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Mitt Romney’s make-believe Palestine problem

posted at 12:24 pm on August 1, 2012 by

The political turning point of Mitt Romney’s trip abroad to establish his foreign policy credentials may not be his pre-Olympic grand gaffe in London after all. It may be the following observation, which the likely GOP candidate made in Jerusalem on Monday:

As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.

Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.

The comment was met with instantaneous outrage. Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told the Associated Press: “It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation. It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people.”

Erekat’s sentiments were immediately absorbed and repackaged in slightly altered form by liberal media outlets great (The New York Times) and small (MSNBC host Cenk Uygur, blogging at the Huffington Post). The latter went out of his way to misrepresent Romney’s statement as the “Palestinians don’t have as high a GDP per capita as Israelis do because their culture is not as good as Jewish culture.” The value judgment he adds is purely inferential, but his conclusion—that Romney’s comments were “deeply racist”—is just plain wrong. As James Taranto points out:

The claim that Romney’s statement was ‘racist’ is inflammatory but silly. Neither Jews nor Arabs constitute a distinct race; in the usual racial taxonomy both are classified as white. Ethnically, they are closely related, both Semitic peoples—as Arabs will sometimes point out to deflect the charge of ‘anti-Semitism,’ a European word for Jew-hatred that translates awkwardly into the Middle Eastern context.

The differences between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, or between Jews and Arabs more broadly, are in fact not racial but cultural, with ‘culture’ understood broadly as encompassing everything from religion and politics to prevailing norms about work, family and all manner of social activity.

Taranto also effectively disposes of the misperceptions that the depressed Palestinian GDP per capita is the result of Israeli restrictions on trade and travel and that these restrictions are motivated by anything beyond self-preservation. The arguments are worth reading and readers are urged to take time to click through to Taranto’s column.

The present column will instead switch gears and re-examine Romney’s comment that “culture makes all the difference.” Is it true, as Saeb Erekat posits, that “the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation”? Or is there is something endemic to the culture of the Palestinian people that has stood in the way of their attainment of prosperity. One might look back just a few years, to the free elections of 2006, in which the Palestinians gave the radical Islamic organization Hamas control of its new parliament.

But the story of Palestinian antipathy toward the Jewish people and abject poverty go back nearly a century. As evidence of the former, consider a passage from the 1936 Report of the Palestine Royal Commission:

An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. There is no common ground between them. Their national aspirations are incompatible. The Arabs desire to revive the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews desire to show what they can achieve when restored to the land in which the Jewish nation was born. Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.

The conflict has grown steadily more bitter since 1920 and the process will continue. Conditions inside Palestine, especially the systems of education, are strengthening the national sentiment of the two peoples. The bigger and more prosperous they grow the greater will be their political ambitions, and the conflict is aggravated by the uncertainty of the future. “Who in the end will govern Palestine?” it is asked. Meanwhile the “external factors” will continue to operate with increasing force. On the one hand in less than three years’ time Syria and the Lebanon will attain their national sovereignty, and the claim of the Palestinian Arabs to share in the freedom of all Asiatic Arabia will thus be fortified. On the other hand the hardships and anxieties of the Jews in Europe are not likely to grow less and the appeal to the good faith and humanity of the British people will lose none of its force.

As evidence of the latter, consider a passage from the 1937 edition of the same report, describing the conditions of Palestine’s coastal plain in 1913:

The road leading from Gaza to the north was only a summer track suitable for transport by camels and carts … no orange groves, orchards or vineyards were to be seen until one reached [the Jewish village of] Yabna [Yavne].… Houses were all of mud. No windows were anywhere to be seen…. The ploughs used were of wood… The yields were very poor…. The sanitary conditions in the village were horrible. Schools did not exist…. The western part, towards the sea, was almost a desert…. The villages in this area were few and thinly populated. Many ruins of villages were scattered over the area, as owing to the prevalence of malaria, many villages were deserted by their inhabitants.

Yehuda Karmon offered a possible explanation for these conditions in his 1981 book Israel: A Regional Geography:

To the extent that land in the coastal and other plains was capable of being cultivated, wild marauding Bedouin tribes present in these areas discouraged any permanent rural settlement or agricultural development.

Liberals will of course ignore these realities and continue in their efforts to smear Romney as a racist or “culturalist.” That argument may end up falling on deaf ears if Romney is able to capitalize on Obama’s already dwindling support among Jews here at home.

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Ethnically, they are closely related, both Semitic peoples—as Arabs will sometimes point out to deflect the charge of ‘anti-Semitism,’ a European word for Jew-hatred that translates awkwardly into the Middle Eastern context.

For the last time, “Semite” is a LINGUISTIC distinction. Not an ethnic one.

Ben Hur on August 1, 2012 at 2:10 PM