As a Jew of Iraqi descent living in Israel, I was taught to take prideful note of the role that my ethnic group played in building the country.
”You see that bridge?” my uncle would ask me as we watched footage of a Tel Aviv sports event. “An Iraqi Jew built it.” And when the TV switched to a commercial for an appliance company, my uncle, who left Baghdad in 1943 at the age of 16, would say: “The owner of that company is Iraqi. Do you see how he built it from nothing?”
The message was that Iraqi Jews are, well, superior, in everything from building bridges to marketing refrigerators to cooking kuba. As a universalist but also an enthusiastic consumer of my aunt’s Friday night dinners, I found the last part of my uncle’s theory difficult to refute.
I am less persuaded by Mitt Romney’s statement during his recent visit to Israel, where he attributied the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian economies to cultural differences.
Romney compared Israel’s gross domestic product per capita of $31,000 with the Palestinian GDP per capita of $1,600 (Romney quoted it incorrectly as being $10,000), reportedly noting that “culture makes all the difference.”
I applaud the phenomenal economic growth that Israel has experienced in the past 64 years, propelling its per capita GDP beyond even Western European countries like Greece and Portugal. The energy and creativity that has fueled the Israeli high-tech sector, pharmaceutical industry and tourism growth would make my uncle proud (although he would bristle at any attempt to give credit to non-Iraqis). As a sovereign country in control of its borders and trade policies, Israel has had the freedom to develop its economy, and the financial support of Diaspora Jewish communities and American foreign aid has been a significant contributing factor.
We should allow our Palestinian neighbors the same freedom. It is impossible to discuss the economy of the Palestinian territory, which has been under Israeli control since 1967, without discussing Israeli policies and especially restrictions on freedom of movement that have shaped the possibilities available to small business owners, factory workers, farmers and professionals.