Monthly Archives: August 2012

Judith Butler, the Adorno Prize, and the Moral State of the “Global Left”

The following is a long version of a response to Judith Butler that will appear in various forms at other sites, including SPME. This version is here either for those who enjoy my overwrought prose, of those who find that the logic of edited versions elsewhere is interrupted by the cuts.

Judith Butler’s feelings are hurt because some professors who claim they’re for “peace in the Middle East,” have criticized her and openly called on the Adorno Committee to withdraw the Prize that they have announced would be offered to her this year, on Adorno’s birthday, 9-11. Stung by the criticism, Butler responded at the site of the notoriously anti-Israel Jewish blog, Mondoweiss. in her defense. The defense illustrates every aspect of the problem with Butler’s approach to the criticism of her work, including the folly of German intellectuals to raise her up as a heroic example.

The criticism of her receiving the Adorno prize involves the following three points: 1) Her criticism of Israel for violations of (her) moral standards is exceptionally harsh, even though she has very little to say about exceptionally harsh violations among Israel’s enemies. 2) She has taken this moral imbalance from mere rhetoric to determined action, supporting extensive and punishing academic boycotts of Israel (e.g., Kafka archive should not go to Hebrew University). And 3) she enables and encourages virulent anti-Semitism both in this participation in BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), and in identifying some of the worst offenders where that ancient hatred is concerned (Hamas and Hizbullah) as part of the “progressive, global, Left.”

Her response was a long, rambling, self-defense (2000 words) in which she systematically misrepresents the critique, and shields herself by claiming the status of a suffering victim of a vicious attack that deeply hurt her feelings.

The Problem with Today’s Intellectuals when they Think about Culture: Sloppy Symmetry

I’m in the midst of an email exchange with a number of people as a result of my pieces on culture. Part of the issue concerns the way different cultures handle honor and shame, emotions prominent in every society and every individual who ever lived. As in the political world, with the matter of libido dominandi, different cultures handle these universal feelings differently. I personally restrict honor-shame cultures proper to those societies in which it is accepted, expected, even required to shed blood for the sake of honor.

In my search for people who have handled these complex and politically charged issues, I’ve found lots of cases of good work spoiled by a sloppy kind of symmetry in which the author dare not distinguish between various cultures. Russell Jacoby, one of our more prominent intellectuals, the  Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair of Critical Theory (at least he has a sense of humor), has written a book on the roots of violence, an obvious topic of interest for me: Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present (Free Press, 2011)

Alas, the book is full of even-handed passages in which cultures far less prone to violence must be matched to depressingly violent societies, and texts of great subtlety on the subject get reduced to caricatures to “make the point.”

Enmity marks the relationship of brothers throughout the Hebrew Bible. Esau considered killing Jacob; Joseph’s brothers contemplated killing Joseph.96 “Am I my brother’s keeper?” rings out as the great rhetorical question of Western culture. (Russell Jacoby, Bloodlust, pp. 61-62).

Actually, Jacoby might have gotten away with this had he written “… throughout Genesis.” But even there, that’s not the case. In the patriarchal narratives – i.e., Abraham’s progeny of “God’s chosen,” self-control and reconciliation replace the fratricidal impulse. And while sibling rivalry is a major theme of the patriarchal narrative, there is a clear progression from the zero-sum hostilities of the first generations (Ishmael-Isaac, Esau-Jacob), explicitly made worse by parental favoritism, to the remarkable positive-sum resolution (through atonement and forgiveness) of the third generation, where all the brothers inherit the blessing (despite parental favoritism).

And the following three books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) feature probably the most exceptional and dynamic sibling collaboration in the history of world narratives: Moses and Aaron. Did Jacoby stop reading at Genesis? Or did he just want to make a point about how the fratricidal origins of civilization in which these tales, suitably reduced to their lowest denominator (sibling rivalry) offer us, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, “cogent metaphors or universally applicable tales (p. 58).” In any case he managed to profoundly misrepresent a foundational text in search of the “universal.”

