MINNEAPOLIS – Sacha Baron Cohen is widely hailed as a comedic genius, using his sheer audacity to mock the absurdity of his targets. The creator of Ali G, Borat and Brüno has become one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities. Yet his outrageous stunts often belie his agenda and his own proximity to state power.
Baron Cohen is often reluctant to make direct political statements. But a close examination of the comedian’s background and views suggests that much of his work is pro-Israel, pro-Western propaganda masquerading as satire.
For example, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Department of Defense was involved in the production of the 2009 mockumentary “Brüno,” wherein Baron Cohen plays a flamboyantly gay Austrian reporter traveling the world. In his quest to become more heterosexual, Brüno visits a military base in Alabama. The scenes on the base feel rather staged, with the officers setting him up for a glut of witty one liners.
The production company’s version of events is that they lied to the National Guard in order to gain filming permission and that, after suspecting the military smelled a rat, they hastily fled the base in their vehicle, with the guards chasing them and yelling at them to stop. The car apparently just made it out in time, squeezing under a rapidly closing front gate, like the iconic escape scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” As to the question of why nobody spotted one of the most well-known comedians in the world playing a character that had been around for a decade, the production team said that, because of strict discipline at the base, none of the dozens of recruits Brüno interacted with were allowed to speak freely to their superior officers, meaning they were none the wiser.
Not everybody is convinced by this explanation. Tom Secker, an investigative journalist who analyzes the connections between the Pentagon and Hollywood, commented:
If the footage was obtained illegally, by the production company deceiving the military – which they certainly did and so it certainly was – then it would have been a relatively simple matter for the Pentagon to prevent them from using it in the final movie.”
This raises the question of what sort of concessions they gave the military in order to use the footage, or whether the entire encounter was pre-scripted from the start.
“Brüno” was also made with the help of the CIA. In an interview with David Letterman in 2009, Baron Cohen casually stated that a CIA contact had arranged some of the scenes in the movies. Baron Cohen’s idea was to interview Al-Qaeda or Hezbollah members and show them images of homosexual sex to get their reaction on camera. The agent in question was John Kiriakou, who became a public figure after he blew the whistle on the agency’s use of torture in Iraq. He is now an author and radio show host.
Kiriakou told MintPress that he advised Baron Cohen that his crazy stunt was “an exceptionally bad idea.” “I said, ‘listen, they’ll kill you. They’ll kill your crew. They’ll go out into the streets and kill people who remind them of you. That’s how bad this is going to be.’” When asked about the national security state’s role in shaping pop culture, the former intelligence officer said that it is “far more cynical” than most people realize, explaining:
There is a branch inside the CIA’s Office Of Public Affairs whose job is solely to work with Hollywood Studios. This is something that the FBI has been doing since the 1940s. They’ll cooperate and give the red carpet treatment to any Hollywood studio that’s willing to make the CIA look good. “
Since “Brüno” was filmed, the level of CIA involvement in Hollywood has escalated, thanks to the passage of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which legalized the use of government propaganda on the U.S. public. “What that then does is it allows the likes of the CIA to assist Hollywood studios in making pro-CIA films,” Kiriakou explained, noting that many top TV shows and movies – all of which show the agency in a good light and perpetuate falsehoods such as torture being an essential part of keeping America safe – are now made with CIA help. “They can just make up these lies now and just go with it!” he added. The extent to which the government directly manufactures popular culture, however, is far from limited to just one agency: the Department of Defense has been involved in the production of at least 814 movies and 1,133 television shows, including many of the most successful titles and series.
In the end, “Brüno’s” production company did interview someone they claimed was a terrorist (in the Letterman interview, Baron Cohen described the man as such eight times in the space of three minutes). However, the person in question – Palestinian grocer and NGO worker Ayman Abu Aita – vigorously denied he was a terrorist at all. He claimed that Baron Cohen had told him the interview would be about his peace activism and that his life and business had been destroyed as a result. Abu Aita sued for nearly $100 million. The case was settled for an undisclosed sum in 2012.
It is this sort of casual demonization of Arabs and Muslims that has led to much criticism of Baron Cohen’s work as anti-racist on a superficial level but perpetuating gross stereotypes and contempt for the people of Western Asia. Sina Rahmani, an academic and host of “The East is a Podcast,” a show about orientalism in popular culture, was especially critical of Baron Cohen’s casual racism and how it is used to bolster Western objectives in the Middle East, telling MintPress:
This isn’t rocket science. He [Baron Cohen] very likely has some connections and that’s how he gets all this amazing access, only to claim to be some kind of Andy Kaufman-esque genius. While a lot of people fall for this, underneath it all, it is all just your run-of-the-mill white supremacist raceplay.”
