John Whitbeck, GOP Candidate for Congress, Makes an Anti-Semitic Joke

This is almost a week old, but someone posted it to Facebook today. The joke is one on which a representative of the Jewish people presents the new pope with a bill for the last supper, something–according to the joke–that representatives of the Jewish people have been trying to do for centuries. The video speaks for itself, especially in the enthusiastic response the joke gets:

Whitbeck’s response to those who find the joke offensive is quoted on Opposing Views:

According to Whitbeck, no one should be offended by the joke because he heard it at church. He said, “[I] did not tell an anti-Semitic joke. I told a joke I heard from a priest at a church service.”

He added: “Any alleged outrage over this joke has been wholly manufactured by American Bridge, an organization founded by Democrat activist David Brock and funded by Georg[e] Soros. American Bridge, which has the sole purpose of electing Democrats by attacking Republicans, has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to defeating Ken Cuccinelli by any means they deem necessary.”

Writing in The Forward, Ron Kampeas has an interesting analysis, connecting it to Virginia Senator George Allen’s “macaca moment“–you can watch that video here–in which he

used a North African pejorative, “macaca,” to describe a person of color, which led folks to wonder what the Southern-accented son of a legendary football coach knew from North African pejoratives, which led to the discovery that Allen’s mother was born Jewish in Tunisia, which led Allen to deny this, emphatically, which all helped lead to his defeat.

Kampeas goes on:

Now this [where Whitbeck made the joke] is not a dusty southern corner of the state (although that would hardly excuse it.) [Virginia's] Tenth [District] encompasses a good chunk of the state’s Washington suburbs, which is where a lot of the state’s Jews live, and which is represented in Congress by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who has made a name for himself as a leading advocate of human rights overseas.

That a Catholic politician would make an antisemitic joke, even on the campaign trail, even when campaigning for someone else–in this case, Ken Cuccinelli, the Virginia attorney general who is running for governor–neither surprises nor shocks me. (Cuccinelli not only distanced himself from the joke, but made a point of saying that he would have called it out on the spot if he’d been there when Whitbeck told it.) Nor am I surprised or shocked by the way Whitbeck’s audience laughed at the joke. I am angry, of course, but mostly I am sad, just deeply, deeply, deeply sad, and I don’t quite know what else to say.

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28 Responses to John Whitbeck, GOP Candidate for Congress, Makes an Anti-Semitic Joke

  1. 1
    tlfk says:

    His defense is that he heard the joke from a priest? Is this that argument that someone is a person (usually man) of the church and therefore automatically falls into “good guy” category, individual actions not withstanding? Why would a priest automatically be excused from ever being anti-Semitic (or even making jokes in poor taste)? Presumably this gentleman knows some history of WWII.

  2. 2
    nobody.really says:

    Ok, I’ll bite: Why do people take offense to this joke?

    (Oh, and there’s a typo in the heading; it should say : “… Makes AN Anti-Semitic Joke.”)

  3. 3
    RonF says:

    I found the anecdote neither anti-Semitic nor funny. Just kind of pointless and dumb, if you ask me.

  4. 4
    nobody.really says:

    I see the joke as tweaking the pretensions of Roman Catholicism in claiming to be the unique heirs of Jesus’s legacy through the authority of Peter. Ok, if you’re in privity with them, then you’re liable for their debts.

    Not exactly a knee-slapper, but whaddaya want? It’s not like Catholics have an office full of Jewish staff writers.

  5. Nobody.Really:

    First, thanks for catching the typo.

    The joke plays on two tropes of antisemitism: the Jews as Christ-killers and the Jews as cheap.

  6. 6
    Myca says:

    It’s playing on the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbing and greedy.

    And it’s awful.

    And not actually funny, unless “Jews + money = hilarious” for you.

    —Myca

  7. 7
    nobody.really says:

    Ok, I see the “cheap” thing. Alas, presenting a bill seemed like the perfect vehicle for tweaking the Catholic pretension. But I guess the punch line comes with too much baggage.

