The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Sacha Baron Cohen taught us about Republicans and Israel

Unquestioning support for Israel isn’t a policy position. It’s borderline fanaticism.

Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood on Feb. 28, 2016. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious: Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, posing as Israeli “Col. Erran Morad, anti-terror expert,” managed to get two current and two former Republican members of Congress — including former Senate majority leader Trent Lott — to sing the praises of a fictional program to arm kids as young as 3, empowering them to kill bad guys.

How Cohen did it says a lot about the reflexive support for Israel that many Americans — particularly many Republicans — now espouse, to the point that they’re willing to switch off their critical faculties when Israel is mentioned.

Cohen’s footage shows former Illinois congressman and talk radio host Joe Walsh, with the fervor of the truly converted, looking directly at the camera and saying: “The intensive three-week Kinderguardian course introduces specially selected children from 12 to 4 years old to pistols, rifles, semiautomatics and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars. In less than a month — less than a month — a first-grader can become a first grenade-er.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said, “Maybe having young people trained and understand how to defend themselves and their school might actually make us safer here.” And Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) (the same guy who shouted “You lie!” at former president Barack Obama) said, “A 3-year-old cannot defend itself from an assault rifle by throwing a ‘Hello Kitty’ pencil case at it.”

Former vice president Dick Cheney was featured in an alleged teaser trailer for Sacha Baron Cohen's new show. Cohen tweeted the trailer July 8. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Walsh told CNN that Cohen duped him by telling him he was “getting an award from some Israeli TV station because I’m a great supporter of Israel.” As Walsh read the statement, he said, he thought, “Well, this is kind of crazy, but it is Israel and Israel is strong on defense.”

In Walsh’s mind, apparently, the fact that a random Israeli endorsed an idea made it acceptable and praiseworthy — even if a part of him might have been thinking that the idea of giving 3-year-olds guns was a little too out there.

It betrayed a lamentable ignorance about Israeli society, which has a low rate of private gun ownership — reported at about 3.5 percent of the population. As an Israeli Ministry of Education spokesman told The Washington Post’s Ruth Eglash this year, “professionals deal with the security” in Israel’s schools, “not the teachers,” and not the children. Even in a country with compulsory military service, gun permit applicants “must justify their need to be armed” and civilians “are subjected to an array of restrictions on the types of guns they can own, on the amount of ammunition they can possess, as well as guidelines on where to keep their guns.”

When Israelis view 50 years of occupation in Palestine as normal

Sadly, for some, unthinking support for Israel has become a default position that translates to often unquestioning support of whatever Israelis, those posing as Israelis or the Israeli government says or does. Having bought into the popular conception of Israelis always responding to terrorism with righteous muscularity, this blind belief fits the preferred GOP narrative — that Israeli policy, and Israelis’ thinking, is monolithic and infallible, and that questioning it is a sign of political weakness. It’s how you wind up with President Trump doing something such as moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a purely symbolic move that upended the consensus policy of past presidents of both parties, outraging Palestinians and many Israelis, and which set back the cause of peace in the interest of looking tough.

It’s how you wind up with Republicans taking positions on Israel well to the right of those accepted by most American Jewish voters, more in line with the Christian evangelical movement, which is hard-line on Israel’s permanent possession of the occupied territories.

It’s how you wind up with an organization such as Christians United for Israel declaring its purpose as providing a platform through which “every pro-Israel church, parachurch organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to Biblical issues,” as if the Bible is the sole, final source for determining Israel’s current security posture and future borders.

There’s a way to support Israel which doesn’t include disabling our critical and intellectual faculties. That way would declare uncompromising support for Israel’s right to exist and for its right to defend itself, but also recognize that the country’s future as a Jewish homeland and as a democracy ultimately depends on making peace with its neighbors. The way to do that is for Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.

Defending Israel need not mean a free pass for the endless building of settlements or the indefinite extension of the occupation of the West Bank. And it doesn’t mean every Israeli approach to security is a good one.

When support for Israel is unquestioning, it’s not a policy position. It is, rather, a matter of faith and can bring us closer to fanaticism. It can lead, as Cohen showed, to co-signing the idea of arming little kids with guns.

“It’s something we should think about in America,” Lott said of the fictitious Kinderguardians, “about putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens — good guys — whether they be teachers or whether they actually be talented children or highly trained preschoolers.”

Yes, America. Something to think about.