Tuesday, April 27, 2010


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By Barry Rubin

Today’s public culture focuses a lot more on categorization than thought processes. The immediate question that arises after various incidents is whether or not they meet the criterion of being objectionable rather than considering what they actually tell us about the assumptions and thought processes of those involved. So it is with the joke General Jones, national security advisor to President Barack Obama told at a recent speech.

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 Taliban militant, raving hatred against Israel, asks Jewish merchant for water. Jew counters on Israel issue and refuses to sell it to him. Tells him instead he will sell him a tie. Taliban guy confused. Eventually goes onward, then returns. Now I see why you wanted to sell me a tie, he explains, they won’t let me into the restaurant over the hill 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. If he doesn't understand how Jews might find it objectionable perhaps he can't understand how Israel finds certain demands objectionable because of the level of risk they require it to take?

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? The basic joke exists in both Jewish and non-Jewish forms. In some ways it is a typical kind of Litvak Jewish joke designed to show cleverness. But in its origins the joke was dealing with sensitive material. 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 front of an audience. 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.

One sophisticated Jewish audience member later said that Jones was trying to flatter Jews by showing them as outsmarting the opposition. Others have pointed to the speaker's gruff military culture. Again and again, though, I want to stress that the question of whether the joke was antisemitic is something that cannot be resolved, isn't that important, and is the least interesting aspect of the situation.

What is revealing are two key issues which relate to changes Jones made in the way the joke has been told by Jews.

First, he sets the story in southern Afghanistan. Why there of all places in the world, somewhere there have never been any Jews and are certainly none 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 the joke 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 Arab-Israeli conflict is the central issue in the world determining everything has become a theme of Obama Administration foreign policy and of Jones in particular.

The truth is that Taliban guys don't spend a lot of time worrying about Israel. In fact, after years of research on Afghanistan I have never once heard anyone in the Taliban mention the words "Palestinians" or Israel. So what Jones is doing is an extension of the claim that Islamist radicals in Afghanistan are killing Americans because of Israel. And the Taliban was the host for al-Qaida which launched the September 11 attacks. So it is a short step to saying that hatred of Israel was responsible for the September 11 attacks which is a staple among antisemites and extreme Israel-haters.

Second, instead of an individual Jew, the focus of the story is switched by 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 Taliban guy get what he needs. Indeed, Israel does demand an admissions’ fee for revolutionary Islamists, that is Hamas, to earn engagement withthe West.

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 a reminder that much of the West wants to let the radical Islamist (Hamas, Hizballah, and even the Taliban) 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 (or America) 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.”

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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