Is it any surprise then, that when he gets to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he goes for the same symmetry, kin rivalries.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also is waged not between strangers but rather between kindred peoples. In the heady years after World War I, when the Arabs and the Jews sensed the possibility of independent states, the principals emphasized the kinship of their peoples. That was a moment when a defeated Ottoman Empire gave the victorious Europeans the power to divvy up the Middle East and to create new countries both for diasporan Jews and for the Arabs, who had been dominated by the Turks. Faisal Ibn Husain, who would become king of Iraq, met with Chaim Weizmann, who would become the first president of Israel. In the aftermath of the encounter, Faisal declared that “the two main branches of the Semitic family, Arabs and Jews, understood one another.” He called the Jews our “nearest relations” and “our cousins.” Of course this could be a problem.

Especially for the Arabs who pursued an alliance with their cousins the Jews, and often enough got themselves assassinated by their brothers.

“We Israelis resemble our Arab enemies in more ways than we care to know,” writes Avner Falk, an Israeli psychologist, in a book titled Fratricide in the Holy Land. Falk refers to character traits, customs, food, and dress. He reminds us that Jews and Arabs believe they descend from two biblical half brothers, Isaac and Ishmael. “From the psychological viewpoint, the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs think, feel and act like rival brothers who are involved in a fratricidal struggle.”68 He notes also that “almost half of the Israeli Jewish population came from Arab or Muslim countries” and that “many of them are culturally and linguistically Arab.”69 This does not mean that this population appreciated their Arab counterparts more than the European Jews might. Closeness has bred contempt. Sephardic Jews—at least those from the Middle East—are generally much more anti-Arab than the Ashkenazi from Europe and Russia. The assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin came from a family of Yemenite Jews and believed Rabin to be too conciliatory toward Arabs. He declared after his arrest in 1995, “I was afraid an Arab might kill him [Rabin]. I wanted Heaven to see that a Jew had done this.”70 (Jacoby, pp. 52-3).

One would not know from this account, that the degree of fratricide among Arabs is as stunningly high as it is low among Jews. Every Arab “uprising” has a rate of internecine murder equal to or higher than that of Arabs killed by outsiders (1936-39, first intifada). Not only does Jacoby get a self-critical Jew to obliterate the differences, but he focuses on one of the rare cases of fratricide among Jews (Rabin). As a result, he can cram the Israeli-Arab conflict into the same procrustean bed as all this other examples. Indeed, who knows how he’s mutilating those other cases to fit his symmetrical pattern.

I do not question Jacoby’s commitment to finding ways out of the violence against stranger and brother that we see around the world (writing a book is no mean feat). I just question whether some of the folks engaged in finding answers are sufficiently committed to the task that they will violate the politically correct dogmas of our age in order to think clearly. After all, would Chris Hedges have given him a laudatory blurb had he not put the Israelis in their place?

Nietzsche once compared thinking to diving into an ice-cold pond and seizing a stone lying on the bottom. Time to wet more than our feet.

Responding to Magid on Culture

In the ongoing debate on culture, Shaul Magid has a piece in the Times of Israel that directly criticizes my WSJ article. The commenters at the site did a fine job pointing out the lack of engagement with my discussion. I actually think this is not really Magid’s thinking so much as a twitch from the politically correct crowd that elicited the kinds of arguments/responses they’ve engaged in for years.

Here’s my fisk-response.

On Palestinian ‘culture’ and Ashkenazi-centrism

Shaul Magid, August 8, 2012

Mitt Romney initiated a robust debate with his comment that “culture” distinguished Israeli economic success and Palestinian economic stagnation. While Saeb Erekat’s labeling of Romney as a “racist” may be premature — I think Romney is generally more klutz than putz — it does demonstrate his insensitivity or perhaps tone deafness to what words can mean.

Premature? They’re ludicrous. There’s nothing in a cultural argument that’s racist. It’s the opposite of racist, just as nurture is the opposite of nature.

More disturbing, however, is how some Jews have risen to Romney’s defense, viewing this as an opening to further justify the extent to which the occupation is, as Yesha Council leader Dani Dayan put it, “not the problem.”

