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Vice President Joe Biden drew fire from a prominent Jewish group on Tuesday after he described unscrupulous bankers who prey on servicemen and servicewomen deployed overseas as “Shylocks” — a term frequently condemned as an anti-Semitic caricature.
“Shylock represents the medieval stereotype about Jews and remains an offensive characterization to this day. The Vice President should have been more careful,” Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said.
Shylock, the villain in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” is a Jewish moneylender who mercilessly demands a “pound of flesh” from the merchant who defaults on a loan. Whether the 16th-century play is anti-Semitic or reflects the anti-Semitism of the time is a subject of frequent, bitter debate, but the term Shylock is offensive enough that Florida stripped it from state law back in 2009. (Not everyone has gotten that memo).
“When someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden, uses the term 'Shylocked’ to describe unscrupulous moneylenders dealing with service men and women, we see once again how deeply embedded this stereotype about Jews is in society,” Foxman said.
Biden’s slip came in a speech to the Legal Services Corporation, which provides lawyers to Americans who could not afford them otherwise. In his remarks, the vice president described the experience of his son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who was deployed for one year in Iraq.
“People would come to him and talk about what was happening to them at home in terms of foreclosures, in terms of bad loans that were being — I mean, these Shylocks who took advantage of these women and men while overseas,” Biden said.
The vice president's office did not return a request for comment.
It’s hardly the first time that the vice president has raised eyebrows with comments that supporters describe as candor unvarnished by slick politicking and that critics sometimes refer to as “if that were anyone else…”
In 2010, he greeted the signing of Obamacare into law as “a big f---ing deal.” In 2007, he apologized after describing the future president as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” A year earlier, he exalted the fast-growing Indian-American community in his home state of Delaware but said, “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking."
On Tuesday, the vice president offered up a series of candid insights in the wide-ranging speech, at one point saying he was proud of his children but joking that he wished one of them were a Republican eager to make money “so that when they put me in a home, there'll be a window with a view.”
At another point, Biden seemed to acknowledge his reputation for off-the-cuff remarks that veer into gaffe territory.
“No one ever doubts that I mean what I say,” he said to laughter from the audience. “The problem is I sometimes say all that I mean.”