There are some broad and important political issues raised by a minor flap concerning presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel. To look at these questions in a detached and honest way can tell us a lot about the future of the world and of U.S. policy.
The controversy began when Romney said at a meeting with donors:
“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.” Romney said the economic history of the world has shown that “culture makes all the difference.”
Palestinian leaders complained, saying that this showed Romney was racist and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East. Actually, their reaction showed that they are counterproductive leaders who are out of touch with the realities of the Middle East and human history.
The basis of the complaint is two-fold:
First, is a reference to culture in some way “racist”, and why is Israel so far ahead of the Palestinians?
Racism refers to a belief that some people are inherently and biologically inferior. Consequently, nothing that they do can alter their inevitable backwardness.
This has nothing to do with culture, which is an alterable state of being. Indeed, racism has been disproven precisely because of the abilities of society to change their culture. Once, the Britons were a bunch of barbarian tribes who endlessly warred on each other and painted themselves blue. They have progressed considerably since then.
Countries like China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Singapore—to restrict oneself to Asia alone—have dramatically developed in the last half-century. They kept many aspects of their culture and society while altering others. In America, the descendants of slaves brought unwillingly from Africa have proven able to accomplish a full range of technological, cultural, professional, and other things.
So it is never racist to state the reality that some societies at any given time are in advance of others, you are only racist if you say that this can never change. In other words, if Arabs decided to do certain things they could be just as prosperous and developed as Israel or America or anyone else.
Unfortunately, though and with some exceptions—particularly in the smaller Persian Gulf, oil-rich sheikdoms—Arab polities and societies are changing in the wrong way. Both Romney and President Barack Obama have spoken of being on the “right side of history” but the phrase would better be on the right direction of history.
But since Palestinian Authority leaders want to discuss culture, here’s one out of thousands of examples. Recently, at a cultural performance whose audience included the PA minister of culture, the songs and poetry spoke of how the main priority of raising children is to make sure they were ready to use guns—not computers—against you-know-who. And Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, holds summer camps where thousands of young people are encouraged to grow up to be suicide bombers and terrorists.
By heading toward Islamism, increased ethnic strife, and Sunni-Shia conflict, most of the Arab polities are either going backwards in time or being threatened by neighbors who are doing so. This ensures that the gap will not only remain but become larger. Arab and Iranian liberal dissidents have the right ideas but are losing the battle.
Now here’s the problem: If Palestinians deny that there’s a problem they cannot resolve the problem. Failure to acknowledge that there is a real difference is disastrous for the Palestinians. Clinging to the very ideas responsible for that difference is catastrophic.
When Romney refers to “culture” he’s not referring to literature and music but to what is usually called “political culture.” And Romney uses the precise same criteria when he’s talking about America. Democracy, individual liberty, free enterprise, and the rule of law are among the ingredients necessary for success of any society.
Ironically, Romney actually understated the economic differences. In 2011, Israel’s per capita gross domestic product was about $31,000 while that of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was just over $1,500. If he was being so nasty why did he underestimate the Israeli figure by 33 percent and overestimate the Palestinian number by about 700 percent! What would they have said if he had given the real numbers?Barry Rubin
About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.
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