Anyone who listens to what the Palestinians say in Arabic knows that when they say “the occupation is the problem,” they mean the occupation by Zionists of any part of the land from the river to the sea. For them Tel Aviv is “occupied.” For anyone not committed to a political dogma that long ago left the realm of reality testing, the occupation is a symptom of a conflict that long predated 1967, not the cause.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on August 5, Richard Landes wrote a defense of Romney’s remarks. Most of the op-ed repeats common themes, e.g., the Arab world’s corrupt leadership, squandering petrodollars, etc.

Most of those were asides, taking up a tiny fraction of the argument.

No mention is made of the impact of colonialism on the Arab world and how colonialism cultivated precisely that kind of leadership.

Wow. As if, before Western colonialism, there was a different kind of leadership… maybe more “democratic.” When were there not imperialists and colonialists dominating this part of the world? The idea that Western imperialism, in its brief period of dominance here is even primarily, let alone solely responsible for the authoritarian nature of Arab political culture defies credulity… except, apparently, post-colonial credulity.

No mention is made of the way the US and the Soviets used their satellites to further their own self-interest in the Cold War, or the way the US propped up the Saudi monarch while refusing to support popular resistance.

And what indicates that that popular resistance would have led to a less authoritarian regime? Do you think that democratic (or demotic/egalitarian) is the default mode? Do you think that, before the Soviet Union and the US, or even the Ottomans, ever existed, Arab rulers were less dictatorial?

This is surely not to say the Arab world has not made and continues to make many mistakes that damage their own self-interest. But the omission of any contributing factors from the West is not up to par with Landes’s scholarly credentials.

Thank you for the back-handed compliment. Op-eds are not the place for scholarly thoroughness. But if I had to rate the contribution of Western influences (and especially American) to Middle East political culture, I’d say they’ve done more to promote democratic elements within a depressingly homogenous authoritarian, hierarchical and intolerant world. Even last month’s favorite “bad dictator,” Mubarak, promoted women’s rights and protected (somewhat) minorities. The new government looks like it will hardly be an improvement.

What really disturbs me about Landes’s essay is what is largely implied, both in it and perhaps in Romney. That is, there is something in Jewish culture lacking in Arab culture that enables one to succeed and the other to stagnate.

This gets to the core of the problem. On the one hand, it’s obviously not politically correct to say something like this, and from the point of therapeutic history (let’s not hurt the feelings of those who come out on the wrong side of this comparison), it seems to be counter-indicated (although I’m not so sure, see below). But it at least addresses an obvious disparity: Israel’s level of development and internalization of a modern ethos far outstrips those of the surrounding Arab nations. (For those who wish to claim “occupation”, just move north south or east and you’ll get non-occupied Arab states whose development trails behind Palestine.

The (invidious) disparity is there. The cultural dimensions cry out for investigation. What are you going to do, ignore them just so as not to hurt the feelings of the Arabs? Isn’t that incredibly condescending and just a bit prejudiced (racist?)?

It reminds me of the time my father had a debate with Kenneth Pomeranz at the Fairbanks center at Harvard. Pomeranz was all “therapeutic” history – China and West neck and neck until 1800, then path-dependent factors favored the West), my father was his politically incorrect self, pointing to the aspects of Chinese culture’s self-limiting traits. Afterwards, the white students went up to Pomeranz to get more material for their therapeutic narrative that would make Chinese feel better about themselves, while the Chinese students went to my father to hear more about what they needed to confront in their own culture to succeed.

Landes writes that Israel “rose to the top of the developed world in a century on culture alone.”

Yes, I do think there are elements in Jewish culture that go back to the origins (embedded in biblical narrative and law) that allow it to succeed, especially under the democratic, meritocratic, egalitarian principles of modern society. That’s true of Jews everywhere, whatever the variants within that designation.

What is this Jewish culture Landes’ refers to? By Jewish culture Landes means secular Zionist culture and by secular Zionist culture he must mean Ashkenazi culture. And by Ashkenazi culture he really means Western European Protestant culture.

