The cultural difference between Israel and its Arab neighbors is so striking that you would think it beyond question. But when Mitt Romney attributed the gap between Israel’s economic performance and the Palestinians’ — “Culture makes all the difference,” he said in Israel — the roof came down on him. PC police the world over raised a red card, giving him demerits for having the temerity to notice the obvious. Predictably, Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, denounced the statement as “racist.” It was, of course, just the opposite.
This is a complicated matter. It’s true that the West Bank is under Israeli occupation and parts of Gaza have been pounded into rubble. It is also true that for years the Palestinians benefited from jobs in Israel. It is true that a good many educated Palestinians live in the diaspora, but it is also true that the early diaspora consisted of Palestinian Christians fleeing Ottoman repression. (There are about 500,000 Palestinians in Chile.)
Still, for all the caveats, Arabs themselves recognize that they have a cultural problem. The Arab Human Development Report of 2002 singled out three “deficits” of Arab society that are “obstacles” to progress. One was the lack of political freedom; another was the narrow knowledge base; and the third the status of women. All of these vary across the region — Saudi Arabia’s women are forbidden to drive — but nowhere in the region are women as free as they are in the West or, for that matter, Israel. In all of vast Arabia, about half of the potential workforce is poorly educated.
This hubbub about culture may seem esoteric, but it is really very important. The tendency to hold the Arabs blameless for their own culture is part of the predilection to hold them harmless for the lack of peace agreement with Israel. The Israelis have much to account for, but they are not alone in this matter and they are not the ones who have over and over again rejected peace plans. The adamant refusal to hold the Arabs accountable infantilizes them — a neo-colonialist mentality that is, in the end, simply insulting.
The book that Romney cited for his views on Arab culture, David S. Landes’s “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” goes further than I would in blaming the Arabs for their own difficulties, and it was written long before the Arab Spring. But it is a vigorously written attack on the sort of thinking that blames the West for all that ails the East and for disregarding indigenous cultural problems. Landes is particularly tough on the Muslim societies of the Middle East for the plight of women — a cultural phenomenon that does not exist in Islamic Asia but does, just for the record, among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Romney could have been more diplomatic and eschewed a shorthand explanation of what ails Palestinian society — he might also have acknowledged Palestinian achievements — but he identified what are, indisputably, two problems. The first is that of culture. The second is the reluctance to discuss it.