Despite Rachel Shabi’s claims, political culture does affect social and economic outcomes

A guest post by Gidon Ben-Zvi, who blogs at Jerusalem State of Mind

As it turns out, Mitt Romney – and, of course, the rich Jewish donors who support him – are racist.

The presumptive Republican presidential candidate has invoked the wrath of Palestinian officials for suggesting that Israel’s culture is superior to the Palestinians.

By claiming that Israel’s economic prosperity is due in part to culture and “the hand of providence”, Romney is apparently buying into a “… standard-issue, superiority-complex racism,” according to  CiF contributor Rachel Shabi’s latest piece, ‘Mitt Romney’s insult-the-world tour excels on picking on the Palestinians‘, July 31.

Shabi sums things up by writing that “…Romney thinks that Palestinians are screwed because Israelis have a better culture and a better god.”

The sad fact is that much of the Muslim and Arab world is in a state of economic malaise—fueled by high unemployment, massive illiteracy and anemic GDPs. These societies are in the vice-like grip of a cultural hostility toward religious freedom and pluralism . As a result, the potential of  such nations is shackled.

 It can’t be denied that many of the countries with the worst records on religious freedom – Burma, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, the Maldives, North Korea, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, etc. – also have terrible economies.

And the importance of freedom of conscience to the stability and economic well-being of the state is based on historical precedent. Rising prosperity across Europe during the 17th century had a significant impact on religious mentalities. The flourishing of trade and rising living standards occurred alongside the rapid growth of religious sects, undercutting the fear that spiritual disunity invited divine judgment. Whereas prosperity and toleration had once been seen as mortal enemies, the economic dynamism of religiously tolerant states provided a new paradigm: prosperity and religious freedom were now seen as twins.

Yet, despite this strong, documented correlation, Ms Shabi insists on blaming the economic plight of the Palestinian people on “… Israeli restrictions on access to markets and to natural resources [that] continue to be a prerequisite for the expansion of the Palestinian private sector.”

To back up her assertion, Ms Shabi rolls out the big guns: World Bank and IMF. Yet citing these organizations is quite problematic.

The World Bank has had a tendency over the years to base its reports on the state of the Palestinian economy on the claims and allegations of organizations with a long history of one-sided and inaccurate reporting, reflecting political and ideological bias in relation to Israel. Some World Bank reports about the Palestinian economy contain no original research by this august body.

Regarding the IMF, Ms Shabi must have forgotten that it was Israel that in early 2012 sought a $1 billion IMF bridging loan for the Palestinian Authority, but  was turned down because the organization feared setting a precedent of making IMF money available to non-state entities.

As it turns out, it is in Israel’s own national interest to avoid the security deterioration that could accompany a financial collapse of the government in the West Bank.

Now, Ms Shabi is correct in her assumption that the Palestinian economy could get a boost if restrictions on the movements of Palestinians were removed.

However, Ms Shabi’s depiction of a victimized Palestinian populace is grossly lacking in historical context. Like any other country, Israel must balance humanitarian and economic needs with the very real security concerns of its citizens. Barriers, checkpoints and other limitations on mobility are an unfortunate yet vital necessity. 

Until the security dynamics significantly change, however, the best that can be hoped for is the easing of restrictions on movement – dependent, of course, on the diminution of security threats. And Israel has made concerted efforts to oblige.

In 2010, for example, Israel issued more than 651,000 entry permits to West Bank residents wishing to travel to Israel, an increase of 42 percent over 2009. In 2009-10, Israel removed more than 200 roadblocks and reduced the number of manned checkpoints from 41 to 14.

Ms Shabi’s commentary is one part ‘blame Israel’ rhetoric and one part ‘culture of victimization’ doublespeak.

For decades, it’s been an article of faith around Western halls of academe to view the local populations of the Middle East Arabs as the hapless victims of alien encroachment, and to blame the region’s endemic malaise on Western political and cultural imperialism.

Such a warped worldview does a terrible injustice to Palestinians and other oppressed peoples, who must live under the yoke of tin pan dictators and autocrats who dismiss political and religious freedoms as ethnocentric luxuries.

Until a culture of prosperity grounded in freedom takes root across the Arab and Muslim world, hundreds of millions of people will continue to wallow in poverty and intellectual stagnation. The human need to blame someone for this horrific fate will perpetuate the culture of outrage towards the ‘other’ that has been molded and used by corrupt leaders to channel their citizens’ justifiable rage outward.

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