Speaking to the Washington Institute For Near East Policy this weekend, Gen. Jim Jones, the National Security Adviser, attempted a little ribbing. It’s one thing for a Jewish person to tell a schmaltzy joke involving, uh, Jewish merchants, but that stereotype is so old that even Jews don’t self-mock that away anymore. That said, give the guy props for somehow making fun of the Taliban at the same time.
In order to set the stage for my remarks I’d just like to tell you a story that I think is true. It happened recently in southern Afghanistan. A member of the Taliban was separated from his fighting party and wandered around for a few days in the desert, lost, out of food, no water. And he looked on the horizon and he saw what looked like a little shack and he walked towards that shack. And as he got to it, it turned out it was a little store owned by a Jewish merchant. And the Taliban warrior went up to him and said, “I need water, give me some water.” And the merchant said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any water but would you like a tie. We have a nice sale of ties today.”
Whereupon the Taliban erupted into a stream of language that I can’t repeat, about Israel, about Jewish people, about the man himself, about his family, and just said, “I need water, you try to sell me ties, you people don’t get it.” The merchant stood there until the Taliban was through with his diatribe and said, “Well I’m sorry I don’t have water for you and I forgive you for all of the insults you’ve levied against me, my family, my country. But I will help you out. If you go over that hill and walk about two miles there is a restaurant there and they will have all the water you need.” And the Taliban, instead of saying thanks, still muttering under his breath, disappears over the hill, only to come back an hour later, and walking up to the merchant says, “Your brother tells me a I need a tie to get into the restaurant.”
Nathan Guttman at Forward:
After the speech, two participants suggested, in private conversations with the Forward, that Jones’ joke might have been inappropriate. After all, making jokes about greedy Jewish merchants can be seen at times as insensitive.
A prominent think-tank source who attended the event said the joke was “wrong in so many levels” and that it “demonstrated a lack of sensitivity.” The source also asked: “Can you imagine him telling a black joke at an event of African Americans?”
Was the joke out of place?
That is probably a matter of taste. One thing is for sure: Some people must have felt a little uncomfortable with it. The White House transcript sent to reporters after the event did not include the joke and conveniently began a couple of minutes into the speech. The video of the event posted on the Washington Institute Web site also did not include this portion of the speech.
Luckily, the event was filmed by C-SPAN and several Israeli TV networks, so everything is on record. Just in case anyone feels a need to keep on digging into Jones’ sense of humor.
Jake Tapper at ABC:
While many in the largely Jewish audience laughed, others didn’t find it so funny, including Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
“It’s inappropriate,” Foxman told ABC News. “it’s stereotypic. Some people believe they need to start a speech with a joke; this was about the worst kind of joke the head of the National Security Council could have told.”
The Forward noted that the “joke drew a wave of laughs and applause from participant” but it went on to report that an anonymous “prominent think-tank source who attended the event said the joke was ‘wrong in so many levels’ and that it ‘demonstrated a lack of sensitivity.’ The source also asked: ‘Can you imagine him telling a black joke at an event of African Americans?’”
Jones tells the joke “in order to set the stage for my remarks,” and then proceeds to tell the story of a “member of the Taliban separated from his fighting party.” The Taliban member stumbles upon a shack, which it turns out is a “little store owned by a Jewish merchant.’
Was the Joke Anti-Semitic? Well, the White House must have thought so. The White House transcript sent to reporters after the event conveniently began a couple of minutes into the speech. The video of the event posted on the Washington Institute Web site started right after the Joke, you can even hear the end of the laughter.
At the very least it was an idiotic time and place to make the joke. Many of the attendees of The Washington Institute dinner were in fact Jewish. And the Jewish community is very nervous about the recent anti-Israel leanings of the Obama administration.
Its interesting that the same President that sees racism in the legitimate actions of the Cambridge Police and the State of Arizona, hides the possible anti-Semitic prose of its National Security Adviser.
The Anchoress at First Things:
Is it offensive?
Why, yes. In our easily-offended society, you might say this joke wins the Triple Crown or the Insult Trifecta:
Some feel Jones has used a denigrating stereotype of Jewish people “greedy merchants” for a cheap laugh, and has therefore insulted the Jews.
Some free-market capitalists note that Jones describes the Taliban member as a “warrior” instead of a guerrilla, and seems to be saying that the capitalists are inhumane -too concerned with profit-making to give a thirsty man a glass of water. He therefore has insulted all free-market, entrepreneurial capitalists.
Somewhere, undoubtedly, there is a Taliban supporter who feels the “warrior” was portrayed as an unprepared and easily-duped hothead too stupid to know how much water he would need for the desert. Jones has therefore inflicted indignity upon the Taliban, and probably has a fatwa on his head, now.
Is it anti-Semitic?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
Presumably, the Taliban member was of Arab descent (or not, it seems, see comments), which would make him a Semite, as well. If one takes any of the views listed above, then the joke portrays both Arab and Jew negatively, and it is anti-Semitic.
Otherwise, it is just the usual Jew-and-Capitalism hate we have seen before.
Scott Johnson at Powerline:
Depending on the source and the circumstances and the telling, I don’t mind ethnic humor. I don’t find this joke coming from General Jones funny in the least, and I seriously doubt that many of his colleagues in the administration do either. Considering the source and the circumstances, I find it disgusting, but revealing. Watching the video, I find it more bizarre than disgusting. YwithL is to be congratulated for submitting the video to public attention.
It’s simply absurd to think that Jones, who is in his fifth decade of public service, is an anti-Semite. He’d have been caught long before now. And, you know who’s really careful about telling Jewish jokes in a speech called the “Michael Stein Address” where he mentions “Barbi Weinberg, Fred Lafer, Michael Stein, and your chairman, Howard Berkowitz” in the opener? People trying to hide that they don’t like Jews, that’s who.
Further, the joke is clearly on the Taliban fellow, not the Jewish merchant. And, I seem to recall, we don’t much like the Taliban these days. So, it’s probably okay to make fun of them.
Oh, and several sources have mentioned that the joke wasn’t in the official transcript, insinuating that the Obama administration is engaging in a cover-up. My alternative explanation: Warm-up jokes tend not to be in the prepared remarks.
Ben Smith at Politico:
National Security Adviser James Jones has apologized for an “off the cuff” joke that threatened to undermine a White House charm offensive aimed at American friends of Israel.
Though Jones’s audience at a pro-Israel think tank didn’t take offense, the joke drew a denunciation from the Anti-Defamation League and questions about its content, which seemed to merge Jews and Israelis and to make the Taliban the victims.
Jones’s statement today:
I wish that I had not made this off the cuff joke at the top of my remarks, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it. It also distracted from the larger message I carried that day: that the United States commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that the White House had “no intention to deceive” in leaving the remarks off a transcript off the event, which he said were in fact the prepared text. He said the White House hadn’t asked for Jones’ apology which “rightly speaks for itself.”
Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:
Let’s unpack this. First of all, I don’t believe the joke was made up on the spur of the moment. That’s not how these things work. As a reader pointed out to me, it’s quite likely that not only Jones but also a speechwriter or two thought there was nothing much wrong with this. Second, for an administration under criticism for insensitivity or outright animus in relation to Israel, why play with fire? If nothing else, this confirms the criticism of Jones — he’s a bit of a buffoon.
And finally, why didn’t the president demand an apology? Was he not alarmed that his national security adviser is cracking Jewish-merchant jokes?
It’s another reminder that what is said and done in this White House with regard to Israel would not be said or done in virtually any other administration.