The provocative Baron Cohen clan: Sacha (aka Ali G, Borat, Bruno) is not the only member of this British Jewish family to make a name for himself as a creative rebel.
Erran, 42, is a creature of modern London, a city of diverse immigrant communities, distinct ethnic neighborhoods and a wild mixing of cultures, where tolerance predominates but prejudice lurks not far away. His band, Zo-har, named after the central text of the kabbalah, blends music of the Middle East with Jewish themes and a modern beat. Musically, as well as culturally, Erran believes, Jews and Arabs are cousins. "The way the hazan often improvises around the melody in a very Semitic way is similar to what an Arab muezzin [who leads the call to prayer] would do. I think there's amazing similarity between our cultures," says Erran, who attributes his interest in music to listening to his cantor's moving singing in synagogue as a child.
Americans may not be familiar with Erran's name but they know his work. He composed the music for Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009), written by and starring his brother Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedic actor three and a half years his junior. The score for Borat won Erran an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers award. He snagged the commission to write the score by composing a fictional Kazakhstani national anthem in one night, recording his own voice and multiplying it about 40 times to create the effect of a resounding chorus of male voices. Although Erran often draws on world music, in this case, he says, "that was not Kazakhstani at all, but the idea was militaristic: the Russian Red Army singing, quite Soviet there." Some of the anthem's lyrics, which Erran did not write, go: "Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan, you very nice place/From plains of Tarashek to northern fence of Jewtown." The movie was a smash hit and lauded by critics, earning Sacha a Golden Globe award for best actor and an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.
Borat follows the adventures of a bumbling faux-Kazakhstani journalist who effortlessly elicits expressions of anti-Semitism and racism from the ordinary Americans he interviews. Even before the film, Sacha's Borat persona was exposing prejudice. His most infamous anti-Semitic outburst was broadcast on HBO in 2004, when he led patrons in a Tucson, Arizona, bar in a rousing rendition of a song composed by Sacha titled In My Country There is a Problem (Throw the Jew Down the Well). Sacha's Bruno, a gay Austrian fashion reporter, has no trouble getting fashionistas to repeat his thumbs-down trope of "Train to Auschwitz" to condemn designs that don't meet their approval.
In a rare interview as himself (and not one of his characters) Sacha told NPR's Terry Gross that he didn't believe that the people Borat encountered agreed with his racist statements just to be polite, and even if that was their motivation, he was concerned. "'The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference," Sacha, a Cambridge University history graduate said, quoting British historian Ian Kershaw. "It's that indifference that's quite dangerous."
Sacha, through his satirical characters, and Erran, through his musical fusion, are pushing back against prejudice, which has played a powerful role shaping Baron Cohen family history. The two brothers are members of the fourth generation of Baron Cohens, which also includes their first cousins Ash, a Hollywood director of small-budget independent films such as Bang and This Girl's Life, and Simon, a prominent Cambridge psychologist promulgating controversial theories about sex differences and the brain.
On the one hand, the story of the Baron Cohen clan chronicles the success and assimilation of Britain's Jews. From impoverished Eastern European great-grandparents, its members have risen in three generations to make distinguished careers in academia and Hollywood. At the same time, the Baron Cohens stand out among British Jews, who are generally far less vocal than their American brethren. They are willing to draw directly on their Jewishness to shock and provoke.
Family legend has it that when chaim Baron, a red-headed widower, emigrated to Britain from Belarus in the wake of pogroms in the 1880s, he tacked Cohen to his name to show his pride in being Jewish and his descent from the priestly Cohanim. Armed with his double-barreled surname, he settled in the Welsh capital of Cardiff with his second wife Amelia, whose father, an immigrant from Poland, had worked in a sweatshop in London's East End.
Making his living as a jeweler, pawnbroker and handyman, Chaim increased his brood from four to 15 children, raising them in a "typically warm Orthodox Jewish home," says his grandson Vivian Baron Cohen. Tall and vigorous at age 80 with a white mustache, Vivian is Erran's and Sacha's uncle, the brother of their father Gerald.
