When Mitt Romney declared that Israeli culture was more apt to produce prosperity than its Palestinian counterpart he was greeted with howls of partisan derision.
Palestinians accused him of being a racist. Obama supporters and sympathizers denounced him for everything else.
Unfortunately, the attacks on Romney ranged from mindless to incoherent. Little light was shed on the topic by the overpraised Fareed Zakaria. My thoughts here.
Happily, Richard Landes offers some solid analysis of the topic in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this morning. A professor himself Landes is the son of Richard Landes, an eminent scholar whose work was quoted by Romney.
Basing his thought on the work of Max Weber, Landes provides us with a description of two kinds of cultures.
The first culture contributes to prosperity:
Americans tend to assume that everyone shares their cultural attitudes—that everyone strives to get to "yes," to positive-sum, win-win, voluntary relations; that everyone holds productive work in high respect and prizes the principles of fairness embodied in the meritocratic principle of "equality before the law"; that everyone encourages criticism, treasures intellectual capital, promotes risk-taking, prizes transparency and fosters innovation. With institutions built on such values—with a culture dedicated to making, not taking, money—a society can make use of whatever primary products a land offers.
A culture based on the principle of negotiation is more productive than one based on the principles of conflict and class struggle.
Landes then describes the alternative cultures that prevail in the Middle East.
In his words:
But there are cultures whose favored mode is not voluntary but coerced and zero-sum relations, where the principle of "rule or be ruled" dominates political and economic life. The elites in such cultures hold hard work in contempt, and they distrust intellectual openness and uncontrolled innovation as subversive. They emphasize rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority. Protection rackets rather than law enforcement assure the public order and bleed the economy. Public criticism brings sharp retaliation. Powerful actors acquire wealth by taking, rather than making.
This kind of culture, Landes claims, exists throughout the Middle East. It stifles economic growth and productivity, even in countries that have important natural resources.
Yet, Landes continues, Palestinian culture is somewhat better than many other Middle Eastern Arab cultures. He gives credit to the influence of Israel.
In Palestine and throughout the Middle East, Israel is the solution, not the problem. Until Israel’s neighbors come to understand this, the conflict between them will continue to be intractable.
Strikingly, Palestinian culture compares favorably with that of other Arabs. Palestinians have higher education, a strong work ethic and successful entrepreneurs. Much of that comes from their close association with the Zionists, who (unlike Western imperialists) settled the land without conquest, by dint of making everyone more prosperous.
From the late 19th century, Arab populations grew and prospered where Jews settled (Tel Aviv, Hebron, Jerusalem) and remained stagnant and poor where they didn't (Gaza, Nablus, Nazareth). Many Arabs found the presence of Jews a great advantage. Thus the Palestinian diaspora is among the best-educated and most competent in the Arab world—and under Israeli rule (the notorious "occupation") the West Bank was one of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world in the 1980s.
And yet, many Palestinians have resisted adopting Israeli values. They have been unwilling to abandon their culture of false pride and false honor.
Other Palestinians, however, found Jewish economic leadership an unbearable blow to their pride. Said one to the British Peel Commission in 1936: "You say we are better off: you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it, and I do not care how poor it is if I am only master of it."
Israeli success does not merely give the lie to Jared Diamond’s theories about the influence of geography. It has shamed Palestinians and other Arabs. Seeing Israeli success they cannot rationally blame their failures on geography.
To sustain their culture of false pride and to continue to wallow in their own self-pride Palestinian politicians have chosen to help their people to feel better about failure by dedicating themselves to the destruction of what the Israelis have built.
Of course, Landes continues, many capable and talented Palestinian businessmen would happily function and even thrive if they lived in a different culture. He suggests that a cultural revolution could unleash their entrepreneurial spirit, as it did in China in the 1970s and 1980s.
America can promote such culture change, but only if it recognizes the truth in Mitt Romney’s statements. Attacking Romney’s statement means pulling the rug out from under those Palestinians who would thrive in a better culture.
In Landes’ words:
So when Westerners denounce Mr. Romney for his "gaffe," they actually do a great disservice to the Palestinians. Palestinian entrepreneurs and administrators—the ones who wept when Yasser Arafat rejected Israel's peace offer at Camp David in 2000—know well the costs to their people's well-being engendered by their political leaders.
Had Western observers criticized Mr. Erekat for his silly and dishonest response, they might have strengthened those Palestinians who could lead their people to the promised land of independence and prosperity. Instead, they threw the real progressives, the ones who could put an end to the occupation by good faith negotiations, under the bus.