Wow. As a friend noted, this reflects what Walter Cohen called a “commitment to arbitrary connectedness.” I neither meant, nor implied, anything of the sort. Obviously, Ashkenazim with a protestant ethic (eg my father: “some people work to live; others live to work”) represent the cutting edge of this modern phenomenon, but I’d never think of restricting it to those Jews.

The culture of the Mizrahi Jews before Zionism and the culture of the Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) were largely commensurate with the culture of the countries in which they lived.

I find this statement bizarre in the extreme. Maybe they were commensurate in a Marxian sense (poor, rural, primitive agricultural techniques), but certainly not with the “cultures of the countries in which they lived.” Alcohol consumption and literacy alone offer huge contrasts. I think that if you ask any North African Jews if their culture was “largely commensurate with the indigenous culture,” they would ask if you had lost your senses.

And the minute those countries began to move from prime divider to civil society and grant Jews freedom and equal status, the Jews rapidly advanced in every aspect of the new culture. The Jewish community in Iraq in the 1930s had made enormous strides, as it did throughout the Arab world (which explains the hostility of many to the adoption of modern egalitarian rules – ie no more dhimmitude); the majority of the national orchestra was Jewish. Sephardic Jews filled the professions throughout the Arab world. As for Zionism and Communism, the Ostjuden probably contributed more than the Westjuden).

One can see how they were both treated by the westernized “cultured” Zionists when they immigrated to Mandatory Palestine and then Israel. Cases of Yemenite children being taken from their parents to be raised in cultured Zionist youth villages have been documented in scholarly studies. Discrimination against Mizrahi Jews is well-known and remains widespread in Israeli society.

What can you see? I don’t understand here. What does Ashkenazi prejudice against Sephardim have to do with the cultural argument. Actually let me turn this around: You, Shaul, are invoking a very modern (and post-modern) ethos about equality and not being prejudiced. Every culture, every ethnic group, is prejudiced against others. All the groups you designate as the objects of this disdain are players in the game, filled with prejudiced attitudes towards other groups and cultures. Isn’t that the ultimate source of supersessionism?

Modern Western society alone has seen that as a problem and tried to resist it. As a result modern societies are, on the whole, much less prejudiced and engage in considerably lower levels of the bullying of the weak, than pre-modern ones. Indeed, Bernard Lewis pointed to particularly this hostility to social and gender equality in modernity as the major source of Arab failure to develop economically and militarily. If anything Israel has made enormous strides in overcoming these kinds of prejudice; sure they exist, but in comparison with either the surrounding cultures, or even with Europe and the USA, I’d say Israel has an amazingly tolerant and capacious culture.

Indeed, it seems to me that your argument is the prejudiced one, assuming I only meant secular Ashkenazim when in fact, any Jew, whatever ethnicity, and whatever combination of secular and religious. In my essay on demotic religiosity, I lay out the argument for the preconditions to both democracy and economic development, and trace this back to the demotic religiosity of the Bible, as does Joshua Berman (Created Equal).

My son worked for Moshe’s Movers in Manhattan in the 2000s. He told me that the euphemism his Israeli co-workers used for blacks was “Sephardim.”

And this shows what? How many of his co-workers were Sephardim?

But let’s explore this further. Much of anti-Semitic literature in pre-emancipated Europe claimed that Jews were backward because of their religion/culture. The fact that many lived in ghettos with limited resources and opportunities for employment did not seem to be a factor (hint hint).

This illustrates the “political” argument: just change the rules/institutions, and people will respond. My point, is that Jews had been playing by the newly adopted modern rules – literacy, meritocracy, equality before the law, rebuke/self-criticism/dispute, respect for the less powerful – for millennia. They took to modern conditions like fish to water. For other cultures, it was not the same thing.

Theodor Herzl in his “Judenstaadt” and later the Israeli historian and sociologist Jacob Katz noted that Jews in the ghetto developed certain economic talents because of their limited opportunities (i.e., they could not become landed gentry, etc.) that enabled them to prosper exponentially when they were emancipated and the industrial revolution shifted the European economy away from its agrarian roots.