Vivian and Gerald are the offspring of Chaim and Amelia's middle son, Moishe (Morris), whom Vivian describes as a raconteur with a great sense of humor. The two were born in Whitechapel, but, as World War II loomed, fled London with their parents. They moved in with their Yiddish-speaking grandparents in a small isolated laborer's cottage about 25 miles from Cardiff, where the boys shared a bed. "I remember cooking a kosher chicken bought from a Cardiff butcher every Friday over an open fire," says Vivian.
Morris found a job in a menswear shop and the family settled in Morganstown, on the northern outskirts of Cardiff. As Jews, the boys stood out. "I was the only Jew in my school, but unusual, as I was tall, blond and an athlete," Vivian recalls. "I became school captain. [But] I got a lot of anti-Semitism from teachers. They would mock me about my math ability. When I was 11 years old, a teacher said, 'You want to buy a vatch? Go to Baron Cohen.' It was very hurtful."
Unlike the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, when newspaper advertisements for secretaries and clerks specified that Jews would not be hired, anti-Semitism took a more subtle form for Vivian's generation as it entered the labor market after the war. Vivian encountered it in 1951 when he came to London after earning a degree in economics and English from the University of Wales. At an interview he was bluntly asked, "Which one of your parents wasn't English?" As Vivian remembers: "I suddenly realized he meant 'which one was Jewish.' I said, 'They're both Jewish, and so am I,' and I said, 'Whatever job you're going to offer, I'm not interested.' And I got up and walked out of the room."
I am talking to Vivian in his London menswear shop, Baron of Piccadilly, which he is closing after 45 years of operation because the building is about to be demolished. Like many other Jews of their time, Vivian and Gerald ended up joining their father in the family business. The three built a thriving menswear retail company, Morris Cowan, with outlets in Cardiff and London. Vivian focused on merchandising while Gerald handled the bookkeeping. Their success made it possible for their children to receive first-rate educations and pursue riskier careers. Vivian's son Ash, the Hollywood producer, has called his father and Uncle Gerald "creative rebels"--a quality he believes rubbed off on him and his cousins.
Later, Vivian gives me a tour of his cozy brick and wood home designed by the famous British architect Edwin Lutyens in the prosperous, tree-lined Hampstead Garden Suburb, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in north London. His wife Judith, who died in 2008, was from Montreal and was a therapist specializing in bereavement. The harp she played still stands in the living room, surrounded by sculpture and paintings, much of it by family members, and invitingly comfortable furniture with an informal, almost bohemian flair.
Gerald also found a creative woman. His wife, Daniella, is the daughter of a German Jew whose dream to become a dancer was destroyed by Hitler. Sacha has observed dryly that his grandmother, now 95, "was basically the last Jewish girl taught ballet in Germany." Daniella, who grew up in Israel, followed in her mother's footsteps by opening her own fitness studio. She is also a photographer.
Together the couples had eight children. Daniella and Gerald had three sons: Amnon, Erran and Sacha. Judith and Vivian had five children, including Ash and Simon. The families were close and lived not far from each other within the safe comfortable confines of north London. Their homes were kosher, if not always strictly religious, with an emphasis on family and community--and creativity. Simon recalls that his mother introduced dramatic performances and shadow puppetry into their Hanukkah celebrations and invited all the neighbors. "It was very much opening up Jewishness to be shared in the wider community: Chinese kids--whoever we were friends with," he says. "She would stretch a sheet across the living room and put lights behind it so you could act out the story of the Maccabees."
Erran affectionately remembers family Shabbats for the improvisations he and Sacha composed at the piano. One of those songs developed into a skit "about a Hasidic guy wearing all these clothes making him schvitz [sweat]. Eventually he takes off his hat and coat, ends up in a swimming costume and converts to Christianity," Erran recalls. The two brothers performed the risque skit at several London comedy clubs and filmed it for BBC, but, says Erran, "they banned it, saying we insulted three religions in three minutes."
