Joe Biden apologizes for using anti-Semitic term

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Last Updated Sep 17, 2014 5:35 PM EDT

Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday that referring to mortgage lenders as "Shylocks" was a "poor choice of words."

Biden used the term - a reference to a nefarious Jewish character that gives loans in Shakespeare's play, "The Merchant of Venice" - in a speech to a legal aid group Tuesday. He was describing the experiences of troops who faced foreclosures at home while they were serving in the military.

"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 remark drew a rebuke from Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman, who told Yahoo News that the word "remains an offensive characterization to this day" and that the vice president "should have been more careful."

But Biden reached out to Foxman by telephone, and all seemed to be forgiven. Foxman said in a statement that while the vice president "needs to bone up on his Shakespeare," he said he ultimately "turned a rhetorical gaffe into a teachable moment."

"There is no truer friend of the Jewish people than Joe Biden," Foxman said. "Not only has he been a stalwart against anti-Semitism and bigotry, but he has the courage and forthrightness to admit a mistake and use it as an opportunity to learn and to teach others about the harmful effects of stereotypes."

In a statement, Biden said, "Abe Foxman has been a friend and advisor of mine for a long time. He's correct, it was a poor choice of words.

It wasn't the first time Biden's folksy style of speaking has gotten him in trouble. During the 2012 campaign, he told an audience that included many African-Americans that Republican nominee Mitt Romney would "put you all back in chains" by unshackling Wall Street - which he was later forced to clarify after a burst of Republican outrage.

And during the 2008 elections, he attempted to explain the growth in the Indian-American population in his home state of Delaware by telling a voter, "You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent."

Biden spent much of Wednesday in Iowa where he called for more "fairness" in the U.S. economy, a key part of the Democratic platform during the midterm elections and the kind of message he might carry over to a presidential campaign if he runs for the White House in 2016.

"It comes down to a simple question of fairness, Americans have always done best when we've acted as one America, because when we do, the nation succeeds, when everyone's contributing their fair share, America grows," Biden said. "There used to be a bargain in this country, a basic bargain, Democrats and Republicans signed on to it, business and labor, the bargain was simple: if you contributed to the growth and productivity of the enterprise you were involved in, you got to share in that growth and that productivity. That's what built the middle class, now it's time to restore that bargain."

But he may get in hot water for an anecdote he told during the speech, where he used the politically incorrect term, "The Orient" to refer to Asia.

"On the way back from Mumbai to go meet with President Xi in China, I stopped in Singapore to meet with a guy named Lee Kuan Yew, who most foreign policy experts around the world say is the most wisest man in the Orient," Biden said.

He was speaking from Des Moines for the kickoff of the "Nuns on the Bus" tour, a group that warns citizens about the growing influence of outside money in politics. Biden appeared in the state just three days after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the annual Harkin Steak Fry, her first trip to Iowa in the seven years since caucus-goers delivered her a humbling third-place finish.

Biden said Democrats are "determined to restore" the American Dream, and called for, "a fair tax structure, one that values paychecks as much as earned income and clipping dividends."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.