Mitt Romney initiated a robust debate with his comment that “culture” distinguished Israeli economic success and Palestinian economic stagnation. While Saeb Erekat’s labeling of Romney as a “racist” may be premature — I think Romney is generally more klutz than putz — it does demonstrate his insensitivity or perhaps tone deafness to what words can mean. More disturbing, however, is how some Jews have risen to Romney’s defense, viewing this as an opening to further justify the extent to which the occupation is, as Yesha Council leader Dani Dayan put it, “not the problem.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on August 5, Richard Landes wrote a defense of Romney’s remarks. Most of the op-ed repeats common themes, e.g., the Arab world’s corrupt leadership, squandering petrodollars, etc. No mention is made of the impact of colonialism on the Arab world and how colonialism cultivated precisely that kind of leadership. No mention is made of the way the US and the Soviets used their satellites to further their own self-interest in the Cold War, or the way the US propped up the Saudi monarch while refusing to support popular resistance.
This is surely not to say the Arab world has not made and continues to make many mistakes that damage their own self-interest. But the omission of any contributing factors from the West is not up to par with Landes’s scholarly credentials.
What really disturbs me about Landes’s essay is what is largely implied, both in it and perhaps in Romney. That is, there is something in Jewish culture lacking in Arab culture that enables one to succeed and the other to stagnate. Landes writes that Israel “rose to the top of the developed world in a century on culture alone.”
What is this Jewish culture Landes’ refers to? By Jewish culture Landes means secular Zionist culture and by secular Zionist culture he must mean Ashkenazi culture. And by Ashkenazi culture he really means Western European Protestant culture. The culture of the Mizrahi Jews before Zionism and the culture of the Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) were largely commensurate with the culture of the countries in which they lived.
One can see how they were both treated by the westernized “cultured” Zionists when they immigrated to Mandatory Palestine and then Israel. Cases of Yemenite children being taken from their parents to be raised in cultured Zionist youth villages have been documented in scholarly studies. Discrimination against Mizrahi Jews is well-known and remains widespread in Israeli society. My son worked for Moshe’s Movers in Manhattan in the 2000s. He told me that the euphemism his Israeli co-workers used for blacks was “Sephardim.”
But let’s explore this further. Much of anti-Semitic literature in pre-emancipated Europe claimed that Jews were backward because of their religion/culture. The fact that many lived in ghettos with limited resources and opportunities for employment did not seem to be a factor (hint hint). Theodor Herzl in his “Judenstaadt” and later the Israeli historian and sociologist Jacob Katz noted that Jews in the ghetto developed certain economic talents because of their limited opportunities (i.e., they could not become landed gentry, etc.) that enabled them to prosper exponentially when they were emancipated and the industrial revolution shifted the European economy away from its agrarian roots.
Western European, largely secularized Jews in the nineteenth century looked at the Ostjuden as “uncultured” and wed to superstitious religious practices that stifled their economic success. One can find even harsher language referring to these Ostjuden as lazy, slothful, and uncouth (look at the stereotype of Tevya the Milkman created by the “cultured” Shalom Aleichem who chose to live in Moscow and speak only Russian to his family). The language of the Ostjuden, Yiddish, was considered uncultured, base, and ugly. The negative rhetoric against the Ostjuden was resisted by Martin Buber and other Jewish romantics in the early twentieth century but the view of the Ostjuden as “Orientals” (read: Arabs) remained.
When Adolph Harnack (1851-1930) published his “What is Christianity?” in 1900 he echoed the claim of earlier Protestants such as Julius Wellhausen that the reason Jews were so unsuccessful was that they remained devoted to a primitive religion/culture. In response, Leo Baeck, a student of the great neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen, wrote a response entitled “The Essence of Judaism” (1905) that argued, among other things, that it was Judaism and not Christianity that was the true “ethical monotheism,” that is, the true religion of Kant. This ethical monotheism was not the traditional Judaism of the Ostjuden or Mizrahim but the progressive German Judaism known as Reform.
I write all this simply to say that when Landes refers to Jewish/Zionist “culture” he really means Enlightenment Western European Protestant culture that Jews/ Zionists absorbed and then cultivated for their own nationalistic ends. His defense of Romney’s claim about Palestinian/Arab “culture” is a simple repetition of anti-Semitic tropes and Western European Jewish negative stereotypes of Ostjuden and Mizrahi Jews. His comment about Arab culture “emphasizing rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority” could be lifted from various Western Jewish denigrations of the Ostjuden or negative appraisals of Hasidim.
When he writes “Arab populations grew and prospered where Jews [I would say Zionists] settled, and remained stagnant and poor where they didn’t,” he echoes many comments made by Zionists about the Yemenite communities who settled in Israeli development towns.
In his “Jew/Arab: History of the Enemy” Gil Anidjar convincingly shows how Christian anti-Semitic stereotypes made Jews into Arabs. This was not only true of Christian anti-Semites but many Ashkenazi Jewish depictions of the Mizrahim. Lamentably, Richard Landes has continued this unfortunate Ashkenazi-centric tradition.