Erran performed at Sacha's bar mitzvah with a Moog synthesizer, and Sacha, who began his break-dancing career at 12, performed at his own and others' bar mitzvahs. How did their parents feel about their children's irreverent entertainment preferences? "I think they were very anti-authoritarian," Erran says. "I think we were made to realize you don't have to follow the pack and could do things differently. I think we've done that," Erran says laughing.
Erran, Sacha, Simon and Ash attended Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, (nicknamed Habs), a prestigious private school on the outskirts of northwest London. Habs schoolmate and close collaborator Dan Mazer has described the school as "a factory of comedy ... It's just cocky young Jews. And because we were too weak to fight each other, we compensated with verbal jousts."
"I would say [Habs] was an exam factory and certainly it was quite cocky," says Frran. "There was a slightly rebellious [atmosphere]; it was a very regimented, high-pressure kind of place and some reacted against that--it made for comedy."
In his novel New Boy, based on his experiences at the school in the 1980s, Sacha's schoolmate William Sutcliffe writes that when the Christian trustees relocated the school to the prosperous greenbelt suburbs of northwest London, they were surprised to find themselves presiding over an "exam greenhouse for nouveau-riche, second-generation immigrants," including Jews. As late as the 1950s, the novel recounts, the school had a Jewish quota, and Jewish students were excused from the religious half of the morning assembly: "[I]t is said that after the hymns and prayers, the headmaster would stand and intone the words 'LET IN THE JEWS!'" whereupon the Jewish boys would file in for announcements. New Boy is fiction, so it's unclear if the quota at Habs actually existed, but similar schools had quotas, possibly as late as the 1970s, according to Todd M. Endelman's book, The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000.
During their years at Habs, both Sa-cha and Erran belonged to the international socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror (Builders of Freedom), an organization dedicated to forging peace with Israel's neighbors and strengthening Jewish culture. Sacha was a madrich, a youth leader. Erran recalls Habonim Dror both as a home for discussions about social injustice toward minority groups and as the venue for his rock band's--Stinker Watson Goes Mullet Fishing--first big gig.
While not in school, the Baron Cohen brothers roamed the city. "Living in London ... the whole world's here," says Erran. "I think that's been an important part of what we do creatively; we were open to a lot of influences." Erran remembers taking Sacha to see Afrika Bambaataa, the legendary South Bronx DJ who is often called the grandfather of hip hop. "We were probably the only white guys in the audience," says Erran, whose inspirations range from Miriam Makeba and Arabic music diva Umm Kulthum to Kraftwerk, a German electronic music pioneer. The brothers' interest in hip hop eventually evolved into break dancing--with Sacha and his pals dancing to music Erran supplied from his blaster. When not entertaining at bar mitzvahs, they performed on the pavement of the main square in Covent Garden, where musicians and street performers entertain shoppers and passersby.
Upon graduation from Nabs, Erran studied instruments at Guild Hall and completed a music degree at Goldsmiths, at the University of London. Sacha spent a gap year working on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, Rosh HaNikra. Once at Cambridge, he focused much of his attention on the stage. At the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, Sacha acted in musicals including My Fair Lady, Biloxi Blues and Fiddler on the Roof in which he played Tevye. His Habs buddy Dan Mazer introduced him to the university's legendary Footlights Dramatic Club, which boasts alumni such as Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson.
Sacha began his acting career in earnest after finishing Cambridge in 1993. His first TV appearance was in 1995 on Britain's Channel 4's Jack and Jeremy's Police 4, a spoof on a reality crime program. He then hosted a talk show for teenagers followed by a cable show, Pump TV, featuring straight interviews with local personalities, until a new opportunity surfaced.
