Just how racist against Palestinians is Mitt Romney? According to Current TV host Cenk Uygur, “deeply racist.” Salon-partner site Mondoweiss similarly accused the presumptive Republican presidential nominee of espousing “painfully oblivious racism.” Saeb Erekat, senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, deemed Romney simply a “racist.”
What grave offense did Romney commit to merit such opprobrium? Speaking to donors in Jerusalem, he ascribed the success of the Israeli economy to the country’s strong entrepreneurial culture—implicitly deriding Palestinian culture as inadequate by comparison. “Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said. “As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and you 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 a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality.”
It is true that Romney made no mention of Israeli occupation as a cause of Palestinian stagnation—a crucial and highly problematic omission. But is his claim, however inadequate, prima facie racist? Before answering, we might want to consider a person who made exactly the same argument almost a century ago: Albert Einstein.
Einstein disdained all forms of racial discrimination, having experienced its effects firsthand many times in the form of anti-Semitism. Perhaps most infamously, the physicist’s groundbreaking scientific theories were derided by German Nobel laureates Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark as “Jüdische Physik” in contradistinction to the superior “Deutsche Physik.” Spurred by such ordeals, Einstein would fight against anti-Semitism for much of his later life, most notably through his Zionist advocacy. But his battle against racism extended beyond Einstein’s own community.
Already in 1931, while still living in Berlin, he penned a letter of support to African-American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. It was printed in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, with an introduction that recapped Einstein’s achievements and noted that “he hates race prejudice because as a Jew he knows what it is.”
Einstein brought his passion for racial equality to America, where he befriended the residents of the largely segregated African-American community of Princeton and allied himself with the African-American actor and activist Paul Robeson. He inveighed harshly against “the treatment of the Negro,” which he called “the worst disease under which the society of our nation suffers,” adding that “everyone who freshly learns of this state of affairs … feels not only the injustice, but the scorn of the principle of the Fathers who founded the United States that ‘all men are created equal.’ ”
Yet in a largely overlooked September 1930 conversation with a Russian rabbi and personal friend named Chaim Tchernowitz, Einstein expressed sentiments highly similar to the ones Mitt Romney articulated last week in Jerusalem. Tchernowitz recorded the exchange–which took place at Einstein’s summer home in Caputh, Berlin—in his Hebrew memoir, Masekhet Zikhronot. There, he recounts how the discussion turned to the question of the Jews in Palestine and their surrounding Arab neighbors. The rabbi transcribed Einstein’s thoughts as follows:
Einstein explained to me that he is universalist in his outlook in that he does not believe in differences between the races. Rather, he believes in the acculturation of individuals and nations to their surroundings and the spiritual inheritance that is acquired through education. He believes that the individual is born as a blank slate and only education can make him into anything. … For this reason, he is able to believe in the unique genius of the Jewish nation. … He believes in its future because it is an ancient nation that has absorbed the great spiritual treasure of many generations.
Einstein’s formulation is valuable because it spells out exactly how cultural explanations are distinct from racial ones. Racists argue that human behavior is determined by factors that are intrinsic and immutable. Cultural explanations of difference, on the other hand, point to things that are contingent and changeable.
Einstein explicitly proffered his cultural analysis of Jewish success not to affirm the racial thinking of his time, but to combat it. For him, the reason one nation may appear more advanced than another is not inherent racial superiority, but extrinsic advantages like education or intellectual inheritance that can be tapped into by anyone.
Put another way, racial thinking is about circumscribing human potential; cultural criticism is about unlocking it by making the tools for success available to all. Unfortunately, in recent times, accusations of racism have become so elastic that this crucial insight of Einstein’s has often been lost. For some in our excessively policed discourse, cultural criticism has become racism.
An intelligent cultural critique, far from being bigoted, can point the way toward constructive improvement. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, famously applied social, political, and economic lessons from the West to revive his crumbling country. The late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s trenchant critique of the “culture of poverty” in America posited a link between unmarried mothers, welfare dependency, and poverty among urban African-American families. Though once similarly assailed as racist, his culture-based thinking is quickly becoming conventional wisdom among social scientists and being applied to other poor communities. President Obama, in his Cairo address to the Muslim world in 2008, offered many pointed criticisms of Arab culture, censuring its disempowerment of women, suppression of personal freedom, and the corruption endemic in many Arab governments. These examples are not racist: They are honest attempts at constructive discourse based on the assumption that culture is mutable.
Whether Romney’s statement reaches this standard is up for debate. His analysis may have been right or wrong. It may prove reductive and oversimplified, or an expression of a hard truth about Palestinian culture. On this, very smart people can disagree. But for honest observers, it should not be debatable that whatever the merits of Romney’s cultural contrast between Israelis and Palestinians, it does not rise to the level of racism.
You don’t need to be an Einstein to figure this out. Just ask Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, who keeps a copy of Start-Up Nation—the book by Romney adviser Dan Senor, which the candidate cited as his source for attributing Israel’s economic success to its entrepreneurialism—on his desk. Apparently, the Palestinian prime minister thinks his people have something to learn from Israeli culture as well.
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