Normally, human beings want to improve themselves. They want to learn and to become wiser as they get older. They want to be better at whatever they are doing. They see the course of their lives in terms of betterment, certainly not of decline.
For that reason we all tend to emulate our betters. The middle manager will adopt, at times, unconsciously, the habits of senior management. The rookie will go to school by studying the veteran. The high school ball player will imitate the college star.
We understand that this is normal behavior. We would find it strange, if not pathological, for a high school player to refuse to learn from those who are better than him, but instead copy the habits of a little leaguer. If you want to get better at your job or in school you would certainly not emulate the behavior of those who are worse than you.
And yet, that is the story Bret Stephens told in his Wall Street Journal column yesterday. He was pondering why so many peoples have embraced the mental habit of anti-Semitism, to their detriment. There is no advantage, and no gain to anti-Semitism, but there is certainly a downside when you refuse to adopt the good habits of people who are doing better than you are.
As I have said here, on occasion: in the Middle East, Israel is the solution, not the problem. Israel is the solution for nations that can barely feed their people, no less compete in the modern world. Why have they failed? One reason is that they are consumed with anti-Semitism.
Stephens opens with the example of the Egyptian judo fighter who refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent after an Olympic match. Later, the fighter was sent home in disgrace by the Egyptian delegation. This signaled that the powers that be in Egypt are trying to overcome the hatred that has been instilled in the minds of most Egyptians today.
Stephens notes that a massive New York Times Magazine study of what has gone wrong in the Arab Middle East, a study that gave pride of place to colonialism, imperialism and oppression, gave no real consideration to the fact that anti-Semitism has prevented the Arab nations of the area from working with Israel and from trying to improve the living conditions of their people. The Palestinian Authority especially has expended all of its energy and treasure in an effort to kill Jews. It has immiserated its people for a futile, destructive cause.
Blaming the Jews is easier than reflecting on a failed strategy. It is certainly easier than transforming your culture.
To be fair, transforming a culture is hardly an easy task. If we say that culture X has been more successful than culture Y, we might also consider that culture X has certain habits that culture Y finds abhorrent. It might say to itself that it is better not to change than to adopt some of culture X's bad habits.
You know that Arab nations responded to the creation of Israel by expelling all of their Jews. No one paid it much mind, but we can still ask: How did that one work out?
Yet the fact remains that over the past 70 years the Arab world got rid of its Jews, some 900,000 people, while holding on to its hatred of them. Over time the result proved fatal: a combination of lost human capital, ruinously expensive wars, misdirected ideological obsessions, and an intellectual life perverted by conspiracy theory and the perpetual search for scapegoats. The Arab world’s problems are a problem of the Arab mind, and the name for that problem is anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is hardly a new phenomenon. It has consistently produced deleterious effects for those who have practiced it in earnest.
Stephens quotes an article by Paul Johnson, in which he explains the price of this madness:
Spain expelled its Jews with the Alhambra Decree of 1492. The effect, Mr. Johnson noted, “was to deprive Spain (and its colonies) of a class already notable for the astute handling of finance.” In czarist Russia, anti-Semitic laws led to mass Jewish emigration as well as an “immense increase in administrative corruption produced by the system of restrictions.” Germany might well have won the race for an atomic bomb if Hitler hadn’t sent Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller into exile in the U.S.
How has the Arab world been doing since it went to war against Israel? In Stephens’s words:
Anti-Semitism makes the world seem easy. In doing so, it condemns the anti-Semite to a permanent darkness.
Today there is no great university in the Arab world, no serious indigenous scientific base, a stunted literary culture. In 2015 the U.S. Patent Office reported 3,804 patents from Israel, as compared with 364 from Saudi Arabia, 56 from the United Arab Emirates, and 30 from Egypt. The mistreatment and expulsion of Jews has served as a template for the persecution and displacement of other religious minorities: Christians, Yazidis, the Baha’ i.
Hatred of Israel and Jews has also deprived the Arab world of both the resources and the example of its neighbor. Israel quietly supplies water to Jordan, helping to ease the burden of Syrian refugees, and quietly provides surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to Egypt to fight ISIS in the Sinai. But this is largely unknown among Arabs, for whom the only permissible image of Israel is an Israeli soldier in riot gear, abusing a Palestinian.
Refusing to learn from your neighbor’s success is a formula for failure. But then, those cultures that refuse to improve themselves tend to deflect the blame onto those others that have failed. Were it not for Israel’s success the Palestinian people would not feel like such failures. Thus, the solution to the problem is not to succeed but to destroy whatever your neighbors have built. It’s called deconstruction.
Successful nations make a point of trying to learn from their neighbors. The Arab world has been taught over generations only to hate theirs.
This may be starting to change. In the past five years the Arab world has been forced to face up to its own failings in ways it cannot easily blame on Israel. The change can be seen in the budding rapprochement between Jerusalem and Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which might yet yield tactical and strategic advantages on both sides, particularly against common enemies such as ISIS and Iran.
The problem is, it makes no sense. If it is normal for human beings to imitate their betters, what causes people to do just the opposite?
We see it in America where people who are doing worse refuse to adopt the habits of people who do better. According to the laws of multiculturalism, they believe that all cultures are of equal value and thus that their own, despite not having anything of great consequence, is just as good as those that have achieved great successes. Besides, those who have been disproportionately successful must have cheated and robbed their way to the top.
After all, what was the hubbub about the Tiger Mom about if not that her way of bringing up her children seemed to be better than what was passing for standard American childrearing? If that was true, it did not merely mean that we should get over the self-esteemist nonsense that had pervaded the educational system and even to overcome the absurdities of the Common Core, but that American parents needed to become more focused and more disciplined, less coddling and more rigorous.
And how many American parents declared that they would not do it because they did not want their children to become so robotic that they could no longer enjoy Spring Break.
When others have garnered more success you declare that the system has been rigged or that the values promoted by the system are false.
Still, the most competitive public high schools in New York are now around 70% Asian. The best universities have instituted quotas lest their classes be majority Asian.
Clinging to a culture that has failed is one of the great stories of our time. It does not make any sense, except perhaps in the sense that one is terrified of betraying one’s ancestors. Then again, learning how to function differently requires considerable time, effort and exertion. And it will make you look like a sellout.