Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Romney in Israel: Palestinian Culture, Occupation, Racism and Providence

*This was going to be a much longer post and one with a slightly different emphasis but as often happens work and other events intervened and required me to abbreviate it greatly. Hopefully that will be a good thing as I am always seeking to write more concisely anyway.

So boring apologia aside you may have heard that Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a bit of a gaffe recently when he made remarks that could be construed as insulting  by comparing the Israeli culture to that of the Palestinians and suggesting that not only was the Israeli culture superior but also that the Israelis were blessed by God and that these two things explained the difference in economic success between the two peoples. Needless to say, this did not go over very well with the Palestinians, who blasted the statements as ignorant and racist. 

Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the nearby Palestinians, outraging Palestinian leaders who called his comments racist and out of touch.
"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," the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who breakfasted around a U-shaped table at the luxurious King David Hotel.**
"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," Romney said, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the "hand of providence."

Of course Palestinians are not a key source of funding for Romney's campaign so Romney had no problem doubling down on his statements in a National Review editorial. Picking a fight with people who have virtually no representation in the Western media on behalf on people who have immense representation in the Western media would not seem to be a particularly brave thing to do but then again Romney never claimed to be a profile in courage. I do think however that he and his advisers, including the neo-con Dan Senor, really are being honest about their understanding of the difference in economic output between Israel, or more precisely, Jewish Israelis, and Palestinians, whether they live within the 1967 Israeli borders or in the occupied West Bank and restricted Gaza Strip. This honesty is useful. But it's not restricted to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It's something that we see time and time again whenever one group of people have conquered or subjugated another one.

For example, let's say you are taking a shortcut off the expressway from one suburb to another and temporarily wind up in Inner City USA. You're going to notice that the houses and stores (if they exist) are not as new or as clean as in your area. You're going to notice that the people are demographically much different. You may find it prudent to lock your doors and windows.
You may not see a lot of economic activity.
Or let's say that you visit an Indian reservation. You will probably find a number of people who are suffering from alcoholism or unreported sexual assaults or obesity and diabetes. Again, chances are you won't find a huge number of new clean supermarkets.
You could repeat the same scene in a Brazilian favela or a number of Indian cities and so forth and so on.

Now if you lack curiosity or interest in what's going on around you and you REALLY don't want to know that people that look like you might have had something to do with those situations, it would be much easier on your ego to state that those people just have an inferior culture. They have chosen to make bad decisions and that's why they're where they are. It's too bad but unless and until they decide to be more like me, chances are they'll be in the same spot. I'm no racist but why don't they just do blah, blah, blah.. and so on.

On the other hand if you are historically curious or even slightly open to the idea that people aren't all THAT different and few people WANT to be impoverished or poor you might do some research and find out that the black people in the inner city are generally descended from people who had to work for free for over 250 years and were non-citizens for another 100 years. They also had their cultures, languages and religions erased and replaced with an ideology that told them they were the lowest of the low and God didn't look like them or love them. It's only in the past 40-50 years that some of that has started to slowly and fitfully change.

You might do some research and learn that those people you see on the "reservation" had and have a vibrant culture but were defeated in battle, slaughtered en masse and virtually exterminated from the continent. The reservations are almost always located in undesirable places that the larger society doesn't want and are both beyond many local legal protections and often subject to dictates from the Federal government.

Or were you Romney, you might do some basic research and discover that those Palestinians once had the majority of what is today Israel but like the American Indians, have fallen victim to a militarily superior group of people, who having ethnically cleansed much of Israel from Palestinian presence, are stubbornly continuing a policy of occupation, colonization and displacement in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians have been under military occupation longer than I've been alive. One of the critical things about military occupation is that it's rather difficult to build an independent functioning economy. EVERYTHING that a business or entrepreneur would need to build or expand his business can be revoked in the twinkling of an eye by a bully with a gun. Think you'll expand your factory in the next lot? Sorry, the IDF just took that lot over for artillery practice. Considering opening an olive supply business? Too bad, the army and settlers decided to uproot your olive grove for a new road for Jewish settlers. Want to open a pizza delivery business? Well you can forget about 30 minutes or less delivery as there are roadblocks and delays all over your area and even if there weren't, again any soldier who's in a bad mood can arbitrarily decide to prevent you or your drivers from traveling the next 5 miles-for no reason other than she feels like it.

I don't deny that cultures differ nor do I deny that some individuals need a kick in their a$$. Many of us know the uncle or friend who always has his hand out for a loan but avoids job interviews like a vampire avoids sunlight, the sister-in-law who always has the latest cell phone and apps but can't seem to plan for her mortgage, or the ne'er-do-well nephew who has big get rich quick plans that require your financial underwriting. It's precisely because we know these individuals that as individuals we can feel comfortable in saying "Get a job" or "No I'm not giving you any money" or "What you really need to do is blah, blah, blah".

But to generalize to a whole group of people and claim that their problem is their culture seems a bit much. You have to look at the whole picture. That picture is going to include ugly things like racism, genocide, self-hatred, and OCCUPATION. We might even flip the script, as Martin Luther King once suggested, to do an intensified study on the dominant group to ask what is the problem with THEIR culture?

There are several countries with higher per capita GDP than Israel. Would Romney suggest that those countries have a superior culture?
Romney ignored the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its unceasing land theft because those ugly little facts might have a little more to do with Palestinian economic growth than God not loving them or their deficient culture. Of course the Palestinians could have a bad culture that inhibits growth. To be sure, at the very least we would need to run an experiment in which the Palestinians put the Israelis under military occupation for multiple decades, imprison thousands of Israelis without trial or charges, and take more and more land.  Maybe even under those conditions the Israelis would be more economically productive than the Palestinians are today. Only one way to find out!!!

** I just have to mention the horrible irony of Romney giving his speech at the King David Hotel. This was the scene of a horrible terrorist attack by members of the hardline Irgun Jewish group. It killed over 90 people and has never quite been forgiven by the British or repudiated by the Israelis. In fact some Irgun members later became Israeli political leaders. One man's terrorist really is another man's freedom fighter.

What are your thoughts?

Were Romney's statements bigoted?

Does culture impact a society's economic success? If so how much?

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