    And maybe the “Christ killer” thing falls into this category, too, but that one seems like a larger stretch. Almost certainly the people who hosted and provided food at the Last Supper were Jewish – as was everyone in attendance. How does acknowledging this fact evoke associations with Christ killers?

  8. 8
    nm says:

    Leaving aside the awfulness of the “joke” (in all the senses of unfunniness, really bad timing on the part of the teller, and essential appeal to bigotry), what on earth is the pretext for telling it in that situation? In what possible political world is that not an awkward moment to explain? I mean, imagine yourself in Whitbeck’s place: there you are in front of a crowd, about to tell them why to vote for your guy for governor, and you don’t make a gentle, friendly joke about local persons or events, or a gentle, friendly joke about your candidate, or even a hostile joke about your candidate’s opponent or your candidate’s opponent’s party. No, you say “I’m a Catholic, and I’m going to tell you a joke about the eternal greed of Jews, with a little reminder of what those nasty Jews did to Jesus right after he finished eating tossed in.” I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through his head to make him think that this was the story to tell.

  9. 9
    Jake Squid says:

    I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through his head to make him think that this was the story to tell.

    I would imagine that he was thinking, “Everybody hates Jews. This’ll be a great way to warm up the crowd.”

  10. 10
    JutGory says:

    nm @ 8:

    No, you say “I’m a Catholic, and I’m going to tell you a joke about the eternal greed of Jews, with a little reminder of what those nasty Jews did to Jesus right after he finished eating tossed in.”

    Yeah, he must have meant that, because Catholics have never been discriminated against anywhere (especially not in the U.S.). It has always been to one’s great social advantage to proclaim loudly and proudly that you are a Catholic, because, people are never suspicious of your belief in the infallibility of the Pope, or the divided loyalty you might have as a result. In fact, I would bet that “Papism” probably does not appear in any dictionary anywhere that ever existed.

    So, this joke, while possibly in poor taste (I noticed the “greedy” connotation, but the Christ-killer one seems a bit of a stretch, particularly considering the profound intersection of the Jewish and Christian faiths in the Passover meal (which is something that Christianity owes to Judaism (wait, did I just call the Jews “greedy”?))), could not be an attempt at self-deprecating humor about the infallible head of his own religion in an attempt to disarm possible detractors that have never, ever existed.

    -Jut

  11. JutGory:

    “Possibly in poor taste?!” Do me a favor, please don’t comment in this thread any more.

  12. 12
    nm says:

    Huh? Catholics have often been victims of discrimination in this country. No one is denying that. But having been the victim of discrimination by bigots is no protection against harboring one’s own feelings of bigotry. Whitbeck kicked off his joke by saying “I’m a Catholic, and …” as if there was some connection between his religion and what was to follow. That’s part of what I am trying to figure out.

    As for the “profound intersection of the Jewish and Christian faiths in the Passover meal,” it doesn’t seem to have interfered with the historical concentration of pogroms around Easter. (Note that I’m not comparing a bigoted story, badly told, to a pogrom; I’m just pointing out that, historically speaking, the Easter season [and stories set in or referring to the Easter season] seem to elicit more anti-Jewish hostility than other times, not less.)

  13. 13
    nobody.really says:

    Interesting discussion.

    1. I had failed to see why people take offense at this joke. Maybe this reflects the fact that I’m not Jewish and thus not sensitive to the joke’s anti-Semitism. Alternatively, maybe this reflects the fact that I’m not Jewish and thus the words “Jew” and “Jewish” do not encumber me with feelings of defensiveness.

    2. I suspect that Whitbeck was not attempting to disparage Jewish people or to signal to the audience that he was on their side in opposing Jews. I would have found this argument more credible in an earlier era. But today, I sense the chief target for Catholic concerns (and chief source of Catholic anxieties) is not Judaism, but secularism. And in confronting the rising tide of secularism, Catholics see their fellow Judeo-Christians as friends, not foes. Given the bunker mentality that my devout Catholic friends seem to manifest, I would be surprised to find Whitbeck choosing a public forum as a place to snipe at potential allies.

