A Dose of Nuance: Culture matters, Dr. Erekat

Was Mr. Romney really a “racist” to point out that Israel’s success is not an accident?

Erekat521 (photo credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
(photo credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
Before memories of Mitt Romney’s visit to Jerusalem fade for good, it’s worth reviewing once again what was perhaps the most discussed moment of his pilgrimage. “As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation,” Romney told a small group assembled with him, “I recognize the power of… culture.”
Palestinians and pundits world-over went ballistic. Saeb Erekat, formerly a Palestinian negotiator at Oslo and now adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, complained, “This man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation.” Not only did Romney not understand the region, he said, but his remarks were “a racist statement.” Romney, in fact, was being harder on the Palestinians than even the Israelis were. “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves,” said Erekat. “I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”
Really, Dr. Erekat, no one in Israel is willing to speak about cultural superiority? Well, I’m no Israeli official, but here goes.
There is, indeed, such a thing as cultural superiority, and I, for one, think it’s racist to be unwilling to speak about it. It’s racist to pretend that you’re living up to your potential when you’re not. And because I’m no racist, I’ll allow myself the liberty of pointing out why you’re wrong.
Was Mr. Romney really a “racist” to point out that Israel’s success is not an accident? I think not. Israel’s economy is the product of an open-minded commitment to education. Israeli education needs to improve, but still, consider the culture of the Middle East. In Egypt, one study suggests, 45 percent of women are illiterate; in Israel the figure is about 4%. Is Egyptian female illiteracy also a result of the occupation? Or is it the result of culture? Am I a racist for pointing to those numbers?
Or consider universities. Israel, a tiny country with a tiny budget, ranks far beyond all Arab and other Muslim countries, including those of the Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia, which have virtually limitless assets. In a 2009 ranking of the world’s top universities, the Hebrew University ranked No. 102 (shortly thereafter, it climbed to No. 57 on the strength of an award received by a professor of mathematics), Tel Aviv University was No. 114, and the Technion (Israel’s equivalent of MIT) ranked 132.
Yet in contrast, in that same study, there was not a single university in any Muslim country anywhere that made it into the top 250. King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia ranked highest among them at 266, and it was followed by the National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan… at No. 350!
Others are ranked far lower. Is the failure of the Muslim world (parts of which have no budgetary constraints at all) to produce even one single worldclass university the result of the occupation? Or is this a matter of culture? Is one a racist to point this out?
Or what about Fareed Zakaria, himself a Muslim, who had this to say: “In the last 50 years, the West progressed and parts of the non-Western world also began modernizing… [But] the Arab world stayed stuck in primitive political and social arrangements. Arab politics is not culturally unique; it is just stuck in a time warp.” Is Zakaria a Muslim racist?
And then there’s Bernard Lewis, probably the greatest living scholar of the Middle East, who has argued that claiming that the backwardness of Arab societies is the result of Western imperialism is no longer convincing: “Many regions have undergone the impact of the West and suffered a similar loss of economic self-sufficiency, of cultural authenticity, and in some parts also of political independence. But some time has passed since Western domination ended in all these regions, including the Middle East. In some of them, notably in east and south Asia, the resurgent peoples of the region have begun to meet and beat the West on its own terms – in commerce and industry, in the projection of political and even military power, and, in many ways most remarkable of all, in the acceptance and internalization of Western achievement, notably in science. The Middle East still lags behind.”
I guess you’ll claim that Lewis is also a racist? Dr. Erekat, not every criticism leveled at you or at the Palestinians is racist.
Some of it is just, well, true. Obviously, living under Israeli rule doesn’t help.
But if I were advising you, here’s what I’d suggest. Stop trying to figure out how to destroy Israel. It’s not going to work, and it’s just going to mire all of us in endless, painful conflict. Instead of trying to destroy us, admit it – you’d like to be like us. You, too, would like to see your people thrive after its losses in 20th century. You, too, would like your people to have a democratic, economically robust, independent country.
So do what we did. Treasure your heritage, but open yourselves up to the wisdom of the West. Honor your traditions, but make space for women at the top echelons of your society.
Stay out of people’s bedrooms and let them make their own decisions about how to live their lives. Create a free press, and guarantee freedom of association.
Stop jailing people for what they think or write. Outlaw family honor killing, and when it happens, instead of looking the other way, arrest the perpetrators and throw away the key. Stop terrorizing Christians (who are among your best-educated citizens) in Bethlehem.
This isn’t racism. It’s just honesty.
You don’t help the Palestinians when you accuse everyone who’s critical of you of being a racist. You just avoid dealing with the hard work of nationbuilding.
The Palestinians need to decide that they want to escape the rut into which Islam has slid, and instead, to lead the way toward a renewed, open and moderate form of your ancient tradition.
We Jews have done it, and are still working at it, and you could, too.
You want to end the occupation? State publicly, in Arabic: the Jews have a right to a state, and the Palestinians will live next door to them in peace, seeking not to destroy them, but to emulate them.
Do that, and the next time Romney comes to town, he’ll see plenty on your side of the line to praise. Until then, please don’t call us racist. Just get to work and build your society. If you’re interested, by the way, my new book has lots more to say about this. Drop me a brief email, and I’ll happily send you a copy.
I’ll even write you a nice inscription.
For, after all, I’m really not a racist.
The writer is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His book, Saving Israel, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. This column is based on his next book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, being published this month.