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Romney’s ‘Racist’ Reference to Palestinian Culture

Mitt Romney says he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture” at a fundraiser in Israel, where his remarks were denounced by a Palestinian leader as “racist.” It’s true that Romney didn’t directly disparage the Palestinian culture, but he did say “culture makes all the difference” when explaining why Israel’s per-capita gross domestic product is more than double that of neighboring areas managed by the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians say that ignores the effect of Israel’s economic sanctions.

The Fundraiser

Romney, who is on a six-day trip to England, Poland and Israel, made his remarks at a July 30 fundraiser in Jerusalem.

The presumptive Republican nominee started by making the observation that there is a “dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality” between Israel and areas managed by the Palestinian Authority. (The Romney campaign did not make his comments available to us. But Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom confirmed that the campaign provided Talking Points Memo with a copy of Romney’s remarks, and he confirmed its authenticity.)

Romney, July 30: I was thinking this morning as I prepared to come into this room of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries. And as you come here and you see the GDP per capita for instance in Israel, which is about 21,000 dollars, and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like 10,000 dollars per capita, you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality.

Romney went on to discuss some of the possible reasons for that. First, he dismissed the possibility that Israel’s natural resources are a reason for the economic gap, citing “very similar … geographic elements” between the two countries. He then went on to discuss “the power of at least culture and a few other things,” including the “hand of providence.”

Romney, July 30: But then there was a book written by a former Harvard professor named “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.” And in this book Dr. Landes describes differences that have existed — particularly among the great civilizations that grew and why they grew and why they became great and those that declined and why they declined. And after about 500 pages of this lifelong analysis — this had been his study for his entire life — and he’s in his early 70s at this point, he says this, he says, if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference. 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.

The Fallout

That day, the Associated Press reported that Romney’s remarks angered the Palestinian leadership. Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, blamed the “Israeli occupation” for the economic gap and said Romney lacked an “understanding of this region.”

Associated Press, July 30: “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,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people,” Erekat added. “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”

The New York Times noted that the CIA World Factbook attributes some of the economic problems in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Israeli economic restrictions.

New York Times, July 30: In the West Bank, according to the C.I.A. World Factbook, “Israeli closure policies continue to disrupt labor and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce, eroding the productive capacity” of the economy.

In Gaza, the C.I.A. says, Israeli-imposed border closings “have resulted in high unemployment, elevated poverty rates, and the near collapse of the private sector that had relied on export markets.” The agency added that “changes to Israeli restrictions on imports in 2010 resulted in a rebound in some economic activity, but regular exports from Gaza still are not permitted.”

The Response

A day later, Romney denied speaking about the Palestinian culture when asked by Fox News about his remarks in Israel.

Romney, July 31: I’m not speaking about it, did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy. That’s an interesting topic that perhaps can deserve scholarly analysis, but I actually didn’t address that. I certainly don’t intend to address that during my campaign. Instead, I will point out, that the choices a society makes have a profound impact on the economy and the vitality of a society.

It’s true that he did not directly speak of the Palestinian culture. But he did indirectly address it by citing Israel’s culture as a reason for the “dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality” between Israel and the areas under Palestinian Authority. He also did not mention Israeli economic sanctions — which, as the New York Times points out, the Palestinians have long blamed for their economic problems.

Romney also wrote an opinion piece for the National Review Online that elaborated on his belief that “culture does matter,” as the headline put it. In his op-ed, Romney praised Israel for “a culture that is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law,” but said nothing about the culture of the Palestinians.

It’s not the first time that Romney has cited culture to explain the economic inequalities that exist between some neighboring countries. In fact, twice he has held out the Israeli economy as an example of the power of culture.

He compared, for example, Israel and Egypt, the U.S. and Mexico, and Chile and Ecuador in a March 19 speech at the University of Chicago. As he did in Israel, Romney also mentioned the book by David Landes called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.”

Romney, March 19: I spent 25 years in business. My work took me to many countries. I was often struck by the enormous differences in the wealth and well-being of people living in different nations. I was interested in how nations that were so close to each other in terms of geography could be so different in terms of prosperity. Take, for example, Mexico and the United States, Israel and Egypt, Chile and Ecuador.

I read books that purported to explain the disparities between such nations. Jared Diamond argued it was largely due to their physical differences, their minerals and natural resources. But this only explained part of what I saw.

Then I read a book by historian David Landes called The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. In it, he traces the rise and fall of the great civilizations in history. After about 500 pages of scholarly analysis, he concludes with this observation: “If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.” Culture.

In his book “No Apology,” Romney also asked, “How could Israelis have created a highly developed, technology-based economy while their Palestinian neighbors had not yet even begun to move to an industrial economy?” In his book, Romney again cited Landes’ conclusion that “culture makes all the difference.”

So, Romney has a history of making such cultural comparisons. What makes all the difference in this case is where he said it.

— Eugene Kiely