Comedy fans with strong stomachs may chuckle when Borat Sagdiyev, the faux-Kazakh journalist played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, sings the pseudo-folksong “In My Country There Is Problem”: “Throw the Jew down the well/ So my country can be free/ You must grab him by his horns/ Then we have a big party.” The song, praised by Slate as “hilarious” and “catchy,” raised concerns from the Anti-Defamation League last September: “One serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”
This precise worry has become tragically current. In Kazakhstan’s neighbor Uzbekistan it is now clear that Jews are still being lynched. As Ynetnews reports, last week the noted Jewish-Uzbek stage director Mark Weil was stabbed to death outside his Tashkent home. “Uzbek police suspect the murder was an anti-Semitic attack,” according to Ynetnews. Last April, the 55-year-old theater director, founder in 1976 of the Ilkhom Theater (one of the oldest independent theaters in the former USSR), had hosted a festival in Tashkent of Contemporary Israeli Literature and Drama. Weil was stabbed to death by two men, “possibly due to his Jewish identity,” as the director was well known for his close ties to the local Jewish community. Despite U. S. State Department warnings, Weil had assured friends and colleagues that his theater “had no enemies,” although its avant-garde subject matter on occasion included gay love, which in the Central Asian Muslim country of Uzbekistan is still punishable by a prison sentence.
Weil, who is survived by a wife and two daughters, is scarcely the first victim of recent anti-Semitic violence in Uzbekistan. Last year, 33-year-old Avraham Hakohen Yagudayev, a Jewish leader, died of cranial injuries in Tashkent after what local authorities called a traffic accident, but what local Hillel director asserted “was no accident,” pointing to overt anti-Semitism as the motive. (In 2000, his synagogue had been gutted by a fire that authorities pooh-poohed, claiming it was caused by a short circuit.) Since 1989, some 83,000 Uzbeki Jews have fled to Israel, with only around 17,000 remaining. As the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress explains, anti-Semitic violence in Uzbekistan is prevalent and a matter of ongoing concern.
During the filming of Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 The Great Dictator (a satire about Europe’s evolving historical tragedies), Chaplin realized that “Hitler [was] a horrible menace to civilization rather than someone to laugh at.” As the death toll of Central Asian Jews continues to increase, cinema audiences may wish to reconsider whether it is really timely to laugh at Borat, a character from a region of the world where (at least for Jews) the laughs have dried up entirely.