As most commentators have acknowledged, Romney was probably correct to question whether the Brits were completely prepared to host the Olympics. After all, the Brits themselves had been raising these questions. Saying something that might be construed as unflattering when one is a visitor is not altogether diplomatic. In the larger scheme of things, it will probably not matter much, yet it was an example of excessive candor.
The Israeli situation, however, was different. Exactly what happened is difficult to determine because what Romney said was behind closed doors. At minimum, we know that he attributed Israeli economic and political successes to the state’s Jewish culture. It is not clear, however, whether Romney explicitly implicated Arab culture in Palestinian failures. In any event, several Palestinians objected to what they characterized as racist insults. The mainstream media then picked this up as another specimen of Romney’s alleged penchant for misstatements.
I was immediately reminded of an earlier media feeding frenzy. This concerned Ronald Reagan, who had the temerity to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Pundits from the left instantly jumped on this remark as demonstrating the Gipper’s foreign policy inexperience.
Reagan supposedly undermined the possibility of coming to terms with the Russians with his shoot-from-the-hip style. But we know how that one turned out, don’t we? The same may well come to pass regarding Romney’s Israeli interlude.
The fact is that what Romney said was absolutely true and that well-informed Palestinians know it. Whatever is articulated for public consumption, the chief difference between the Israelis and the Palestinians is culture. This must be so since neither community has more or less talent, or commands greater or lesser physical resources.
What separates them is how they think and feel. Aside from their Jewish heritage, which places an emphasis on education and business prowess, the Israelis are largely Western in their attitudes. They have inherited the free market and democratic mentalities pioneered in Europe and the United States.
These ways of looking at the world have been translated into the dynamic Israeli economy and the freewheeling Israeli political system. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are trapped in a medieval mindset. They are still trying to revive the glories of a long defunct Caliphate.
The problem is that cultures are difficult to change. Because they are deeply entrenched and highly emotional, they tend to be conservative. Consequently, merely explaining a problem to people does not persuade them to make necessary modifications.
We see this in the United States with respect to the culture of poverty. People who are born into our underclass have difficulty picking themselves up by their bootstraps. They may, for instance, be told that education is the ticket to social mobility; nevertheless they spurn educational opportunities.
We sought radical improvements by way of a War on Poverty, yet despite spending trillions little changed. In the Mideast the Arabs have not even acknowledged the nature of their difficulty. They are intent on blaming their distress on the Jews.
Romney’s bringing up the subject of culture will probably not alter this. But then neither did Reagan’s allusions to an evil empire bring immediate reforms. What will occur in the long run is difficult to know. The probability that it will be something good is, however, low, and will remain so as long as people continue to fool themselves about what is wrong.
Romney’s words may prove a useful beginning. If they, in fact, constituted a gaff, they were one for which we may eventually be thankful.
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D., is professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.