Cultures of Dependency

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Conversations at the culture café range widely and often generate heat. The other day, one of the café’s regulars, Naomi, was excited about the possibility that finally, or as she put it exuberantly, “finally, after 70 years!” there’s a chance that Palestinian refugees could be liberated from the culture of dependency that has imprisoned them for generations.

According to news reports, the U.S. is planning to reduce its financial support for UNRWA, the U.N. agency that maintains the economic dependency of Palestinian “refugees” all over the Middle East (outlined in an earlier post). As we understand it, a plan under consideration will give the foreign aid currently going to UNRWA to host countries like Jordan, where Palestinians reside, with the goal of moving them out of refugee camps to become productive citizens integrated into the larger society.

Although the transition would no doubt be difficult, Naomi opined, in the long run, it was surely healthy for Palestinians to get on with their lives, just like millions of their cohorts – other refugees around the world  displaced from their homes by wars in the mid 20th century – had done.

“Culture of dependency” is not a uniquely Palestinian phenomenon. Such cultures exist in Israel among Haredim, and in the U.S. where there are deep pockets of urban and rural poverty — and probably elsewhere, as well. Although each has a unique history and was shaped by different politics, economics and values, cultures of dependency share the following in common: shuttering of work opportunities on the one hand, and a sustaining source of government and charitable funds on the other.

Despite the dramatic differences between them, there are some dynamics common to all cultures of dependency. They tend to be very insular, distrustful and hostile to outsiders, and deeply connected, mutually supportive to their own families and clans.

Cultures of dependency also tend to develop counter-cultural (i.e., counter to the larger society’s) values. They may develop distinctive political, social, or religious ideas and practices.

Poverty and economic dependence encourage a sense of resentment we might label a “bite the hand that feeds you” mentality. Resentment (of the giver) chases entitlement (to more support), creating a field of discontent ripe for exploitation by political leaders, both within and outside of the community.

It isn’t easy to change cultures of dependency. The status quo serves many interests, who mount strong resistance to the threat of change.

But the effort to change them is ultimately worthwhile. We will all be better off in a world with cultures of self-sufficiency.

About the Author
Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D. is a psychologist, television commentator and podcast host of the Van Leer Series on Ideas with Renee Garfinkel
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