This was the decade of "new lads" in Britain. Rejecting the sensitive New Age male archetype, "new lads" embraced macho pastimes such as public displays of drunkenness, soft porn stag parties and soccer fanaticism. Sophie Manham, who had been commissioned to make a segment about this new species for Channel 4, wanted to alternate the talking heads with short segments of an actor portraying a "new lad" in all his beer-drinking lasciviousness to lighten up the program. One of her researchers, William Sutcliffe, mentioned his school friend, Sacha.
"He could steal the show even then," says Manham. "You could see Borat and Bruno already. He had a twinkle in the eye." Sacha was "fearless," according to Manham, coming up with portrayals of disgusting behavior such as attempting to light his fart with a cigarette lighter. In some clips, he tenderly strokes a soccer ball and leers over plastic molded breasts. Much like his Borat persona, he manages to both embody his character and condemn it, with a figurative wink to the audience. His performance helped him land a gig on London Weekend Television, where he developed the precursor to Ali G, a takeoff on the BBC radio hip-hop DJ Tim Westwood, who had become famous in Britain for his "wigger"--"white nigger"--style with a Jamaican accent and outrageous clothing.
Sacha would spend years "wallowing in cable TV hell" in the words of one 2002 biographical documentary. "I gave myself five years to start earning money from being an actor, a comedian ... If it didn't work out, I was going to move on to something else, become a barrister or something," he said in a 2006 Rolling Stone article. With only two months left in his five-year plan, the big break came. "I was sitting on a beach in Thailand. It was four years and 10 months since I'd graduated," Sacha recalled. "And that's when I got a call from my agent saying there's this audition for The 11 O'Clock Show ... I had been rejected so many times that I didn't know if it was worth it."
The 11 O'Clock Show, a thrice-weekly late night satirical program on Channel 4, premiered in 1998 and became enormously popular for its brand of "hoax journalism. "The targets were celebrities who usually had no idea they were submitting themselves to mock interviews by comedians posing as journalists. It was here that Sacha honed his character Ali G, who became so recognizable that the Queen Mother did an imitation of him. He also developed early versions of Bruno and Borat.
A year after the show's debut, the Evening Standard described Sacha as "more remote than the Queen Mother and twice as famous." Reportedly one reason he brought All G, Bruno and Borat to the United States was that he had become so recognizable in Britain he could no longer pull off his hoax journalism. When Sacha's own Da Ali G Show, coauthored and produced by Dan Mazer, premiered in Britain in 2000, it was an instant success. Ali G Indahouse, Sacha's first major foray into film, was the highest grossing British film of 2002, despite reviews ranging from tepid to savage.
But when HBO launched the American version of the show in 2003, it got off to a slow start with less than a million viewers and mixed reviews, some damning it as tasteless. Many Americans didn't get the nuances of his humor; others may have been offended by his reference to 9/11 as "the terrible events of 7/11." Sacha "very cleverly picks on some of the cruder British stereotypes of America and makes them worse," observes Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at Cambridge. Also invisible to most American eyes is Sacha's incorporation of edgy Israeli touches. When Sacha visited his brother Amnon, who was living in Israel in 2002, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz noted, "Baron Cohen's Hebrew is excellent and he has a good understanding of Israeli culture." This is evident in the film Borat: Sacha uses his fluent Hebrew, peppered with Israeli slang and occasional Polish, to pass for Kazakh.
