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Abraham Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a position he has held since 1987.  He has worked for the organization since 1965. In 2006, he was awarded[…]

Sacha Baron Cohen as “Borat” wasn’t funny, says Foxman. Neither was Archie Bunker in “All in the Family.”

Question: Is it okay for a Jews to tell a Jewish joke?

Abraham Foxman: In Jewish tradition words are very rnimportant.  We even Jews will pray three times a day, ask the rnAlmighty... ask for his help or her help to keep, "God please help keep rnmy mouth from speaking evil." 

It’s in our tradition the power of life rnand death is in the tongue.  And the gas chambers in Auschwitz, the rncrematorium in Auschwitz didn’t begin with bricks they began with words;rn ugly words, hateful words.  These words were met with absence.  Nobody rnchallenged them, nobody questioned them, and then became bricks. 9-11 rndidn’t start with box cutters or flying planes as missiles, it started rnwith words denigrating Americans, demeaning Americans, our values, and rneverything else.  The reason slavery persisted so long, the reason that rnthere were lynching’s, was that words; words demeaned African-Americans rnas not persons, not human.

So if you can use words in a way to demean rnand undermine their humanity, then it eventually doesn’t matter what rnyou do because they’re not human.  And it starts with jokes, it starts rnwith separating as a group, the other.  We see it with bullying and rncyber-bullying.  It all starts with a joke and it builds.  So, yeah, rnlook I’ve had my differences with "Borat," with Sacha Cohen, I’m old rnenough to have my differences with All in the Family.  You’re too young rnto remember, but this was an approach which said let’s make fun of rnbigotry; let’s laugh at bigotry.  And I argued with Leonard Goldenson rnand this was the first show on television which poked fun at bigotry andrn you’d say can we laugh and make jokes?  And the producer’s claim was ifrn you laugh at it you get it out of your system.  And the truth is that rnArchie Bunker became a hero.  People were laughing with him, not at rnhim.  All the other characters were made simple and idiotic, and when rnSacha Cohen did "Borat" he defended it as this is the way to expose rnbigotry, is to laugh at it.  But I don’t think that the people, when he rndid his skit about throwing the Jews down the well, and the people were rnapplauding, I didn’t think it was funny.  I think they were reinforcing rnit.  My little test that I still offer that to Sacha Cohen, and he said rnto me, "You got to learn to take a joke."  I said you know what, I will.  rnWhy don’t you do a public service announcement for the Anti-Defamation rnLeague which says prejudice is not funny, and then you can make your rnmovies prejudiced.

Recorded on June 11, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman