There are many faces to prankster Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show, Who is America? There’s a wheelchair-bound conspiracy theorist, an ex-con artist who paints with poo, an apologetically cisgender balding NPR fan, a smooth-talking Italian fashion photographer and, most notably, an Israeli commando on a mission to teach Republicans everything he knows about terrorism.
The Israeli character, named Col. Erran Morad, is the breakout star of the show, which airs Sundays in Canada on The Movie Network. Esquire crowned him Baron Cohen’s greatest creation, beating out Borat and Ali G, while Haaretz lauded him “officially the funniest Israeli ever.” Critics love the spot-on Israeli accent (Baron Cohen’s mother was born there and he’s fluent in Hebrew), his stiff-armed walk and his flippant love of torture and guns.
But there’s more to Morad than machismo. Baron Cohen’s other characters are themselves the punchlines: they personify stereotypes, pushing social boundaries while we, the audience, wait for his guests to crack. The show works best when they don’t, like when an art dealer offers the ex-con artist a few strands of her pubic hair for his brush.
That clip never made the rounds on Twitter, though, because the producers never uploaded it. Instead, they published every made-for-virality clip featuring Morad. First it was a 10-minute segment wherein he successfully convinces numerous Republican politicians to promote a bill that would arm four-year olds with guns, then it was a ridiculous Islamophobic self-defence class featuring Georgian lawmaker Jason Spencer. (If you threaten to touch Muslims with your bare butt, he learned, terrorists will run away, out of a fear of turning gay. He resigned days after the clip went viral.)
Yes, the clips are funny. And yes, these people should be ashamed for being fooled by a man with a blatantly prosthetic chin. But the question lingers: how did Baron Cohen get these people to participate in the first place?
The answer is Israel. Within days of the first viral clip, every embarrassed Republican revealed how they’d been duped: the team behind Who is America? told them that they’d been awarded some sort of Israeli prize for their loyalty to the Holy Land. It’s apparently the sweetest honeypot to these ardently pro-Israel, God-loving Americans.
In the third episode, Morad strings along Roy Moore, the alleged pedophile who nearly became an Alabama senator, until Moore snaps midway through the interview. “I support Israel, but I don’t support this kind of stuff,” he says.
That strikes at the heart of the show’s purpose, insofar as it has one. Writing about the show in The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert points out its underlying message: “His schtick isn’t revealing what people actually think,” she writes. “It’s showing how much they’ll put up with before they protest.” She notes that Baron Cohen studied history in university and was especially struck by the complicity that allowed the rise of Nazism. By placing a Jew behind the wheel, Baron Cohen has added a subtle layer of bittersweet irony to his show.
It harkens back to the common refrain we’re hearing from this legion of duped right-wingers: “I just love Israel so much, I didn’t think about what I was saying.” That’s precisely the problem. Ideology, particularly when mixed with religion, can be spellbinding. No doubt Jason Spencer would never literally drop his pants and rush, butt-first, toward a terrorist. In fact, while doing exactly that on camera, he likely realized it was an idiotic thing to do. So why didn’t he say anything?
North America’s unconditional devotion to Israel has produced some painstaking blind spots in our political discourse. (Yes, Canadians are complicit, as well.) And I don’t expect Morad will change anything – he’s not really trying to. He’s just holding up a mirror. It’s not surprising, nor is it flattering, that Israel is the pivotal wedge issue here, but it reflects a sad, absurd truth that many are too blindly loyal to see.