The Shmooze

James L. Jones' Jewish Joke — Was It Appropriate?

By Nathan Guttman

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National Security Adviser James L. Jones doesn’t necessarily come across as the amusing guy at policy events. Rather, the veteran general is known for his measured and careful wording, and his somewhat monotonic delivery.

Maybe that is why some were surprised when Jones decided to open his remarks at the 25-year anniversary gala of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy with a joke. Not just any joke — a Jewish joke that some say was in poor taste.

And here is how it goes:

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 storeowner. 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.”

The joke drew a wave of laughs and applause from participants, many of whom are Jewish. The Washington Institute, an independent think tank widely seen as being pro-Israel, was founded by Jewish donors who are now on the institute’s board.

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.


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