    But we’re talking Virginia here. Maybe in that environment, people can still garner votes by becoming known as anti-Semites. I’d be surprised, but I’ve been surprised in the past.

    3. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Whitbeck were looking for an excuse to trumpet his Christian credentials. And the fact that he would do so by trumpeting his Catholicism is a sign of the times. In the Republican Party’s WASPy bosom, Catholicism used to be suspect. Today, not so much. Indeed, every time the Republicans need an intellectual they tap a Catholic; this is how we end up with the Supreme Court being composed mostly of Catholics.

    4. In sum, I suspect Whitbeck was merely looking to trumpet his Christian credentials, and he thought a topical joke about the new pope might provide just the right opportunity. Given my own insensitivity to the joke’s problems, I’m perfectly willing to extend a charitable view to Whitbeck. In any event, I find insufficient reason to conclude that Whitbeck acted for the purpose of disparaging Jewish people — not because I think Whitbeck would be too virtuous to do so, but because I think that doing so would be contrary to Whitbeck’s self-interest.

  14. 14
    Ampersand says:

    1) I don’t think that Whitbeck intended to offend Jewish people.
    2) I don’t think that good intentions should let Whitbeck completely off the hook.
    3) That Whitbeck didn’t know enough to know that “Jews are so greedy, ha-ha!” jokes are commonplace antisemitic jokes doesn’t mean that the joke wasn’t antisemitic.

    And…

    4) Suppose that Witbeck had gotten there and noticed that, through some bizarre coincidence, a traveling group of twenty obvious Jews was there in the audience, the men with long white beards, everyone wearing yamakas and stars of David and so on. (Maybe there’s a convention going on at the hotel).

    My point is, suddenly Witbeck was talking to a roomful of Jews, and knew it.

    Do you really think he would have told the same joke?

  15. 15
    Myca says:

    1) I don’t think that Whitbeck intended to offend Jewish people.
    2) I don’t think that good intentions should let Whitbeck completely off the hook.
    3) That Whitbeck didn’t know enough to know that “Jews are so greedy, ha-ha!” jokes are commonplace antisemitic jokes doesn’t mean that the joke wasn’t antisemitic.

    I agree on all counts, and I think that this case specifically is a fine counter to the ‘intent is all that matters’ folks. This joke was antisemitic, and I think few people with familiarity with the underlying stereotypes would deny that.

    Whether the joke was antisemitic and whether Whitbeck acted with antisemitic intent are two different issues, and either can be true independent of the other.

    —Myca

  16. I get that people might not see so easily the Christ-killer trope, especially since it no longer has the currency it once did; and I agree that Whitbeck probably had no intent to offend or target Jews. Clearly, though, based on what he said in his own defense, he does not understand that the joke might be in the least bit offensive to Jews, and the same is true of the people who laughed at the joke with such pleasure. That is the problem and that is what makes it so sad.

  17. 17
    mythago says:

    Alternatively, maybe this reflects the fact that I’m not Jewish and thus the words “Jew” and “Jewish” do not encumber me with feelings of defensiveness.

    Those Jews, so oversensitive!

    @JutGory, the intersection of Easter and Passover is “profound” to Christians. Not so much to Jews, who perhaps don’t regard Easter with the religious awe and historical interest that Christians do.

  18. Since I have asked JutGory not to comment on this thread anymore, I’ll ask everyone to please not respond to his comment. Thanks.

  19. 19
    nm says:

    Richard, my apologies about my own response to JG. I was working on my own comment when you posted your request, and hadn’t seen it.

  20. 20
    nobody.really says:

    Alternatively, maybe this reflects the fact that I’m not Jewish and thus the words “Jew” and “Jewish” do not encumber me with feelings of defensiveness.

    Those Jews, so oversensitive!

    Well, I don’t know who “those Jews” refers to — but otherwise, yes, I mean to suggest that 1) in general, people who feel attacked often adopt a defensive mindset that impedes critical thinking, and 2) Jewish people, as a subset of people in general, share this attribute.

