Col. Erran Morad, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Israeli character from his new Showtime series “Who Is America?”, is a die-hard counterterrorism expert hell-bent on sharing his tactics with conservative America. But at the same time that Baron Cohen’s latest alter-ego is revealing the wingnuttery of American politicians, he is also stirring a debate in Israel, as people there are realizing that the joke might also be on them.
While there is consensus among Israelis on the accuracy of the archetype—the heavy accent, the flagrant machismo, the inherent misogyny—opinions across social media and the press are divided as to whether Baron Cohen, until now a beloved “son of Israel,” is turning his back on his mother’s country of origin. While some think that Baron Cohen’s parody is a chance to reflect on Israel’s growing militarism and international isolation, others like Shmuel Rosner (Does Sacha Baron Cohen Understand Israel? August 9th) complain that the character misrepresents today’s Israeli society and brings harm to the country’s already struggling image in the world. Perhaps Rosner should seize this opportunity to look at the Morad within himself.
Everyone in Israel knows a Morad, Rosner admits, but he also claims that these types are a breed heading towards extinction. He recalls a story about a Morad-like retired Israeli officer whom he heard lecturing a Canadian audience in a heavy accent, “You know, we could throw all the Arabs into the Jordan. But the world won’t let” (the typos are in the original script.) That reference to the officer’s overt desire to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from their homeland, Rosner tells us, has become a running joke in his family—something to be repeated in any number of circumstances: “I truly tried to convince the pigeons to get off the balcony, I might say to my wife, ‘but the world won’t let.’” A cute joke maybe, but focusing on the officer’s broken English instead of his appalling genocidal plans—now rapidly infiltrating the political mainstream in the country—suggests that the relevance of Baron Cohen’s Morad character is either something that is over Rosner’s head or that he has chosen to actively ignore.
The same might be said for the irony of Rosner boasting that his two soldier sons thoroughly approve of Baron Cohen’s jokes. To defend his point that the military is “not as dominant in Israeli culture as it used to be,” although it lives in his house, Rosen cites Israel’s capitalistic economy (which is responsible for the third highest gap between rich and poor in the world) and its focus on “trade and hi-tech innovation” as a proof of the country’s turn towards normalcy. However, Rosner should know that Israel’s tech industry rose chiefly from the army’s storied cyber spy Unit 8200 and that a large portion of Israeli startups specialize in cyber warfare and counterterrorism (Israel is the world’s largest exporter of military drones, and second only to the US in cyber defence deals according to a recent report). Here, too, Baron Cohen is on point when he shows Morad offering creative technological solutions to detecting and killing terrorists (“I once killed a terrorist with an iPad.”)
Of course it would be absurd to claim that all Israelis are as trigger-happy and overly muscular Krav Maga fanatics as Morad. Like any other nation, Israel has its soft-spoken poets and artists. But satire works by means of exaggeration, and the undeniable truth is that there is a certain degree of Morad implanted in every Israeli, insofar as every Jewish citizen is a product of a social indoctrination that begins at school and culminates in a mandatory army service (the recruit rates move between 65%-75% of all high school graduates.) This militarized ethos continues after the army through the country’s permanent state of heightened alert and its ever-present existential fear.
One of the Morads that I had personal experience with was my high school principal Rami—a retired Israeli army commander who spoke in short sentences and showed up to work every day wearing army dog tags around his neck and brandishing a loaded gun strapped to his waist. Rami is one many retired army commanders often appointed (or “parachuted” in local lingo) as high school principles to help raise the next generation of motivated soldiers. But indoctrination begins ever earlier than school: a recent government-sponsored ad to encourage maternity starts on Israeli children before they’re even born. The ad shows a fetus dressed in an army uniform saluting in his mother’s belly. A caption says: “Recipient of the Presidential Award of Excellence [a medal of honor for soldiers], 2038.” In a social climate like this, how is possible to argue that the spirit of Morad is an “effigy from the ’50s or the ‘60s”?
In a Twitter page created for the character, Morad greets his followers with “Boker Tov [good morning], my name Colonel Erran Morad. Presenter, Kill or Be Killed. Anti-terrorist expert.” That phrase (“kill or be killed”) is a not a figment of Cohen’s imagination, but the actual mantra of an entire nation, originating from the Talmudic instruction “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” Rosner reaffirms this saying when he suggests that “We still have dangerous enemies, so maybe keeping this stereotype going is useful.” But it’s naïve to dismiss it as a mere stereotype. Anti-Arab sentiments among the Jewish population in Israel has reached record highs. The new Jewish Nation-State Law limiting the right of self-determination in “the land of Israel” to the Jewish People and codifying settlement expansion as a “natural right,” has been met with the support of the majority of Jewish Israelis. Last April, thousands rallied in Tel Aviv in support of a soldier who shot and killed an already neutralized and wounded Palestinian in Hebron. The protestors carried signs reading “Kill them all” and “Death to Arabs.” The Morads are still out there, and they are even more toxic and destructive than in Baron Cohen’s comical interpretation.
Luckily, it is not only the world that “doesn’t let” Israel go rampant, but also a increasing number of Jewish Americans. Baron Cohen’s satire joins Natalie Portman’s recent cancellation of her participation in an award ceremony in Israel and an unprecedented Op-Ed by Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, who warned Israel against its self-destructive patterns at its 70th anniversary. Rosner finds Morad’s character difficult to watch not because it misrepresents Israel, but because it’s too accurate to bear. It’s a mirror much too bright. Instead of remaining in willful blindness and resorting to defensive Hasbara-like tactics, Rosner should listen to the warnings of others.