If this seems overly critical, then consider “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen’s 2012 satire of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The timing of the production could hardly be any more conspicuous – and useful for U.S. and Israeli interests. Written and filmed at exactly the same time as NATO was working with jihadists to overthrow the leader that had constantly been a thorn in the West’s side, the movie features some of the crudest Islamophobic stereotypes seen anywhere on television. Muslims are presented as interested only in killing Americans or molesting women, while the dictator himself is working on developing nuclear weapons to use against Israel.
“The Dictator” was released just after the real-life Gaddafi was publicly executed by Western-backed jihadists, who control the country to this day and have turned it into a failed state replete with open-air slave markets.
Rahmani was highly critical of the movie, telling MintPress:
“The Dictator” is essentially an Israeli-American imitation of a crass stereotype borrowed almost directly from the low-budget action/military movies that proliferated throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Ultimately, it comes down to a very profound cultural Islamophobia, which can be turned on and off as needed. And those deeply radicalized sentiments build up over time and crystallize as foreign policy through invasions and regime-change wars.”
Being Eli Cohen
Coming from one of England’s most notable families, the young Sacha was privately educated at a number of schools in the southeast of the country before going on to study history with a focus on antisemitism at Cambridge University. Other family members – who have chosen distinct spelling for their surname – include Professor of Developmental Psychology at Cambridge Simon Baron-Cohen, playwright Dan Baron-Cohen, filmmaker Ash Baron-Cohen, and composer Erran Baron Cohen.
Even from an early age, Sacha was reportedly obsessed with the Jewish state. “He was very Zionist, very involved in Habo,” recalled one friend, referring to Habonim Dror, a left-wing Zionist group of which he was a member. Others remembered him as “a very nerdy, very funny, Israel-oriented guy” who went to live on a kibbutz in his youth. He appears to idolize Shimon Peres, traveling to meet him in 2012 and sharing quotes from the former Israeli president on his social media accounts. Peres, of course, oversaw the genocide of Palestinians in 1948, attempted to sell nuclear weapons to Apartheid South Africa, and carried out the ethnic cleansing of the Galilee region.
The pro-Israel propaganda was turned up to 11, however, in “The Spy,” a 2019 miniseries drama Baron Cohen produced himself and played the title character. Directed by former IDF paratrooper Gideon Raff, “The Spy” lionizes Mossad agent Eli Cohen, who goes deep undercover, embedding himself in Syrian high society, providing intelligence to the Jewish state crucial for its victory in the 1967 Six Day War against its neighbors. To this day, Israel illegally occupies Syrian and Palestinian land captured in 1967.
The series is a relentless celebration of Mossad and Israel, contrasting them with the barbarity of their neighbors. As The Daily Dot’s review of the show commented, the overriding message was “Cohen good/Syrians evil.” The Washington Post also noted that “The Spy” was a central part of a wider Mossad recruitment drive. Eli Cohen was a real historical figure and a hero to many of the most passionate Zionists. Sacha remarked that he sees himself in Eli and claimed that what they do is rather similar.
Baron Cohen has publicly condemned the most overt forms of Islamophobia, such as the Christchurch mosque shootings of 2019, and even pranked an all-white Arizona audience, posing as a property developer wanting to build a giant mosque in their town funded by the Clinton Foundation. The scene highlighted the rampant bigotry towards Muslims in small town America, with one man yelling “I am racist – against Muslims.” Yet at the same time as criticizing open Islamophobia, Baron Cohen vocally supports Israel as it massacres Palestinians.
In May, at the height of the Israeli attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the pogroms in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, Baron Cohen ran interference for Israel, publicly denouncing what he called “a surge of antisemitism on the streets” and on social media. Citing examples from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the movie star demanded that social media do more to stamp out anti-Jewish hatred. In contrast, he said nothing of the Israeli attack that killed hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, injured thousands more, and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes. (In reality, social media companies were working overtime to censor Palestinian voices, including those at MintPress.)
— Sacha Baron Cohen (@SachaBaronCohen) May 22, 2021
Some of the examples the ADL gave to support the idea of a new wave of antisemitism were rather dubious, including a group of Palestinian protesters in Illinois shouting “Intifada” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” However, the group has long insinuated that advocating for an independent Palestinian state to be a manifestation of anti-Jewish racism. Others, such as historian of the Middle East Norman Finkelstein, have claimed that the ADL’s claims of a “new antisemitism” tend to coincide with international condemnation of Israeli violence, and are, in effect, little more than the organization running interference for the nation, attempting to change the subject and silence onlookers.
The ADL has often functioned as something close to an unofficial spying agency for Israel, surveilling all manner of activist groups in the United States – including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and Greenpeace – as well as unions like United Farm Workers and United Auto Workers. It even spied on anti-Apartheid leaders such as the late Desmond Tutu and, by 1986, was sharing its intelligence with the Apartheid government in South Africa.
Baron Cohen has repeatedly endorsed the ADL, which presented him their International Leadership Award in 2019. At the ceremony, the comedian gave an impassioned speech demanding Facebook and other social media take steps to stamp out anti-Jewish bigotry and other forms of hatred on their platforms.
Facebook had long been closely cooperating with the Israeli government to silence Palestinian voices on their platform, the latter claiming that the social media giant complied with 95% of their requests to delete Palestinian accounts. Today, former Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Justice Emi Palmor sits on the company’s oversight board, helping to shape content moderation.
Unsurprisingly, Baron Cohen has also campaigned fiercely against the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, presenting it as viciously antisemitic. “Boycotting? Yeah, fantastic. As long as they are Jews, it is alright. I’m not a racist, but keep the Jews out,” he said, in an attempt to satirize their position.
Yet while Baron Cohen presents the BDS movement as being secret racists, he is responsible for producing some of the most racist depictions of foreigners seen on television screens for the best part of half a century. In the Borat films, Baron Cohen plays a dimwitted and irredeemably racist, sexist and antisemitic Kazakh journalist, whose bigotry is constantly played for laughs.
Supporters say that this sort of ironic racism means that the joke is not on Kazakhstan (or Muslims from central or western Asia more generally), but on Americans, and their ignorance and inability to tell the difference between a real person and an over-the-top caricature. This could certainly be argued for the scenes where Borat talks to powerful people but becomes far more murky in others. Who is being satirized when Baron Cohen gets on a subway car, accosts commuters, saying “Hello, my name Borat,” and aggressively tries to kiss them? Where is the satire when Borat opens a suitcase on the packed train containing live chickens who fly around scaring the passengers? Those people are not thinking “typical Kazakh behavior;” they are thinking “help, I am being sexually assaulted in public.” And whose ignorance is being taken down a notch when Borat calls an African-American a “genuine chocolate face”? The answer is that the butt of the joke is often people who look or sound like Borat (i.e., Muslims). As TV critic Inkoo Kang wrote, “Borat isn’t too dissimilar from how white nationalists imagine immigrants: ignorant, violent, prone to sexual assault, unable or unwilling to assimilate.”
Supporters might argue that art is often misrepresented and appropriated wholesale by people it mocks. Bruce Springsteen’s anti-war hit “Born in the U.S.A.” was used by the Reagan administration as a patriotic anthem, while anti-fascist satire movie “Starship Troopers” was widely interpreted as pro-Nazi and adored by the far-right across the world. Even if Baron Cohen intended “Borat” to be an anti-racist movie, however, the question still remains why it resonated so deeply with a general public that, polls show, considers Muslims to be as human as apes.
Much of the movie is actually spent “on location” in “Kazakhstan,” where Borat takes the viewer around an unimaginably poor-looking village, making fun of how backward “his people” are. There are no Western egos or ignorance being punctured here. In fact, it was shot in a gypsy encampment in Romania, where locals were paid around $3 each to be humiliated by a man who spoke to them in a language they did not understand. The villagers were told they were appearing in a sympathetic documentary highlighting their lives. “Borat” made over $262 million at the box office.
The idea of using racism to highlight Western ignorance becomes even more strained when Baron Cohen appears in promotional interviews in character. In an interview on CNN with anchor Betty Nguyen, who was obviously in on the joke, Borat told her that, “We say in Kazakhstan to let a woman be a journalist is like to let a monkey fly a plane. Very dangerous!” Nobody involved believed Baron Cohen’s character was a genuine Kazakh, so there is no satire to be had. Thus, the take-home message, regardless of the creator’s intent, was that “these people really are like this.” This is especially true in light of the American public’s hazy knowledge of the region. Only 28% of Americans can even locate Iran on a map of the Middle East. Therefore, it is unlikely that most viewers understood his work as a piece of nuanced, anti-racist satire, considering that Americans see the entire region from the Balkans to India as an amorphous blob called “The Middle East.” If this is the representation of the region most people get, no wonder Donald Trump called much of the developing world “shithole countries.”