  21. 21
    RonF says:

    I guess I’m just missing the whole point of why Jews would bill Catholics for the Last Supper in any context, even an anti-Semitic one. If I was in the crowd I’d be thinking “Well, that sounded pretty stupid. What was his point?”

  22. 22
    nobody.really says:

    I guess I’m just missing the whole point of why Jews would bill Catholics for the Last Supper in any context, even an anti-Semitic one. If I was in the crowd I’d be thinking “Well, that sounded pretty stupid. What was his point?”

    @ 4 above, I speculated that the joke was intended to tweak Catholic pretentions to having some exclusive relationship to Jesus by virtue of being the contemporary version of the disciples under the leadership of Peter – in essence, by being “Jesus, Inc.” If the people who contracted for the room and catering of the Last Supper did so not as individuals, but as representatives of an organization, and if the Catholic Church professes to be that organization, then the Catholic Church would be liable for the debts (barring some statute of limitations). The idea that the pope would be asked to pay a 2000-year-old tab strikes people as whimsical and absurd in part because the pretensions of the Catholic Church are whimsical and absurd.

    Moreover, the joke does not reflect badly on the Jewish people involved; it reflects badly on the Christians who reject a just claim for compensation. The joke makes it appear as if Christians expect others to pay their debts – an idea which, if you subscribe to certain types of atonement theories, has some theological justification.

  23. NM: No worries. It happens

  24. Moreover, the joke does not reflect badly on the Jewish people involved; it reflects badly on the Christians who reject a just claim for compensation. The joke makes it appear as if Christians expect others to pay their debts – an idea which, if you subscribe to certain types of atonement theories, has some theological justification.

    Wow! This leaves me utterly speechless. I can’t decide if this reflects an honest or willful ignorance of antisemitism. Either way, it is not a line of discussion I am interested in pursuing in this thread, which I did not intend as an antisemitism 101. So please stop. What I can tell you is that this reading of the joke is decontextualized, ahistorical and offensive, since it ignores the existence and reality of the antisemitic tropes that it plays on.

    The fact that you might not know these tropes is one reason why I was not troubled by your initial question about why the joke was offensive to Jews. This reading ignores the explanation I and others gave you. I have no problem if you want to discuss those tropes; I do not want you to comment further if you intend to pursue this line of reasoning.

  25. RonF:

    I guess I’m just missing the whole point of why Jews would bill Catholics for the Last Supper in any context, even an anti-Semitic one. If I was in the crowd I’d be thinking “Well, that sounded pretty stupid. What was his point?”

    I think it’s important to note that this is not a new joke that someone made up after the Catholic Church decided to stop blaming the Jews collectively for the killing of Christ. My memory of the details of the Last Supper may be sketchy, but if I recall correctly, this was the meal at which Jesus predicted that Judas would betray him–or, more accurately, that someone would betray him and it turned out to be Judas. What I am about to write may be a little sloppy, but I think it is more or less accurate:

    For centuries, the Church identified the Jews collectively with Judas, and so the last supper came to represent, in antisemitic thinking, one “moment” in this collective Jewish guilt. So, for the Jews to present to the Church a bill for a Passover meal–and, as a Passover meal, the Last Supper is a whole lot more Jewish than Catholic–that happened centuries and centuries ago, a meal that led to Jesus’ crucifixion, is essentially, then, in an antisemitic line of reasoning, for the Jews to present to the Church a bill for the betrayal of Jesus and, by implication, everything that came after. And since, according to the Church anyway, Jesus’ crucifixion was supposed to render pretty much null and void all other religions, since Jesus is supposedly the one true Messiah, then think how cheap the Jews must be not only not to accept Jesus, but also to have the audacity to bill the Church.

  26. 26
    Mandolin says:

    Re: the Christkiller connotation: it’s supposed to call to mind something like John Wilkes Booth asking Mary Todd Lincoln for a tip after the play.

  27. 27
    Jake Squid says:

    Now listen here, Lt. Batguano, if that really is your name…

  28. I have removed KathyQ’s comments, who sounds like someone who had started to make similar comments on my own blog.