There is little reason for Americans to recognize just how unusual Sacha is among British Jews. The Jewish communities in the United States and the United Kingdom differ in significant ways. British Jews tend to be more observant than their American counterparts, in part because the community is smaller and concentrated in upper middle class "Jewish ghettos" and because the British chief rabbi is Orthodox. The influence of Jews on British popular culture is also much less pronounced. Vivian Baron Cohen says he's "always amazed" that in the United States at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur "there are programs on the TV, radio, signs everywhere. It's a more accepting society." Sylvia Paskin, a British writer who studies the portrayal of Jews in film, claims there's a "more assured sense of what it means to be Jewish" in the United States, while in Britain, there's still some ambiguity about what it means to be both British and Jewish. Many British Jews, she says, want to be "British, polite, fit in, not draw attention to themselves." Their identity has been shaped by a culture where even those who've made it into the upper-middle and upper classes have to confront a longstanding undercurrent of anti-Semitism. Paskin suggests that Sacha's "in-your-face" portrayal of the anti-Semitic Borat stems from "a need to make a very, very bold statement, because so much is covert here."
Sacha isn't the only one of his generation of Baron Cohens to challenge American audiences with negative portrayals of their countrymen. Ash, Vivian's youngest son, who recalls being chased by Neo-Nazis in London as a kid, earned a degree in experimental psychology from Essex University before heading to Hollywood in the 1980s. He enrolled in film school and at age 21 persuaded Richard Harris to take a day off from filming Clint Eastwood's Un-forgiven to star in his first student film.
Although he was expelled from film school (he says for shooting a film about a dominatrix in 16 mm film instead of the Super 8 mm film that was assigned), he managed to get a footing in the business. His first feature, Bang, about a woman impersonating a Los Angeles police officer, was named one of the Top 10 films of 1997 by the Los Angeles Times and critic Roger Ebert. Oliver Stone was so impressed that he wrote a letter of support to help Ash secure a work visa. As Ash told Esquire, "After he saw Bang, Oliver says, 'We've got to get you legal.'"
Other movies in the works are Radio Active starring Mickey Rourke and The Blind Bastard Club with Lenny Kravitz. Dark humor, social observation and themes of violence pervade Ash's films. In American culture, he says, "there seems to be an unfulfilled craving and love for violence." His 2002 documentary, Little Warriors, about 11-year-old children living with AIDS, won an award from the Discovery Channel, and he has recently completed a sequel, Little Warriors: Big Fists, about the same group at age 17.
Ash says he and his cousin Sacha are supportive of one another, though they've never worked together. "The only thing I can say is that we've both really watched out for each other," he told Esquire. "We've both had situations where it's been good to have the other guy there to call up. For years, we were each other's only family here."
Their films are very different. Much as Sacha has exposed shortcomings like racism and homophobia, Ash has focused on American gun violence--much rarer in Britain, he points out. In America, he says, "I feel a bit of an outsider; that's the nature of an artist; looking ... from the outside."
Growing up as a Jew in Britain has given Simon Baron-Cohen a sense of what it means to be an outsider. "Being Jewish in North America you can be much more open with it; it's more of a comfortable thing," he tells me in his office at Trinity College, Cambridge. "I think here we haven't gotten quite to that same point."
Simon, Ash's older brother, is a professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, and directs its Autism Research Centre. (Unlike the other members of the family, his surname has a hyphen, thanks to a typographical error in his first professional article that he never corrected.) He has a gentle, almost diffident, manner of speaking, surprising in an academic who has waded into the provocative ground of sex differences, enraging some feminists with his theory that autism and Asperger's Syndrome are extreme forms of what he calls the "male brain." His 2003 book, The Essential Difference, cites studies finding that females tend to do better than males on tests of empathy, while males tend to do better on problems involving tasks such as reading maps or doing math.
He attributes his interest in people who lack social skills partly to his sister, Susannah. Despite being born with brain damage that impaired her intellectual capacity, Susannah was innately social, Simon noticed. That he would devote his life to exploring this subject stems from being part of a religious minority. "Being a member of a minority must make you see the world differently."
Cambridge did not allow Jews to receive degrees until 1856, and it was not until 1871 that barriers to Jews holding paid teaching positions were removed. "I know academia is just one tiny slice of Britain but it gives a window into where Jews have fit in to the culture--or haven't," says Simon.
