‘Culture’ Clash

Romney’s Jerusalem comment was no gaffe.


In Israel’s capital yesterday, Mitt Romney “added one more flat note to the image of the Republican presidential hopeful’s gaffe-prone international foray,” the Christian Science Monitor claims. In the New York Times account, Romney “offended Palestinian leaders . . ., thrusting himself again into a volatile issue while on his high-profile overseas trip.”

Oy vey, what a meshugass! But actually, what Romney said was not a gaffe in any sense of the word that this column understands.

Here’s the Romney quote, from the Monitor: “At a breakfast fund-raising event in Jerusalem Monday, Romney said he couldn’t help but notice the ‘dramatically stark difference in economic vitality’ between Israel and ‘the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority,’ and he concluded, ‘Culture makes all the difference.’ ”

Romney added (as quoted by the Times): “As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. 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. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.”

The Monitor complains that Romney made “no mention . . . of the trade and mobility restrictions that Israel maintains over the occupied [i.e., disputed] territories of the West Bank and Gaza–restrictions that both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said for years are key factors in hampering Palestinian economic growth.”

This sentiment was amplified by Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian Authority politician, as the Times reports: “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.”

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.

Erekat’s claim that the depressed Palestinian GDP per capita is the result of Israeli restrictions is overstated. There are many other Arab countries that do not suffer this disadvantage, and most of them are nowhere near as prosperous as Israel.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the Jewish state had a per capita GDP of $31,400 in 2011, considerably higher than Romney’s estimate and the 41st highest in the world. The only Arab countries whose per capita GDPs topped Israel’s were Qatar (No. 2, at $104,300), the United Arab Emirates (No. 12 at $48,800) and Kuwait (No. 19 at $42,200)–all oil-rich states with sparse populations.

National Review’s Mark Krikorian lists the figures for several other Arab countries:

Lebanon’s is $15,700, Egypt $6,600, Jordan $6,000, Syria $5,100, Iraq $3,900. . . . Even Saudi Arabia has a per capita GDP significantly lower than Israel’s–$24,500–and Libya (also with oil and few people) is at $14,100. The CIA reports the combined per capita GDP of the West Bank and Gaza as $2,900; that’s lower than other Arab countries, so one could indeed plausibly argue that the “road blocks and closures and so on” are part of the reason for Palestinian backwardness, but obviously not a very large part and certainly not “most” of the reason, as claimed by Erekat.

Yet even Krikorian goes too easy on Erekat. While it is no doubt true that Israeli trade and travel restrictions make the Palestinian economy less productive than it would otherwise be, the Israelis do not impose these restrictions for fun. Rather, their aim is to prevent terrorists from entering Israel and weapons of terrorism from entering the disputed territories. Israel would have no justification for these restrictions if terrorism and the hatred that fuels it were not part of Palestinian culture.

So what Romney said was completely true (aside from his erroneous data on GDP per capita, and the correct numbers only make his point stronger). That doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t a gaffe. As Michael Kinsley famously observed: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

To put it another way, a gaffe is a statement that is both true and impolitic, like when Romney said in London that he found foul-ups in preparations for the Olympics “disconcerting.”

Romney’s statement about Palestinian culture would have been impolitic coming from a Middle East peace envoy. Depending on the circumstances, it might have been impolitic coming from a U.S. president. But Romney is a candidate for president in the most pro-Israel country in the world, probably including Israel itself. As Walter Russell Meadwrites:

By stressing the strength of his emotional and political commitment to Israel, Governor Romney hopes to strengthen his claim to be running as the red-blooded, truly American candidate against what the GOP devoutly hopes voters will see as the cosmopolitan, Europe loving, Israel-criticizing, Noam Chomsky-reading, French-thinking socialist now living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the context of an American presidential campaign, praising Jewish culture is anything but a gaffe. It’s about as politic a sentiment as one can express.