He Who Was Ridiculed

Yossi Alpher rushed to print to admit and proclaim that he had his leg pulled by Sacha Baron Cohen--but it misfired.

I read Yossi Alpher's article in last week's Haaretz with great interest ("Who confuses Hamas and hummus?" July 4, printed also in The Forward). Alpher, a former Mossad employee and the Israeli co-editor of bitterlemons.org, related how he and a Palestinian colleague were invited to speak on the Middle East conflict on a TV program for European youth hosted by a German rock star. They were slightly taken aback when the host ("his movements and mannerisms ultra-gay") could not write down their names correctly, but only when he confused Hamas and hummus did they realize that something was not as it should have been. But, as they are both gentleman, they stayed on the set and answered the questions.

Only in the last two paragraphs does Alpher let the readers in on the secret: "Sacha Baron Cohen is loose in the Middle East" (and the Mossad did not know!). He makes a point that he and his Palestinian colleague (whose name he does not mention even once) will try to be good sports about being taken for a ride. "But will Sacha Baron Cohen? He is exploiting our tragic and painful conflict in the most cynical and deceptive manner. I doubt he'll give us anything in return."

According to Alpher's own words, he and his unnamed Palestinian colleague (I found on the Web that he was Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian co-editor of bitterlemons.org) are both interviewed frequently on TV, so they no longer bother to read the contracts and release forms before signing them. They were told that their names were suggested to the production company by a respected Middle East expert in Washington, whom they both know, but apparently did not check this with him. They had bargained for a fee and got what they asked for.

They were told that considering the nature of the audience the questions would focus on the most basic issues, and Alpher adds that neither of them know anything about German rock stars. Professional as they are, they did not check on Google, for instance, if such a rock star exists. It sufficed for them that the producer who spoke with them on the phone had a British accent, and the production crew looked professional.

Alpher and his colleague apparently don't think highly of their prospective interviewers and/or audience. They believe that someone can, seriously, confuse Hamas and hummus. Even when they realize that they are being duped, they simply sit there "straight [notice the subtle play on 'gay'] and square". It did not cross Alpher's mind to suggest to the host who was complaining that he had to throw away his pita bread because it was dripping hummus, that until stuffing Hamas in pita he ain't tasted nothing yet.

Alpher could have put in a bit of an effort before sitting down to write his piece and check on the Web that Baron Cohen's current incarnation is as Bruno, an Austrian fashion and entertainment reporter. But he rushed to print to admit and proclaim that he had his leg pulled, before someone else finds out. In PR this is called "containment." It misfired: The story was picked up by sites and newspapers all over the world as "British comedian catches former Mossad official off guard" (AP).

As to the apprehension that Baron Cohen will not "give us (who's us?) anything in return," it is totally unfounded: Alpher and his Palestinian colleague bargained for a fee and received it.

As to the just charge that Baron Cohen "exploits our tragic and painful conflict in the most cynical and deceptive manner," our conflict is indeed tragic and painful, but that does not mean that people do not exploit it with varying degrees of cynicism. There are ridiculous and grotesque sides to the conflict.

It is perfectly acceptable to ridicule commentators who are so immersed in their honest and important mission of presenting their and our "case" that they are willing to be interviewed anywhere by anyone without checking their credentials, as long as they are being paid, and their name is spelled correctly.