Outside the window of Simon's office is a chapel in an ancient courtyard. Every college at Cambridge has a chapel. Simon, who identifies himself as an atheist, is now helping to raise money to build the first Reform synagogue in Cambridge for Beth Shalom, the 20-year-old lay-led community. "Just having a little point somewhere in the landscape that shows not everyone fits into the same traditions or has the same history is quite important."
Simon is married to Bridget Lindley, a lawyer and deputy chief executive for Family Rights Group, a London-based charity that works on finding alternatives to foster care for children from troubled families. Simon and Lindley, a Christian, have three children. The two oldest go by the last name of Baron and dream of making it in the entertainment business.
I meet Sam, a tall 21-year-old with bushy eyebrows, in the British Library coffee shop near University College London, where he is a third-year undergrad studying psychology. Sporting a newly grown delicate beard, Sam wears his brown wavy hair almost shoulder length and flashes a charming smile. Like his uncle Ash, Sam hopes to parlay his psychology degree into a career as a professional filmmaker and already has a couple of films under his belt. His rap video, Blasphemy, makes fun of religious rituals in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, while his most successful video to date, We Drink Tea., was created in response to Lazy Sunday, a digital short starring Andy Samberg that aired on Saturday Night Live and satirizes white yuppies in New York City. We Drink Tea, which mocks British idiosyncrasies and is laced with profanity, literary references to C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne and J.K. Rowling, has been viewed by an estimated million people online.
Sam's sister Kate, 18, is a singer-songwriter in the folk tradition who has just released her first compositions on MySpace. She and Sam acknowledge the role of their extended family in fostering their artistic impulses. "To have all that creativity [around you] is incredibly inspirational," says Sam. His sister is especially fond of family Hanukkah parties. "They are very musical, especially when we get the whole family together with my cousin Erran and everyone singing their own tunes in harmony," she says. "It gets very big and very fun."
Not all Baron Cohens are public figures. Simon's older brother, Daniel, is an educator who uses theater and the arts to help people tell their stories in regions torn apart by war or social strife--in Northern Ireland during "the Troubles," in South African townships during apartheid, in Gaza during the intifada and currently in Brazil. Simon's sister Aliza is an acupuncturist and founder of an alternative health clinic in London. Erran's and Sacha's brother Amnon is a computer scientist living in London.
The entire Baron Cohen clan is mum about Sacha's private life, which he works hard to keep separate from his public one. He has said that he doesn't think "it helps people appreciate the work or the comedy or make me any funnier if they know what's going on at home." Sacha is reported to be close to family and old friends, especially those from his days at Habs, several of whom are close artistic collaborators. His wife, Isla Fisher, is an actress known for comedic performances in Wedding Crashers and Confessions of a Shopaholic. The couple married in 2010 after a six-year engagement, during which she converted to Judaism. Their daughter Olive was born in 2007.
His new family may be one reason that Sacha has been moving away from his triumphant trio of faux journalists. In his determination to take his characters into extreme real-life situations, he has had close calls. In Bruno, the rowdy spectators at a "cage fight" became enraged when Sacha, portraying Bruno, passionately kisses another man. Sacha's safety was compromised when angry audience members began throwing chairs and other objects at him and looked ready to lynch him. "He is risking his life making these movies," Erran says. "That's obviously a worry for any member of his family. He's got a kid now. Some of those scenes in Bruno are incredibly powerful partly because it's so dangerous to do it," says Erran.
Just as fame caught up with Sacha in Britain, making it impossible for him to pose as an unknown journalist with celebrities, it has caught up with him in the United States. He has announced that he will be shifting to scripted movies and is currently in production with Martin Scorcese's 3-D film set in 1930's Paris, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, to be released in December 2011. He is also starring in a movie that his agent describes as an "untitled goat herder film" in which he is said to play both a goat herder and a deposed foreign dictator who gets lost in the United States.
