Jones’ Jewish Joke

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Today, National Security Adviser Jim Jones apologized for telling a Jewish joke that some in attendance at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found offensive. He allowed as how it had been “inappropriate.” What was it? As originally reported by the Forward‘s Nathan Guttman, the joke went like this:

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

I think Ben Smith is right to call this “in the tradition of Jewish jokes usually told by Jews.” Why? Not because it has to do with sharp dealing–with “jewing” someone down. Gentiles tell that kind of joke. This joke relies on the Jewish storekeeper knowing that his brother obliges customers to wear ties to his high-class joint. It has to do with social status, not money.

I first became aware of this delicate distinction in Jewish joke-telling in a comparable context. Back in 1987, I happened to be following the then would-be Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis on a fundraising swing through Texas–at a time when the only news such a swing could make was the response of the candidate to the events of the day. And that day in Houston, the event was President Reagan’s (abortive) nomination of one Douglas Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the press availability, Dukakis, asked whether he knew the nominee (who had spend time in Massachusetts), mumbled something and then said no, he didn’t.

Afterwards, a staffer came up to the handful of traveling press and, with the kind of excitement one reserves for a rare event, asked whether we’d heard the governor’s “joke.” No, we replied. Well, he said, listen to the tape. And sure enough, there on the tape were the words, “The only Ginsburg I know runs a deli in Brookline.” This was hardly a joke, but it did provoke an intense discussion among us scribblers as to whether Dukakis had made some kind of an anti-Semitic crack.

On the contrary, I argued, it was just the kind of comment that Jews make about Jews. There’s Ginsburg the judge and Ginsburg the deli owner. It’s was a status crack–perhaps even a touch self-deprecating. Someone, I think, did include Dukakis’ remark in the story he filed, but if it made it into print, it caused not a ripple of controversy. Too obscure, and Dukakis–married to a Jew and living in heavily Jewish Brookline–was the least probable anti-Semite in Massachusetts.

So was Gen. Jones remark inappropriate? Nah.