Why the National Security Adviser’s Jewish Joke Was Fine

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Last week, National Security Adviser James Jones opened up his speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy with a joke. Sometimes, this strategy works. Sometimes, it fails. It really all depends on the delivery, the setting, and the joke itself. Well, this was a joke about Jews. In a general sense, Jews and money:

Certainly, if a Jewish person had told the same joke, nobody would have given it a second thought. That's just how these things work. Jones is not Jewish, though, ergo, some people are insulted. The Shmooze, the awesomely titled blog of the Jewish Daily Forward, reported that, despite the widespread laughter in the audience, not everyone in attendance was pleased.


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?”

The story has started to get noticed by some conservative blogs, which are equally not-amused. Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds opines that the incident "doesn't inspire confidence," while Scott Johnson at Powerline calls it "disgusting," and the blog YID With LID thinks the joke "borders on anti-Semitic." It's also being promoted on Drudge Report with the headline "Obama's National Security Advisor Tells Joke Depicting Jews as Greedy Merchants." The White House may be a little uneasy about it as well — the Shmooze notices that the official transcript begins after the joke's completion.

We wonder (as a Jew) if everyone is being a little too sensitive, though. Let's look at two things that make Jones's joke different than, say, Michael Scott doing a Chris Rock routine at the office.

1. Setting matters. As the Shmooze points out, many of those in audience were Jewish, and "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." Obviously, Jones was aware of this, and meant to celebrate Jewish shrewdness and business savvy with members of the Tribe, not mock the Jewish people for their trickery and avarice.

2. This is not one of those crude, disparaging ethnic jokes we've heard our fair share of on many a school-bus ride. Seriously, did you get the feeling that the protagonist was a "greedy Jewish merchant"? The guy the Jew screwed over was a member of the freaking Taliban (evil), and one who had just launched into a tirade of personal attacks and insults against the Jewish people (bad manners/anti-Semitic). We're not exactly talking about Bernie Madoff stealing retirement savings from the elderly here. The Jew wasn't acting out of greed so much as obviously justified payback. And let's not pretend Jews don't do payback.

Update: James Jones released a statement of apology this afternoon:

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.