This is a classic argument, espoused my most Jews today, especially the modern, assimilated ones who insist that Jews are just the same as everyone else. I actually think that the Jews’ culture before the exile enabled them to adapt to diaspora conditions, which is why they could survive thousands of years without sovereignty. All the other national and ethnic cultures of antiquity who lost their sovereignty disappeared when faced with the “necessity” of diaspora, even the great and victorious cultues like Persia, Greece and Rome. Your view misses one of the great stories of human history.

Western European, largely secularized Jews in the nineteenth century looked at the Ostjuden  as “uncultured” and wed to superstitious religious practices that stifled their economic success. One can find even harsher language referring to these Ostjuden as lazy, slothful, and uncouth (look at the stereotype of Tevya the Milkman created by the “cultured” Shalom Aleichem who chose to live in Moscow and speak only Russian to his family).

The language of the Ostjuden, Yiddish, was considered uncultured, base, and ugly. The negative rhetoric against the Ostjuden was resisted by Martin Buber and other Jewish romantics in the early twentieth century but the view of the Ostjuden as “Orientals” (read: Arabs) remained.

And yet, those Yiddish-speaking and writing Ostjuden managed to create quite a modern culture of both literature and political movements. I think you’re confusing issues here.

When Adolph Harnack (1851-1930) published his “What is Christianity?” in 1900 he echoed the claim of earlier Protestants such as Julius Wellhausen that the reason Jews were so unsuccessful was that they remained devoted to a primitive religion/culture. In response, Leo Baeck, a student of the great neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen, wrote a response entitled “The Essence of Judaism” (1905) that argued, among other things, that it was Judaism and not Christianity that was the true “ethical monotheism,” that is, the true religion of Kant.

I think he was right, and that Harnack and Wellhausen were classic proponents of an honor-shame driven supersessionism based on an invidious identity formation: We’re right cause you’re wrong, we’re up cause you’re down, our religion is the true one because yours is false. If only they had obeyed the eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s scriptures!” This is not a ne0-Kantian issue, it goes back to the first and second century CE.

This ethical monotheism was not the traditional Judaism of the Ostjuden or Mizrahim but the progressive German Judaism known as Reform.

That reminds me of the joke about the Ashkenazi lamden in the afterlife who invokes the Rambam (Maimonides). His interlocutors bring the Rambam over to judge his argument. The Rambam listens and responds, “It’s interesting, but I never had anything like that in mind.” The Ashkenazi responds to the others listening, “What, you’re going to listen to Sephard tell you what the Rambam meant?”

Who’s the prejudiced one here?

I write all this simply to say that when Landes refers to Jewish/Zionist “culture” he really means Enlightenment Western European Protestant culture that Jews/ Zionists absorbed and then cultivated for their own nationalistic ends.

I try to explain the relationships in my chapter on the Enlightenment in Heaven on Earthwhere I argue that the Enlightenment is a systematic secularization of what I call demotic religiosity (first and most sanely articulated by the Jews), in a millennial form (not often sane), which the French revolution tried to implement.

His defense of Romney’s claim about Palestinian/Arab “culture” is a simple repetition of anti-Semitic tropes and Western European Jewish negative stereotypes of Ostjuden and Mizrahi Jews.


His comment about Arab culture “emphasizing rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority” could be lifted from various Western Jewish denigrations of the Ostjuden or negative appraisals of Hasidim.

That approach will not help you understand why all the Arab universities in the world don’t come near the scholarly output of seven Israeli universities.

When he writes “Arab populations grew and prospered where Jews [I would say Zionists] settled, and remained stagnant and poor where they didn’t,” he echoes many comments made by Zionists about the Yemenite communities who settled in Israeli development towns.

In his “Jew/Arab: History of the Enemy” Gil Anidjar convincingly shows how Christian anti-Semitic stereotypes made Jews into Arabs. This was not only true of Christian anti-Semites but many Ashkenazi Jewish depictions of the Mizrahim. Lamentably, Richard Landes has continued this unfortunate Ashkenazi-centric tradition.

