In a speech to wealthy donors in Tel Aviv over the weekend, Romney praised Israel’s “economic vitality” compared to the poor Palestinian economy. He attributed the economic success of the nation to a strong culture:
I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things. …
As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.
Palestinians took offense at Romney’s remarks, interpreting them to mean that Israel had the superior culture, and claimed that their economic development has been stymied by continued Israeli occupation. In response, the Romney campaign claimed the statement was “grossly mischaracterized” and chided the press for omitting the candidate’s full remarks. To contextualize Romney’s comparison — which actually underestimated the disparity between Israel’s GDP of US$31,000 to the West Bank and Gaza’s US$1,500 — the campaign offered his next line as proof that he did not target Palestinians: “And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.”
This defense underscores the fundamental tone-deafness of the comparison. To give the full context, Romney discussed two economic theories, one attributing success to the physical characteristics of the land, while another attributes it to culture. He argued that the successes of Israel, the U.S. and Chile can be attributed to strong cultures; conversely, the geographically similar Palestinian, Ecuadorean and Mexican economies are the result of a poorer culture.
The “culture” argument doesn’t merely imply that poorer economies somehow deserve their fate due to an inferior value system. It makes generalizations about the characters of both populations. Abraham Diskin, a political scientist professor from Tel Aviv pointed out, “You can understand this remark in several ways. You can say it’s anti-Semitic. ‘Jews and money.’”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) defended Romney in a news conference: “I am sure that Gov. Romney was not talking about difference in cultures, or difference in anybody superior or inferior.” McCain chalked up the difference in economies to regulations, saying, “It has nothing to do with culture.”