Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. So do candidates for high office. During his recent visit to Israel, presidential candidate Mitt Romney ventured into dangerous territory. In a speech to a Jewish audience he suggested that “cultural differences” are the reason Israelis are more successful economically than Palestinians.
Mr. Romney also vastly understated the actual disparity between the incomes of Israelis and Palestinians. He put the gross per capita G.D.P for Israelis at $21,000 and the gross per capita G.D.P. for Palestinians at $10,000. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the per capita gross domestic product for Israelis in 2009 was roughly $29,800. The per capita gross domestic product for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza in 2008 was $2,900.
What accounts for this dramatic disparity? I am no economist, but I think it’s fair to suggest that the history of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the trade restrictions imposed by Israel’s government have something to do with it. One could debate whether those restrictions are justified or not, but even a non-expert like me might be forgiven for thinking that “cultural differences” don’t tell the whole story.
What concerns me most about Mr. Romney’s comments is how they feed the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jewish people are good at making money and obsessed with profit. The corollary of this racist attitude, of course, is that Palestinians are, by nature, lazy and unproductive. Both stereotypes are at best uncharitable and at worst dehumanizing.
I’m old enough to remember Southerners opine that “nigras” (that was the polite term back then) were incapable of higher education and high achievement. Looking back, I shudder to think that otherwise kind, faithful Christians could believe such bunk. I also remember a church meeting during which an elder spoke of “Jewing down” a bid from a contractor. He was, quite properly, chastised by his brothers and sisters in Christ.
Anyone who has been to Israel has to admire way the Israelis have brought forth the abundance of the land. I still can’t get over the sea of banana groves near the Sea of Galilee. On the other hand, I have Christian friends who travel to Israel to help with the olive harvest because Palestinian farmers don’t have access to olive groves that have been in their families’ possession for generations. The point is, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is profoundly, maddeningly complicated.
I certainly don’t have the solutions. But I am convinced that slightly-veiled racial stereotypes are not helpful.