Good grief. I think the problem here is that for you, Shaul, any comparison between culture must be invidious, prejudiced and even racist (this is Saïd’s argument in Orientalism), and therefore the issue has nothing to do with substance (almost entirely lacking in this piece), and everything to do with my stereotyping the poor Arabs.

If there’s a case to be made that PC thinking makes us deny reality, this is exhibit A.

Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment: WSJ Op-ed

I have an op-ed at the WSJ on the Mitt-Romney-Jared Diamond-David Landes “economic development and culture” debate today. Since the WSJ won’t allow me to post it (or a variant) at my site for 30 days, I offer below:

1) Opening paragraphs of the op-ed with links (WSJ does not include links in digital edition)

2) Links for the rest of the article that was published.

3) Segments of a longer piece which I cut down to fit within op-ed dimensions (in bold)

Richard Landes: Romney Is Right on Culture and the Wealth of Nations

Mitt Romney caused a firestorm last week in Jerusalem by commenting on the cultural dimensions of Israeli economic growth. Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, correctly seeing an implied criticism of Palestinian culture, called Mr. Romney a “racist” and complained that Palestinian economic woes are really caused by the Israeli occupation. Analysts said Mr. Erekat’s reaction was a sign that Mr. Romney has disqualified himself as a broker for peace. The episode reveals as much about the dynamics of the Middle East conflict as about presidential politics.

In making his brief case, Mr. Romney cited two books: “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by geographer Jared Diamond, and “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” by economist David Landes (my father). As in other fields of social “science,” economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or from natural ones such as resistance to disease and access to primary resources. Prof. Diamond, whose book focuses on societies’ natural advantages, last week wrote an op-ed in the New York Times emphasizing both culture and nature and trying to draw Prof. Landes in with him.

Read the rest.

…[Israel] rose from the bottom of the third world to the top of the first world, in a century: Israel, the Start-up Nation. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of (a certain kind of) culture: even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world. Alas, Saudi Arabia’s major exports are oil and hatred.

Fisking A.B. Yehoshua’s “Why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict refuses to be resolved”

A few months ago, the famous Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua wrote an essay on why the Arab-Israeli conflict is so hard to resolve. In preparation for an essay on this subject, I fisk his answer which at least goes beyond the superficial silliness of the typical liberal (Friedman, Kristof, Beinart), but which fails to get beyond a combination of deep issues tied up in a false parity that leaves the reader as mystified as ever.

Why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict refuses to be resolved

The author argues that peace remains elusive because the conflict is unprecedented in human history.

By A.B. Yehoshua | Apr.26, 2011 | 1:53 AM | 35

The question in the headline should ostensibly be directed to a Middle East expert, a political scientist, or even a foreign historian, not a writer whose expertise is his imagination. But because the question is a real one that is painful to everyone in the region regardless of his nationality, I will try to propose an answer. This question is serious and disturbing for two reasons. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the longest-running conflicts in the modern era. If we mark its beginning at the start of Zionist settlement in Palestine in the 1880s, the conflict has been active, in blood and fire, for about 130 years.

I think that’s an erroneous approach. It’s been an open conflict since 1936, although it was in formation for a long time before. But the response of the local Arab population to the Jews from the 1880s to the 1930s was too variegated, and often broadly favorable,that it’s inappropriate to date the kind of implacable hostility that characterizes the conflict since the “Great Arab Rebellion.”

Second, this is not a remote conflict in a godforsaken place, but one constantly at the center of international awareness. That means it is one of the most extensively dealt-with conflicts in the world. In the past 45 years alone, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis has been the subject of serious attempts at mediation by many countries and respectable [sic, should read “respected”] international organizations. Presidents of the United States have tried to mediate personally between the sides. Heads of government from all over the world devote their attention to it; high-level emissaries come to the region to try their hand at mediation and compromise. All this is on top of tireless initiatives by organizations and individuals on both sides in well-meaning symposia and meetings. Studies, books and innumerable position papers have been written and are being written all the time.

