David Rothkopf

Five jokes a national security advisor can safely open a speech with

As you may have read, General Jim Jones, the U.S. National Security Advisor, seeking to turn that Middle Eastern frown upside down, cracked wise at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy the other day. In so doing he showed the kind of sensitivity toward Jews that some have concluded will be sure to have ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

As you may have read, General Jim Jones, the U.S. National Security Advisor, seeking to turn that Middle Eastern frown upside down, cracked wise at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy the other day. In so doing he showed the kind of sensitivity toward Jews that some have concluded will be sure to have him opening for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Laff Factory in Tehran in no time. Having specifically gone to the think tank to reiterate America’s commitment to Israel in no uncertain terms, Jones cannily opened with a joke that turned on the reliably funny topic of Jewish business acumen. 

No wonder they call him the funniest Jim Jones this side of Guyana.

Not surprisingly, the comment offended a few people. We can only imagine that first and foremost among them was America’s self-appointed first line of defense against the Israel Lobby, Steve Walt, who we have to assume was outraged that Jones even went to the Institute in the first place — given what Walt has asserted is the allegedly pro-Israel stance of some of its experts. (Walt is recently on the record as suggesting that the folks who work at the Institute be denied any opportunity to ever work in the U.S. government because of their alleged "conflicts of interest" — which he twists himself into Mary Lou Retton-worthy contortions to attempt rather unsuccessfully to distinguish from the more inflammatory "dual loyalty" which we all know means "you can’t celebrate both Flag Day and Shavuos.")

Actually on the record as being offended was Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman who called the Jones joke "inappropriate." Personally, I found the joke funny — what’s funnier after all than a story like Jones’s about a thirsty Taliban being denied a drink unless he buys a necktie from a Jewish merchant? That’s the kind of thing we call a laff riot in Gaza — where they know something about riots. But other Jews, you know, they’re more sensitive than I am about these things — not because they don’t have a sense of humor (think Jerry Seinfeld, George Burns, Grouch Marx, Lloyd Blankfein, half of Chelsea Handler), but because after 5,000 years the same punch lines get a little old.

Fortunately for Jones, Jews aren’t as sensitive about these things as other groups. As others have noted, imagine if the joke had turned on the stereotypes of different ethnic groups, African Americans, for example, or gays, or on a clichés about boneheaded military officers. Jones would be enjoying the same kind of career prospects as Michael Richards, considering shifting to a posting in Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet or be left cruising the Pacific Coast Highway with Mel Gibson. (It’s a good thing he didn’t call Ehud Barak "sugar tits.") Some groups you can’t make fun of in America. But Jews, they don’t mind a good ribbing from the Obama administration. Ask Bibi Netanyahu.

Since it looks like Jones won’t be fired any time soon, however, he’s probably going to have to give some more speeches. Given this, it’d probably be a good idea to learn some distinctly non-stereotypical new jokes about Jews with which he can open his speeches. Here are a few ideas:

A Jew walks into a bar. He says, "who’s buying?"  When no one else offers, he takes out his credit card and says, "this round’s on me."

  • A Jew walks into a bar. A woman approaches him and says, "Wow, you have a beautiful profile. May I buy you a drink?"
  • A Jew walks into a bar.  Suddenly, 10,000 small missiles are launched into the bar from a neighboring community. The Jew smiles and says, "Did somebody ask for a light?"
  • A Jew walks into a bar. He goes and sits at the table at which he and his family have been sitting forever.  Suddenly a Palestinian comes in and says, "I thought that was my table." The Jew says, "Oh, I’m sorry.  My mistake." And he leaves.

Of course, Jones’s biggest on-going problem is hardly his lack of a sense of humor. It’s that despite his best efforts, he is still dogged by criticism from some of his own colleagues within the administration — despite periodic efforts at rehabilitating his aloof image — that he is the disconnected, remote chief of a system that has thus far seemingly favored lengthy (some might say dithering) process over the production of good, clear policies, a process that cuts out key officials, and one that has been too dominated by the circle of pols that are close to the president.   

All of which may, if you believe the buzz, foreshadow yet another joke, perhaps one paraphrasing the Dorothy Parker classic which dates to the Coolidge years. It might — later this year, say the chattering classes–go like this:  At a cocktail party full of Washington whisperers one says to the other, "I hear Jim Jones just resigned." Says the other: "How can you tell?"

There is, however, an important last irony here … which is not quite the same thing as humor: There are some people I respect enormously who very resolutely resist the preceding critique of Jones and have been steadfast in their admiration for him. High among this group of Jones supporters? Well, as it happens, the Israelis — who have no hesitation about offering genuine appreciation for his directness, experience and intelligence. Which is saying something. Because in Washington, when someone … particularly someone you have been tough with … is willing to praise you behind your back and in private, that typically means much more than most of the kerfuffles that actually make their way into the news.  (Even if those kerfuffles are so amusing that nearly all including the most circumspect bloggers can’t resist them.)

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf