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Today’s public culture focuses a lot more on categorization than though processes. The immediate question that arises after various incidents is whether or not they meet the criterion of categorizing something as objectionable rather than considering what it actually tells us. So it is with the joke General Jones, national security advisor to President Barack Obama.
Should General Jones be fired or resign because of the joke? Of course not. He should be fired or resign because he hasn’t been doing a very good job as national security advisor.
Actually, the speech itself was a good one. The goal was to mark the end of the U.S.-Israel rift after a secret understanding by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop construction in Jerusalem for a while. It is also meant to mark a need to shore up growing criticism about the administration’s policy on Israel and ineptness at getting sanctions on Iran. The joke should not be allowed to block an understanding of the administration’s regional policy and political maneuvers.
But it does show why the administration is in so much trouble at home and abroad in the first place and may soon be again.
Here is a brief summary of Jones’s version of the joke. The scene: southern Afghanistan. Hungry Hamas militant, raving hatred against Israel, asks Jewish merchant for food. Jew counters on Israel and refuses to sell it to him. Tells him instead he will sell him a tie. Hamas guy confused. Eventually goes onward, then returns. Now I see why you wanted to sell me a tie. Your brother won’t let me into his restaurant without one.
Ha! Presumably the merchant sold him at a tie at an exorbitant price or, to use the old term for such things, the merchant “Jewed” him, a word in many dictionaries until recently.
It is no secret that Jones is one of the administration officials most hostile to Israel. Thus, the joke is put into the context: is it or is it not antisemitic? That is the least interesting issue. What is fascinating and more important points is what it reveals about Jones’s world view.
The incident also reminds us of something many people would find shocking but is true: Many members of the Western political and cultural elite know far less about Jews than about the “exotic” minorities that they deal with abroad or as immigrants to their countries nowadays. The ignorance about Jews springs, of course, from the assumption that they know so much. It is also augmented by assimilationist Jewish intellectuals, including those in the elite, who have never known, forgotten, or prefer not to disclose much about their own people.
Of course, one shouldn’t read too much into a joke. But as another joke puts it, the issue is not just that Jones told the joke but the way he told it.
Let’s first run through the introductory points:
–Jones decided to tell the joke. The issue is not whether the joke is objectively objectionable, that’s a matter for debate. What’s really impressive is that neither he nor his staff considered it risky. Here’s a man considered to be hostile to Israel, and perhaps to Jews, involved in very delicate issues, showing poor judgment in walking along the edge of the precipice in an era where people are obsessively-I’d say insanely-sensitive to any nuance of prejudice.
Even if one concludes that the joke is not truly objectionable, it shows poor judgment in a man whose job requires dealing with the fate of millions of people, including millions of Israelis. It makes me wonder how smart and able to understand situations Jones could possibly be. And if you respond that if he weren’t exceptional he wouldn’t hold his current job you’ve spent considerably less time around Washington than I have.
–How does one evaluate the joke? This is a typical kind of Litvak Jewish joke designed to show cleverness. But in its origins the joke was sensitive. After all, the implication is that these wily merchants were taking advantage of Eastern European peasants or others in their business dealings. It was for stereotypes like this that pogroms took place, including ultimately the biggest pogrom of them all. Thus, the basic structure of this joke has both typical Jewish and antisemitic features.
This is not atypical of “ethnic” humor and what makes it different when spoken by a member of the group and someone who isn’t. If you don’t believe that, listen to African-Americans or others telling jokes about their own people and try repeating one yourself. In the current climate, you will soon be looking for a new job. For some reason, this doesn’t seem to apply to dealings with Jewish sensitivities.
But all of this is the least interesting aspect of the situation. I could talk about more but let me focus on two that I think are inescapable and have policy consequences. It is interesting to note that both aspects relate to changes Jones made in the way the joke has been told by Jews.
First, the story is set in Afghanistan. Why there of all places where there have never been any Jews and there is only one in the whole country today? When it has appeared on Jewish sites, the joke was set in the Sahara Desert. Note also Jones insisted–part of the joke but also revealing–that it was based on a “true” story.
Well, Afghanistan is the main theatre of operations for the U.S. military, especially if one takes into account future plans. So it shows that even in Afghanistan, there are people obsessed with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. (That’s not true by the way.) The idea that the conflict is the central issue in the world determining everything has become a theme of Obama Administration foreign policy. True, it is a Hamas guy and not a Taliban guy. Yet one cannot help but make the connection.
Second, instead of an individual Jew, the focus of the story is switched to Israel by making it a Hamas guy, putting in references to Israel, and making an Afghan Jew describe Israel as “my country.”
The Jew, now made into a representative of Israel–in effect–rather than a generic Jew, seeks to charge (presumably overcharge) for letting the Hamas guy in to get what he needs. Indeed, Israel does demand an admissions’ fee into peace for Hamas and also the Palestinian Authority: that they must show they are serious about peace as well as make compromises.
The tendency of the current U.S. government and of Europe is-and I don’t want to overstate this-to say that such a barrier is unnecessary. End the sanctions on the Gaza Strip, they say, let Hamas into the talks (I’m not saying the Obama administration endorses this idea), give the PA a state. Then everything will be okay and peace will prevail.
The adaptation of this into the joke is to let the Hamas guy in without a tie and trust him to pay at the end of the meal. Indeed, that if you do so he will stop cursing Israel and want to be friends. After all, most restaurants today have given up their tie and jacket requirement.
Now here’s the joke I’ll tell when they ask me to speak at the National Security Council:
An Israeli is walking through a dangerous desert, beset by enemies on every side. He comes upon an American general who is national security advisor. “Please help me,” says the Israeli, “I’m out of ammunition.”
“I’d love to help you,” says the general, “but I can only sell you a tie. It’s because I’m helping you that they are all out to get me!”
“No thanks on the tie,” says the Israeli, “I’d rather have your support as an ally against those antisemitic, anti-American totalitarian forces which are out to destroy you any way.”