Ethnic jokes are always dangerous. Gen. James Jones, as Barack Obama's national security adviser, famously regaled a friendly Jewish audience with a variation of a joke about the Hamas militant in Jerusalem who went into the shop of a Jewish merchant and asked to buy food.
"I'm sorry," the merchant said. "I don't have any food, but I've got some nice neckties."
"I don't need a tie," says the Hamas militant, "and I'm hungry."
"Well, my brother has a restaurant down the street, and he has lots of food."
The Hamas man ran down the street, but he returned a few minutes later, angry. "Your brother wouldn't let me in his restaurant without a tie."
It wasn't a sidesplitting story, but it struck a familiar note about kinship, loyalty, entrepreneurial drive and aggressive tactics of Jewish invention and salesmanship. Some of the Jews in the audience laughed. Some of the others didn't, and it set off a minor media outrage, and the general had to offer the ritual apology "to anyone who was offended by it." Politics often plays with our perceptions over what's funny. It does that with simple truths, too.
When Mitt Romney spoke to a group of wealthy American Jewish donors at a fundraiser at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and ascribed their accomplishments to lessons and inspiration from their culture, he was called out as a "racist" by Palestinians who said he was blaming their culture for the lack of Palestinian economic progress. Romney told Fox News the next day that he hadn't been talking about "the Palestinian culture" but he thinks that's a topic that "could deserve scholarly analysis."
What he was talking about was the dramatic disparity between the per capita income in Israel, about $31,000 a year, and the income of the average Palestinian, about $10,000, living under the Palestinian Authority. It's a truism (which could be repeated by any economist), he said, "that the choices a society makes have a profound impact on the economy and the vitality of that society."
Culture, of course, is a word with lots of different meanings, whether about the values of a society or what goes into making yogurt. I remember a definition of culture from Anthropology 101, written by a learned professor: "Culture is man's past working on the present to shape the future." I've never forgotten the native wisdom in that definition.