Rahmani placed “Borat” and “The Dictator” in a longer tradition of white performers mocking non-white “Others,” such as “The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show;” in effect, blackface for the millennial generation, concluding:
Baron Cohen is projecting the white-supremacist image of Other people. Basically, he is one stupid chapter in a very old book of Western imperialism, which renders its enemies as lowly idiots and worthy of your comedic imitation.”
The racism was further amplified with the 2020 release of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Within the first two minutes of the sequel, Borat informs us that Kazakhstan has canceled their traditional event, “the running of the Jew,” but fortunately his country still has Holocaust Remembrance Day, “when we commemorate our heroic soldiers who ran the camps.” Borat also received an award, which he stated will be “put in our national museum along with other treasure we have confiscated from Jews.”
The idea that comes out of the Borat films, “The Dictator,” and “The Spy” – that Muslims are irredeemably racist, violent and antisemitic – is actually a subtle but very strong Zionist message that reinforces the notion that Jews need a homeland of their own (and one without a substantial Muslim minority) because they are unsafe anywhere else. Thus, some might wonder if Baron Cohen’s comedy is really simply Zionism masquerading as satire. Put in another way, if his movies were written and produced by Shimon Peres, everybody would understand them as crude propaganda. But when Peres’s disciple does it, far fewer sense the ideology running through it. “That is what is particularly fucked with Baron Cohen,” Rahmani noted. “Here is this Anglo-Israeli guy whose entire life and political identity was forged in U.S.-Israeli Apartheid. And here he is painting millions of Muslims as racist pogromists.”
In actual fact, as many have pointed out, Kazakhstan was a haven for Jewish people during the Holocaust, not a perpetrator of it, saving thousands of Jewish lives by taking in people from Eastern Europe and other states of the U.S.S.R. Today, the country is commended by Jewish groups as a model of tolerance. It is also, notably, not a helplessly sexist nation; Save The Children ranked it higher than the United States in its list of best countries to grow up female.
Israel: never the butt of his jokes
This is a rather inconvenient truth for the Israeli state-building project Baron Cohen supports. Ironically, perhaps the most shocking and newsworthy case of exposing bigotry Baron Cohen has documented has never been revealed. While in character as Brüno in Jerusalem, Baron Cohen was beaten nearly to death by an enraged crowd of homophobic Israelis, who, angered by his camp and sacrilegious attire, started stoning him, on camera. Baron Cohen was reportedly “nearly killed.” Kiriakou told MintPress that Baron Cohen told him that a rabbi even spat on him. It was the only time in his career that he broke character and desperately yelled that he was an Israeli Jew, not a homosexual foreigner. The comedian fled for his life and found refuge in a nearby store bathroom. This footage has never seen the light of day. Perhaps it sends the “wrong” message.
Israel does feature heavily in Baron Cohen’s works. But it is, conspicuously, never the punchline of his jokes. One of the comedian’s recurring characters in his 2018 T.V. series “Who is America?” is Israeli anti-terrorism expert Erran Morad. Yet nobody is mistaking segments where Morad manages to convince a Georgia state representative to repeatedly scream the n-word, or former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney to sign a waterboarding kit, as making fun of Israel or its people. The joke in all these is obviously the interviewee, suggesting that Baron Cohen certainly knows how to handle these issues sensitively when he wants to. Sometimes the butt of “Borat’s” jokes are privileged Westerners. But, all too often, they are not.
Baron Cohen has stated that he conceived of “Who is America?” – a series that relentlessly mocks Republicans and the right-wing, as his attempt to do something to counter his revulsion towards Donald Trump. However, he also tried to undermine leftist figures like Bernie Sanders in interviews. This holds true for his entire catalog of work, which has consistently tried to satirize neoconservatives, the alt-right, and the anti-establishment left, including many Jewish critics of Israel’s policies, such as Noam Chomsky or Naomi Wolf. Ultimately, then, his aggressively centrist politics, combined with his passionate support for the Israeli project, come shining through.
While Baron Cohen does, through his sheer audacity, manage to highlight antisemitic and racist attitudes in the United States, there are certain subjects or positions he appears unwilling to criticize. At best, his work is imprecise comedy that often punches down as well as up. At worst, it could be understood as simple centrist, pro-Israel propaganda. Considering his politics and his connections to state power, many might reasonably suspect the latter.
Feature photo | Sacha Baron Cohen, walks during a photo call for The Dictator at the 65th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France. Joel Ryan | AP
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.