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.

UPDATEMark 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.

FILED UNDER: Humor, National Security, Religion, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Give me a break. Jewish humor has existed for millenium, and the greatest purveyors of Jewish humor are the Jews themselves. They always find humor in the most dire situations, even in the darkest hours of the Third Reich. It must be a slow day if this is news.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I dunno. It’s all over the place today. At worst, it was a stale, lamish joke.

  3. Peter says:

    A ventriloquist is doing a show at a nightclub, and speaking through his dummy starts telling a Dumb Blonde joke. All of a sudden a blonde woman in the audience stands up and says she’s deeply offended, that it’s both inaccurate and hurtful to stereotype women on the basis of their hair color, and so on.

    The ventriloquist starts to apologize, when the blonde woman cuts him off in mid-sentence and says, “Stay out of this! It’s between me and that midget sitting on your knee.”

  4. Davod says:

    Jones apologizes (Emphasis included for this post).

    “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,” Jones said. “It also distracted from the larger message I carried that day: that the United States commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.” (From Powerline).

  5. Highlander says:

    Oh ,the uncomfortable irony of it all!!!!

    DAMNATION. The American uber-liberal Jewish establishment go an engineer one of the coolest feats of political ju jitsu in the history of the Republic. And manage the unlikely, but successful election from now where of Barry Obama as Commander In Chief of these United States.

    Only a few WEE problems that these very,very smart(and very,very rich) Jewish guys didn’t think through.

    ONE:Barry(AKA Barrack)Obama, the son of a Muslim, the step son of a Muslim, and immersed in a Muslim culture and schools until he was 14, is in all probability a “closet Muslim” (excuse me, but didn’t we learn some where,that Muslims have a bit of a problem with the continued existence of Jews on this earth?)Oh well, a small detail.

    TWO:Being Liberals all of Barry’s Jewish network loved the idea of having their very own captive GOY sitting in the NUMERO UNO seat at the WHITE HOUSE. AS a bonus he is half BLACK, and American Jews have a neurotic need for the approval of AMERICAN BLACKS, and little bit for the gentile liberals.

    Problem two is interestingly enough,the Jew’s own internal polling shows ANTI SEMATISM IS STRONGER AMONG THE AMERICAN BLACK POPULATION THAN ANY OTHER ETHNIC GROUP). And their buddies the GOYIM LIBERALS have developed a real case of Jew Hatred,which they psychologically camouflage as ANTI ZIONISM.

    I believe history will show for JEWISH interests at least,Obama’s election will be a Trifecta Screw Up of the first order.

    Obama is 1. A Closeted Liberal anti-Semite, 2. He is probably a closeted Muslim, 3. He is half Black guy who had a raving lunatic of an Anti-Semite for his pastor for almost 15 years.

    Gen Jones’s inappropriate Joke(Dumb Jar Head),was just an unfortunate psychological slip of the tongue showing the true feelings and intent of this White House.

    GOOD LUCK ISRAEL! Thanks to your American cousins,you’re going to need it!

  6. Idiot says:

    You lead into Abe Foxman of the ADL getting upset as an example of Neocons getting upset. Foxman isn’t that fond of those of us on the Right. Is it that hard for you to quote an actual Neocon to make your example stick?

    The joke is only mildly funny because the Taliban guy in the joke is stupid. It was a stupid joke for the occasion on a couple of levels:

    1. The jokes says that Jews all stick together and overcharge non-Jews; and
    2. It suggests that the Taliban don’t pose that much of a threat because a real member of the Taliban would kill the Jewish merchant in the story and/or be willing to die trying.

    There isn’t much more to it than that and your reference to Likud was a gratuitous dig – as is your right because it’s your blog.

  7. Franklin says:

    Am I in before the Lefties claim the Righties are hypocrites because they’re always saying everybody is too sensitive?

    Or should it be the Righties claiming the Lefties are hypocrites because they’re all so politically correct?

    I’m so confused as to who I should be outraged at.

  8. JKB says:

    So the National Security Advisor for an administration that has been pointedly rude to the Israeli Prime Minister, openly hostile to Israel, at a time when anti-semitism is increasing worldwide decides to tell a joke that plays on Jewish stereotypes.

    Anti-semitic – probably not

    Poor judgement – absolutely

    Perhaps the general needs to get out of the Whitehouse pressure cooker every once in a while and realize the rest of the country hasn’t bought off on the administration’s hostility or biases. So what plays in the West Wing doesn’t play outside the security perimeter.

  9. Anderson says:

    No, the joke isn’t anti-semitic. Yes, the League of Those Who Savor Outrage is in fine fettle. No, holders of political offices should not tell jokes about Jews.

    Freud’s favorite Jewish joke was about a Jewish merchant who’s talking to a friend when his rival merchant goes past. Merchant to rival: “where are you going?” Rival: “To Cracow.” When the rival’s gone, the merchant shakes his head and sighs. “Such a deceptive man!”

    “How so?” asks the friend.

    “He says he’s going to Cracow knowing I’ll think he’s really going to Lvov, but I talked to his brother this morning, and I know he really *is* going to Cracow!”

  10. D says:

    Great way to reassure the audience about the new tack the Administration is taking with Israel. Doesn’t anyone see the irony here?

  11. UlyssesUnbound says:

    Franklin wins this thread.

  12. John425 says:

    I received the same joke from a Jewish friend several months ago. To us, the butt of the joke was the Taliban and the punchline is where the Jewish man goes one up over him.

    Guess you had to have been there.