The United States is also where the real Sacha has made his home for now. On the other side of the ocean, Erran remains in north London where the brothers grew up. He is raising his family there and, like Sacha, tries to maintain the traditions of the generations before him. "Friday nights are still an important family event," Erran says, noting that he sends his children to Jewish day school.
At the same time he hopes to improve on a few traditions from his childhood, such as boring Hanukkah songs. In 2008, Erran released Songs in the Key of Hanukkah, in which the old standby "Dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay" acquires a Balkan gypsy hip hop beat. In the album's music video, Erran plays one of two Hasidic Jews who gamble pound-notes in a dreidel game, spray-paint Hebrew graffiti and break into joyful dances. The dreidel game is played on a rooftop in east London near the neighborhoods where immigrant Jews once lived. Erran seems no more concerned about playing down his Judaism than his great-grandfather Chaim, who made sure his new countrymen would know he was a Cohen. Says Erran: "London is a good place to be a Jew."
Many British Jews want to be "British, fit in. not draw attention to themselves"
RELATED ARTICLE: Sacha's Cambridge Thesis on Blacks and Jew
Sitting in the hushed atmosphere of Cambridge University's history library reading Sacha Baron Cohen's undergraduate thesis, one can see the early seeds of preoccupations that have dominated much of the actor's work: prejudice against Jews and blacks, ethnic identity--and a brashness about overturning sacred cows.
The 1993 thesis on the involvement of Jews in the 1960s American civil rights movement is entitled "The 'Black-Jewish Alliance'--A Case of Mistaking Identities." Its main argument is that the existence of a black-Jewish civil rights alliance in the 1960s was largely "an illusion," still cherished in the 1990s more by Jews than blacks. In making that argument, the 22-year-old author challenged the standard premise of mainstream historical accounts--that such a coalition had existed until the rift of the late '60s.
As long as the spotlight was focused on court battles, Jewish organizations played an important role in helping the civil rights cause, the thesis concedes. But after 1954, as the movement shifted to demonstrations and sitins, Jewish organizations quailed at such tactics and "lacked a visible presence," Baron Cohen argues.
In 1964, the mainstream press did not mention the fact that murdered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were Jewish, Baron Cohen writes. And although two thirds of white Freedom Riders and up to half of the students in Freedom Summer 1964 were Jewish, the volunteers rarely identified themselves as such, Baron Cohen discovered in interviews with both Jewish and black activists in the U.S.
The 1967 Six-Day War is generally described as the start of the public schism between black activists and Jewish organizations. At the time, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) newsletter attacked "Zionists" for shooting "Arab victims" "in cold blood." Jewish leaders called for the repudiation of such rhetoric, yet never received it from younger-generation civil rights leaders, prompting cries of betrayal from the Jewish community.
But as former SNCC leader and Mississippi voter registration coordinator Robert Moses told the Cambridge student, SNCC didn't become anti-Semitic but "merely became anti-white" (Baron Cohen's words); it made no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. Moses told Sacha, "I never thought of Mickey Schwerner as Jewish." In fact, civil rights activists working in the South tried to avoid labels like "New York Jew" because they saw them as playing into Southern racist preconceptions and dividing their forces, said Moses.
That Moses, who avoided the press, allowed himself to be interviewed was a coup for the young Baron Cohen. While in Boston the summer before he wrote his thesis, Baron Cohen called Moses and was invited to breakfast with him the next day. When his dissertation supervisor, AJ. "Tony" Badger, a professor of American history at Cambridge, learned of this, he recalls crowing, "If you didn't have anything else, you could write the dissertation."
Baron Cohen's thesis "stood out among the dissertations that year," Badger recalls, gaining coveted "first-class honors"--the highest mark possible. Sacha graduated with a lesser degree, roughly equivalent to an A minus, because his other papers didn't shine quite so brightly. "I suspect that the acting probably did get in the way," Badger suggests, who remembers Sacha appearing in Dr. Faustus on campus shortly after he handed in his thesis.