The Joksters

Thomas Friedman’s June 3 Op-Ed column on the New York Times website begins with the retelling of Friedman’s “favorite Middle East joke,” which he declares has just given President Obama “a good laugh” during a phone interview concerning Obama’s upcoming speech in Egypt. The joke goes as follows:

“There is this very pious Jew named Goldberg who always dreamed of winning the lottery. Every Sabbath, he’d go to synagogue and pray: ‘God, I have been such a pious Jew all my life. What would be so bad if I won the lottery?’ But the lottery would come and Goldberg wouldn’t win. Week after week, Goldberg would pray to win the lottery, but the lottery would come and Goldberg wouldn’t win. Finally, one Sabbath, Goldberg wails to the heavens and says: ‘God, I have been so pious for so long, what do I have to do to win the lottery?’
And the heavens parted and the voice of God came down: ‘Goldberg, give me a chance! Buy a ticket!’”

Friedman applies the moral of his joke to the Arab and Israeli press, in which “everyone seemed to be telling [Obama] what he needed to do and say in Cairo, but nobody was indicating how they were going to step up and do something different.” The upshot according to Friedman is that “[e]veryone wants peace, but nobody wants to buy a ticket”—which sounds compelling if we ignore the fact that there is only one character in the joke, and that Goldberg is not Arab.

The president reportedly responded to parallels between himself and God by contributing a bit of humor of his own: “We have a joke around the White House… We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East.” Although the punch-line in Obama’s joke is less readily detectable than in Friedman’s, his commitment to bringing up the truth regardless of the circumstances is nonetheless commendable. (George W. Bush’s jokes had also often seemed out of place, such as when he drew attention to a reporter in a pinstripe suit at a White House press briefing during the 2006 war on Lebanon.)

Friedman quotes Obama on the details of the truth-telling session in Cairo, a key part of which will apparently be instructions to the Middle East to “[s]top saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.” Examples of Middle Easterners congregating behind closed doors included Arabs who were “more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon that the ‘threat’ from Israel,” Israelis who understood the need “to make some tough choices on settlements,” and Palestinians who recognized that, instead of pursuing a policy of “constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel,” they should have “taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground.”

The moral high ground is not defined in the Op-Ed but does not appear to include long-term unilateral truces by Hamas or decades of Arab offers of recognition of Israel in exchange for Palestinian rights. Friedman meanwhile applauds the impending Cairo truth-telling as part of Obama’s “broader diplomatic approach that says: If you go right into peoples’ living rooms, don’t be afraid to hold up a mirror to everything they are doing, but also engage them in a way that says ‘I know and respect who you are.’” A number of operational details are left out, such as whether the mirror in question will be double-sided, what it is you are doing in other people’s living rooms, and whether the living room doors are closed.

Moving beyond the living room, Obama is also reported as having expressed to Friedman his desire to speak “directly to the Arab street.” Friedman quotes Obama on the potential benefits of such directness:

“And if there are a bunch of 22- and 25-year-old men and women in Cairo or in Lahore who listen to a speech by me or other Americans and say: ‘I don’t agree with everything they are saying, but they seem to know who I am or they seem to want to promote economic development or tolerance or inclusiveness,’ then they are maybe a little less likely to be tempted by a terrorist recruiter.”

Obama’s communications with the Arab street might be slightly hampered by his evident conviction that the street is primarily composed of terrorist recruiters and potential terrorists. Friedman remains optimistic, however, and foresees the following reaction from Obama’s audience: “When young Arabs and Muslims see an American president who looks like them, has a name like theirs, has Muslims in his family and comes into their world and speaks the truth, it will be empowering and disturbing at the same time. People will be asking: ‘Why is this guy who looks like everyone on the street here the head of the free world and we can’t even touch freedom?’”

The Op-Ed ends before it is determined whether people will not also be asking why this guy has a monopoly on truth, or when the truth will stop working—to borrow from Obama’s joke.

BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opaliska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. She can be reached at



Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso, and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon.