On Monday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney caused a furor when he told a group of Republican donors in Israel that “culture makes all the difference” when it comes to a country’s economic success, and that it was “culture” that explained the economic disparity between Israeli society and Palestinian society.
The remarks drew a flurry of criticism, including from the Obama White House, which didn’t miss an opportunity to chide Romney. “One of the challenges of being an actor on the international stage, particularly when you’re traveling to such a sensitive part of the world, is that your comments are very closely scrutinized, for meaning, for nuance, for motivation,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat was more blunt, calling the comment “racist.”
Several major news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post and CNN, ran highly critical news reports and opinion articles about the incident. One scholar cited in Romney’s remarks, Jared Diamond, wrote in the New York Times that his views had been misrepresented by the Republican candidate.
But Republicans were undeterred by the criticism, instead rushing to Romney’s defense and arguing in a slew of articles that the Palestinians do in fact suffer from a stifling political and economic culture.
“Every sane person” knows Romney’s comments “to be true,” argued John Podhoretz in the New York Post.
“Romney said Israel has done better than the areas under Palestinian control because Israeli culture is healthier. That’s not only true,” Podhoretz wrote, “it’s a necessary thing to say – because the refusal to say it and accept it contributes to the continuing immiseration and unfreedom of the Palestinians themselves.”
Author and Romney campaign foreign policy adviser Dan Senor told NPR that Romney “was simply saying that there’s no question there were certain choices Israeli society has made over the years – protecting freedom of speech, protecting free enterprise, celebrating entrepreneurialism and entrepreneurs – that have contributed to economic success.”
According to Max Boot, a defense analyst and journalist, “there was nothing offensive – or particularly novel – in Romney’s observation… [Romney’s] words could have been drawn from the UN’s Arab Human Development Reports, written by Arab intellectuals, which have reached damning conclusions about the lack of freedom, education, women’s rights, and other factors holding back the Arab world.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens praised Romney, writing that he was “not prepared to give Palestinians an automatic pass for their failure to do something with the political and economic opportunities they’ve been given. Israeli success, in [Romney’s] mind, is earned—and so is Palestinian failure.”
In an oped disseminated by the right-wing Zionist Organization of America primarily to Jewish audiences, the organization’s leaders argued that there was nothing racist in Romney’s remarks.
“There was… no reference in Governor Romney’s comparison of Israel and the Palestinians to religion or ethnicity, let alone race,” they wrote. Rather, they argued, the cultural divide is real.
“Israel has a culture of private enterprise, research, innovation and technological development. In contrast, the PA has been bedeviled from its inception with crony capitalism, endemic corruption, distortions of the market and other malpractices which also affect its economy in drastic ways, not least in the loss of foreign investor confidence.”
It was unclear if the flurry of criticism and the subsequent spirited defense of Romney’s remark have hurt or helped the candidate. Some Republican commentators, including Podhoretz in the Post, suggested that most Americans agreed with Romney’s comment, and the presumed gaffe would only help his election prospects.
However, a Google search for the terms “Romney” and “culture” offered a long list of thousands of headlines, of which more than three-quarters of the top-ranked articles were highly critical of Romney. As the Google search engine ranks links according to their popularity, both in terms of readership and how often they are linked from other sites, this suggests that the majority of readers who read about the incident online read a critical account.
For his part, Romney himself weighed in on the subject Tuesday in an oped in the conservative National Review, explaining his belief that a “culture of freedom” is a key factor for economic success.
In the case of America, he wrote, “one feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom…. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty. It is the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity.”
The United States did not always enjoy this culture of freedom, he added, arguing that through the battles against slavery and for civil rights, “we changed our ‘culture’ and vastly improved it.”
In a retort to accusations of racism from Palestinian officials, he wrote that all peoples, “Israelis, Palestinians, Poles, Russians, Iranians, Americans, all human beings deserve to enjoy the blessings of a culture of freedom and opportunity.”
Romney made the original remarks during a three-country tour of Britain, Israel and Poland meant to showcase his foreign policy acumen and shore up poll numbers that have been consistently lagged behind incumbent President Barack Obama.