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Ray Hanania
Ray Hanania
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Sacha Baron Cohen's Antics: Good or Bad?

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Israelis and Americans know Sacha Baron Cohen well, maybe in different ways.

His maternal grandmother lives in Haifa, Israel, and his mother, born in Israel, later married a Jewish businessman from Wales. Cohen studied and performed at the Habonim Dror, a Jewish Socialist-Zionist cultural youth movement, one of whose ideals is "tikkun olam," or "fixing up the world."

Cohen has gone on to international fame portraying himself as unusual characters who interview unsuspecting people to bring out the irony, controversy and ridiculousness of the subjects.

On Sunday, he walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles dressed in his latest character, Admiral General Aladeen. Aladeen is the main character in Cohen's latest film, "The Dictator." Aladeen's mission is to "risk his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed."

Cohen's character is clearly satire on the dictators who have been given the reluctant spotlight in the Arab Spring that's sweeping through the Middle East and Arab World, slowly and steadily, but with mixed results.

I've always been a little wary of Cohen, who is a comedian and humorist. Some people (mainly those who hate me) love to point out that I am a comedian. But I am not a professional comedian by any means.

I turned to comedy in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, and the animosity it created in order to help bridge the gap of understanding and relations between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis. It hasn't worked, unfortunately, although the comedy routine I've written, which lampoons my Palestinian life with my Jewish wife and son, has been a big hit at shows I've done from Israel to Palestine to Beirut, Dubai and Dublin.

Still, when I perform comedy, I try to be respectful. And I've built my comedy on the idea that it's OK for people to lampoon, skewer and satirize their own ethnicity, religion, relations and beliefs. A lot of my comedy tears apart the stereotypes ascribed to Arabs and even to Jews in the context of my Jewish-Arab marriage.

Cohen's humor seems to diverge from that goal.

I would have thought that Cohen could have done a remarkable job satirizing the anomalies and contradictions of being Israeli and a Jew. Instead, he seems to make fun of other ethnic groups, rather than adding his own Jewishness into the mix.

Much of what he does is hilarious. But critics point out that much racial humor is funny but often very inappropriate.

Here is what I mean.

It is inappropriate for white people to make jokes about black people, especially if those jokes are based on stereotypes.

It is inappropriate for Christians to make stereotypical jokes about Jews and would be quickly denounced as anti-Semitic.

In his latest film, the name of the dictator he portrays is "Aladeen," which some Arabs think is a twisted play on two Arab words for God, "Allah" and "Deen." Others argue it's just a distortion of the name of the Disney movie character "Aladdin." No matter how he may explain it, he won't make anyone happy, though the Ayatollahs in Iran might still issue a Fatwa against Cohen as "the Zionist infidel," one of their most commonly used expressions!

An example in my own comedy is when I tear apart the stereotypes about Arabs: "Seventy-two virgins? No way.

Arabs read backwards, from right to left. It's one Virgin and she is 72 years old. ... and we promise her to everyone ... and her name is Bob ... She's a trans-sexual, so give her a break. Please. Ya Rubbee!"

But black people can make jokes about their own culture and even use the offensive "N-word." The point is stereotypical humor is not racist when it is performed by the person who is being stereotyped or the comic who has close ties to the targeted ethnic or religious group.

During a discussion about Sacha Baron Cohen on my Chicago radio show, I asked listeners what they thought of his humor. Was it appropriate, or was it based on racial stereotyping? Wouldn't Cohen be better if he focused his sharp wit on himself and his own people rather than using it to riff on the stereotypes of others?

The response was divided, of course. The debate continued on my Facebook page (Facebook.com/rghanania) where many Arabs surprised me arguing that they loved Cohen's humor.

Still, I think that Cohen could do so much more than offend the public's senses by picking on easy targets like Arab-looking rap stars, Arab dictators and Kazakhstan peasants as he traipses through the West lampooning others.

"Do unto others as you would do unto yourself" is a loosely phrased rendition of a common Biblical saying.

I think Cohen could be far more effective if he turned his comedic talents inwards and portrayed someone like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or even right-wing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

It's probably unfair to describe Cohen's humor as being racist just because he focuses on easy stereotypes of others but not his own. I just think he could be a far more effective comedian if he did more humor about his Jewishness, his Israeli heritage and the often conflicting relationships between Jews and Arabs.

It would have been far funnier and far more appropriate than his Aladeen character walking down the red carpet in front of the former Kodak Theater only to dump "ashes" on Oscar host Ryan Seacrest's tuxedo.

Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist. To find out more about Ray Hanania and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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