israel sentiment that is the stalking horse for, or at least the subconscious manifestation of, anti-Jewishness. As Norman Podhoretz asserted in Commentary in 1992 — and as Hillel Halkin’s poignant The Return of Anti-Semitism echoed in 2002, based on mounting and still-unfolding evidence — “[a]ll criticisms of Israel based on a double standard, rooted as this is in the ancient traditions of anti-Semitic propaganda, deserve to be stigmatized as anti-Semitic.” Indeed, back in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. made this very point when, in a speech at Harvard, he said: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews; you are talking anti-Semitism.”
As for his claim that irrational calumnies like horned Jews poisoning wells no longer have traction here or anywhere else, he seems unaware that the longest-lived of such medieval fantasies, the blood libel, has enjoyed quite a resurgence in many parts of the civilized world, not to mention the barbaric one, and, along with its more recent iteration, the Protocols, is far from moribund.
But more to the point, anti-Semitism, by definition, traffics in myth and slander, and so, if well-poisoning is somehow rendered passe, any number of other conspiracy theories are there to take its place. And surely Muravchik will agree, anti-Semitism aside, that the capacity of large swaths of humankind to believe the entirely incredible and thoroughly pernicious about their fellows — for the right-leaning like Muravchik, the cottage industry of 9/11 and Bush-related mythology is a striking contemporary example — is alive and well even (should I say “moreso” ? Nah!) among the self-fancied intelligensia and culturati.
So how, then, does Muravchik deal with the goings-on in a certain Tuscon bar, which Muravchik seems to agree ought not be simply dismissed as a singular aberration? Here’s how:
Then what about the patrons of the Arizona bar who join Borat in singing “Throw the Jew down the well”? Baron Cohen himself, in an interview, has suggested that they are guilty either of “anti-Semitism or [of] an acceptance of anti-Semitism.” I don’t buy this, either. People go out for a drink, get a little lubricated, and in comes a fellow the likes of whom they have never seen from a place they have scarcely heard of. He starts to sing a song with an easy melody and goofy, pejorative lyrics. Some (not all) join in. Why infer from this that they are thereby exposing some true, hidden animus against Jews?
If Baron Cohen himself infers it, that may be because he comes from the United Kingdom, where open hostility to Jews is now common. But America, as Charles Krauthammer writes, is “the most welcoming, religiously tolerant, philo-Semitic country in the world.” If, moreover, American anti-Semitism is so well hidden that it requires a Borat to ferret it out, why on earth would anyone wish to bring it to the surface to have its face slapped?
It’s hard to believe that a person of Muravchik’s sophistication could write in such simplistic terms. Is the man truly unfamiliar with as basic a psychological notion as repression, and is he not aware that much of the history of anti-Semitism in the modern era has revolved around the ways in which non-Jews have acted out in response to such unexpressed loathings?
Muravchik dismisses the Tuscon bar scene as just a benign case of “people go[ing] out for a drink and get[ting] a little lubricated,” “some (but not all)” of whom are drawn in by an “easy melody and goofy, perjorative lyrics.” Do I sense some defensiveness here? It calls to mind the wag’s line, upon observing a couple walking down the street holding hands, that actually it is only the woman who is “just holding hands.” The very same dynamic that compels a woman to ascribe too-noble motives to her suitor as a defense mechanism against a discomfiting truth that is obvious to everyone else, seems often to be at work in the strenuous protestations of Jews, particularly those weaned on the universalism of liberal Judaism, that their non-Jewish neighbors harbor not a trace of ill will towards them.
Is America, then, a welcoming, tolerant, philo-Semitic country? Without a doubt, and to a degree unparalleled in history, and for that we owe this malchus shel chessed and her citizens boundless thanks and loyalty. And, are all non-Jews possessed of a visceral antipathy towards Jews that even they aren’t fully conscious of? Perhaps not all or always, but listen to what Rav Ahron Soloveitchik had to say in his Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind:
In a book by a certain French journalist, the author tells of an interview he once had with Thomas Masaryk, who was known a sa great liberal and as an oheiv Yisrael, a great friend of the Jewish people . . . . He was responsible to a certain extent for the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, and even fought against anti-Semitism. Asked by the French correspondent whether in his heart he entertained any prejudice against Jews, Masaryk gave him the very honest answer: “In my mind I do not have any prejudice against the Jews. Whenever I feel that I am under the impact of pure logic, then I realize that the Jew should not be disliked. . . . But sometimes when the control of the logic of the mind loosens, and I fall prey to my feeling, then I take notice of the fact that deep in my heart there is a prejudice raging against the Jews. Why, I don’t know.”
No claim is here made as to how likely it is that those who harbor this ill will would ever act upon it. Indeed, for many people, it might be more accurately described, as Baron Cohen himself puts it, as an indifference to anti-Jewish bias. But standing a short half-century or so after the Western world served, through its passive-aggressive silence, as the anvil on which the Nazis pounded European Jewry almost out of existence, all with the able assistance of the “indifferent” German and Eastern European populaces, I don’t think indifference to a drunken rendition of “Throw the Jew down the well” is much cause for comfort.
But why, if in all but a tiny fringe element of anti-Semites, such feelings remain deeply subconscious, is it important that we be aware that they exist at all? For one thing, it’s important for reining in the likes of Abe Foxman. Ironically, in a piece on Commentary‘s new blog, Contentions, Muravchik himself notes with alarm the fact that “anti-Semitism is becoming, more and more, an accepted part of national discourse.”
He goes on to blast James Traub for an “astounding hatchet job” on Abe Foxman in a recent issue of the New York Times magazine, in which the latter “is described as ‘domineering’ and ‘brazen,’ ‘an anachronism’ who resembles ‘a Cadillac-driving ward-heeler’ and ‘stages public rituals of accusation,’ and insists perversely on ‘dwell[ing] imaginatively in the Holocaust.'”
Now, it’s superfluous to state that Traub’s words are abhorrent and more than a bit redolent of classic anti-Jewish rhetoric.
But that’s besides the point. The fact is that Traub speaks the truth — the subjective truth, that is, of how Foxman’s histrionics register in the minds of regular Americans who are frankly fed up with this overbearing Jew impudently lecturing their religious leaders and demanding apologies for every perceived infraction of the Foxman Code of Political Correctness, who have had their fill of Jews waving the Holocaust flag in their faces. And one can imagine it to be all the more galling when many of these Americans have been among the most stalwart champions of both Israel and the conservative social values that some of these same Jews, in the media and entertainment worlds, have done so much to undermine.
Wise Jewish leaders throughout the ages adopted an approach towards their non-Jewish neighbors of kabdeihu v’chashdeihu (roughly translated: respectful relations tempered by a healthy circumspection). Kabdeihu, both to reciprocate the respect and beneficence they accord us and because that’s their due as fellow human beings. Chashdeihu, because one never knows what lurks in the subconscious hearts of men, particularly when it comes to as stubborn a malignancy as anti-Semitism, and thus we must carefully choose our battles.
Some contemporary Jewish communal figures seem to often strike out on both counts.