Here’s an interesting thought. Maybe all this “help” have made things worse? Maybe by using techniques intended to get people in civic polities to “get to yes,” without any real understanding of the sources of the conflict (still worse, with the noxious notions behind “Peace and Conflict Studies”), the solutions have backfired. Maybe in engaging in “therapeutic history” where the soi-disant “left” support Palestinian (lethal and delusional) narratives as a way of showing “support for the underdog,” the worst elements of Palestinian culture (scapegoating, hate-mongering, revenge fantasies, conspiracy theory) have been reinforced.

And although the sides have come to partial agreements in direct, secret and open talks, and although the formulas for a solution have seemed clear and acceptable, and even though these are two small nations that are ostensibly subject to international dictates, the conflict still contains an inner core that stubbornly refuses to surrender to peace.

First major mistake: to refer to the Palestinians as a “nation” reflects two erroneous notions: 1) that the people he calls Palestinians represent a distinct nation or have a “national consciousness”, and 2) that its leaders want to be one of two “nations”. The consequences of this conceptual “granting of nationhood” to the Palestinians will become clear later on.

It’s true that there have been many mistakes and missed opportunities on both sides throughout the years. And because this conflict is cyclical rather than linear – in other words, time does not necessarily bring us closer to a solution, but peace approaches and recedes at historical junctions in the past and future – there is reason to wonder what makes this conflict unique compared to other conflicts, what causes it to persevere so zealously. I do not presume to intimate that my answer is the exclusive one, but I will try to put it to the test. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict refuses to be resolved because it is a conflict unprecedented in human history. There is no precedent for a nation that lost its sovereignty 2,000 years ago, was scattered among the nations, and later decided for internal and external reasons to return to its ancient homeland and re-establish sovereignty there. Therefore, if everyone considers the modern return to Zion a unique event in human history, that means the Palestinian people or the Israeli Arabs have also been forced to face a unique phenomenon that no other nation has confronted. In the early 19th century there were only about 5,000 Jews in the Land of Israel, compared with the 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinian Arabs. At the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 there were about 50,000 Jews compared with 550,000 Palestinians Arabs. (These numbers are from the Jewish Encyclopedia. ) And by 1948 there were about 600,000 Jews versus 1.3 million Palestinian Arabs.

Note the remarkable population growth of the Arabs. The demography of the region under Ottoman rule had been remarkably stable (and low) for centuries.

The Jewish people thus quickly ingathered from all corners of the world. They did not want to expel the Palestinians, and certainly not to destroy them, but neither did they want to integrate them into Jewish society as other nations did with the local residents.

This is a strange formulation. What does he mean by “nations did with local residents.” Empires need to deal with “local residents,” and they tend to make them subjects. Nations form around a collective identity, and if they’re democratic they try and integrate everyone within a pluralistic (i.e., tolerant) polity. In the period of early Zionism, the Arabs were not part of a nation, but an ethnic and religious identity, and any other religious or ethnic group, like the Jews, or the Maronites, or the Bedouin, neither sought to, nor accepted the notion that they should be “integrated.” On the contrary, under the Turkish rulers, the land was filled with various groups (millets), most of them dhimmis in an elaborate hierarchy (in which the Greek Orthodox were the highest, and the Jews the bottom of that hierarchy). The real problem with the advent of the Zionists was that, as Westerners returning upright (komemiyut), they posed an impossible dilemma to the prevailing pre-nation situation.

Moreover, there was no attempt here to impose a colonial regime, since the Jews had no mother country that had sent them on colonial conquests, as in the case of Britain or France. Here something original and unique in human history took place: A nation arrived in the homeland of another nation [sic] to replace its identity with an ancient-new one.

Now why on earth would Yehoshua identify the position of the inhabitants of this region as a “nation”? Nothing remotely resembling that existed, and even if one wanted to argue that some “proto-nations” existed (Syria, Egypt, Algeria), that had nothing to do with a district that had no separate or unique identity. Note that when the UN partitioned Palestine in 1948, there was no talk of an Israeli and “Palestinian” state. It was to be an “Arab State.” Palestinian “national consciousness,” even among those who might use the term, was only in terms of “all or nothing.” Hence the rejection of a statehood for which there was no cultural framework.

