Jim Jones Jewish Joke Jouhaha
It seems that National Security Advisor Jim Jones has gotten himself into trouble for retelling a very old joke at a think tank speech the other night:
I’d like to begin with a story that I think is true, a Taliban militant gets lost and is wandering around the desert looking for water. He finally arrives at a store run by a Jew and asks for water. The Jewish vendor tells him he doesn’t have any water but can gladly sell him a tie. The Taliban, the jokes goes on, begins to curse and yell at the Jewish store owner. The Jew, unmoved, offers the rude militant an idea: Beyond the hill, there is a restaurant; they can sell you water. The Taliban keeps cursing and finally leaves toward the hill. An hour later he’s back at the tie store. He walks in and tells the merchant: “Your brother tells me I need a tie to get into the restaurant.”
This wasn’t that great a joke the first time I heard a variant of it but the Taliban adaptation is a novel twist. But, whatever, safe warm-up jokes are part of the Washington talk formula.
Except, it turns out, the joke wasn’t “safe” at all. Some Jewish groups are apparently offended that it perpetuates negative stereotypes. And some neocons, upset that Jones has deviated slightly from the Likud handbook on the peace process, are chiming in with subtle — or not so subtle — suggestions of anti-Semitism.
Jake Tapper reports:
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.”
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, Jones was briefly my boss’ boss before moving on to his current post. And Jones and my employer happily maintain a warm relationship, even if we naturally see much less of him these days. So, if my view was that Jones is a raging anti-Semite who should resign his post at once or be fired, I would keep that opinion to myself. Happily, that’s not my position.
Elizabeth Scalia, aka The Anchoress, says that the joke was offensive:
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.
And she’s probably right that, in light of the fact that there are groups everywhere desperately trying to get offended so they can get some attention, “a very unwise joke for a security advisor to The American President to make.”
But, I think, only in that light.
Nathan Guttman, blogging at the Jewish Daily Forward, passes this along:
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?”
No, but I can imagine him telling an Air Force joke in front of Brent Scowcroft. And Scowcroft laughing at it! Because I’ve seen and heard it.
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.
UPDATE: Mark Kleiman provides some interesting backstory:
One of the responsibilities I took over from the late lamented Jack Hirshleifer as the rapporteur of what is now the Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group at UCLA was sending out a weekly joke to accompany the notes on that week’s discussion. I don’t make them up; I remember them, or I find them. A common theme of Yiddish humor is Jews getting clever revenge on goyim who mistreat them.
The joke about the Taliban militant and the Jewish merchant that Jim Jones told (text at the jump) is exactly in that tradition. It’s deeply offensive — if you’re a Taliban sympathizer. It makes out the Taliban member to be a rude buffoon, and also laughs at the fact that he’s dying of thirst. Despite what the professionally offended Abe Foxman says, there’s not a hint of greed in the actions of the two Jews; they don’t try to make money off the militant’s need for water, they just collude in tormenting him. (Someone should tell Foxman that he, personally, is a walking Jew-joke.)
I would certainly not advise Jones to give up his day job and go into stand-up. It’s not a bad joke in concept, but the way he told it makes it maximally un-funny, and I can’t imagine for the world why he prefaced it with “I’d just like to tell you a story I think is true.” It couldn’t possibly be true, if only because Afghanistan doesn’t have a lot of Jewish dry-goods merchants. And if I’d been telling it, I would have given the merchant a Yiddish accent.
Kleiman helpfully provides a much funnier example of this genre of joke, also a variation of one I’ve heard before.