That is why at its most profound level, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a question of territory, as in the case of many historical conflicts between nations, but a battle over the national identity of the entire homeland – every stone and every part of it.

Here we enter the “both sides” narrative. Very little was particularly sacred to Arabs about this land before the arrival of the Zionists. Even Jerusalem, the “third holiest city in Islam” was neglected as late as under Jordanian rule in the 1950s and early 1960s. Haram al Sharif under Jordanian Rule (1948-1967) HT: Elder of Ziyon

Haram al Sharif, 2007 (no weeds under these worshipper’s fee)

The Islamic/Arab interest in Jerusalem, indeed in “every stone” of the land is a classic case of mimetic desire: you only want it because someone else does. And that has a great deal to do with Islamic supersessionism, which lies at the core of the conflict: Muslims can’t leave Jews alone, because Muslim honor depends of Jewish subjection. In typical Israeli fashion, Yehoshua is here being generous and granting the Palestinian claims as much credibility as Israelis. Mistake, both historical and therapeutic. As Aldous Huxley says, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”… or denied.

For both sides, and mainly for the Palestinians, the size of the nation confronting them is not clear – whether it consists only of Israeli Jews or the entire Jewish diaspora. And the Israelis don’t know whether they are confronting only the Palestinian people or the entire Arab nation. In other words, the demographic boundaries of the two sides are not clear either. This is therefore a fundamental conflict that constantly creates primal and profound mistrust between the two peoples, preventing a possible solution.

Again with the false symmetries. Israelis are dealing with a Palestinian/Arab/Islamic entity (nation is inappropriate) for whom the shore line is the only acceptable border (as in “drive the Jews into the sea”). Israel, while willing to negotiate another, more restricted border in exchange for peace, has no ambitions beyond the Jordan (pace Arab conspiracy theory). This is not about two uncertain claims. It’s about two asymmetrical claims, one of which is incompatible with any other.

Is it still possible to resolve the conflict without ending up in the trap of a binational state? I believe so, but because this is a question I haven’t been asked, I won’t answer it now.

And as far as I can make out, you haven’t begun to answer the question you set out to answer, because, in your therapeutic search for parity, you merely scratched the surface. Alas.

Demotic Religiosity and Economic Growth

Given the storm of controversy surrounding the Romney remarks on the culture of economic development, I’m reproducing below the beginning of an essay I wrote on demotic economic growth which outlines what I think are the crucial issues which either foster or suppress economic growth.

Economic Development and Demotic Religiosity: Reflections on the Eleventh-Century Takeoff

Richard Landes

History in the Comic Mode: The New Medieval Cultural History, ed. Rachel Fulton and Bruce Holsinger (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 101-16. 

Introduction: On Not Assuming Economic Growth

Historians have difficulty understanding economic growth in the Middle Ages largely because we take it for granted.  When it’s not there, as in the early middle ages, we either find reasons why it didn’t happen or imagine that, contrary to impressions, it did happen.  But generally, we assume that economic growth is natural, and that as soon as conditions permit, it appears.  This is the basic view of the great economic historian Henri Pirenne, who postulated that, in the newly peaceful conditions of the 11th century, the dusty-footed merchants naturally began to ply their trade and markets sprang up.[1]   More recently, in a massively impressive volume, Michael McCormick, having located an unexpected number of mentions of markets and exchanges in earlier centuries, has presented us with an already thriving economy in periods of the earlier Middle Ages.[2]

Let me suggest two points, both of which argue a fundamentally different approach.  First, that economic activity, even if it is natural to some people – Pirenne’s pieds poudreux – is not “natural” to some societies, and that when merchants and other entrepreneurs sail against these heavy cultural headwinds, growth is minimal despite their heroic efforts.  Indeed, economic historians studying today’s world, where both the technology and the example of economic growth exist in far more abundance than they did in the 11th century, have discovered not only the existence of “cultures of poverty” or, I would suggest, “cultures of impoverishment,” but that far more cultures follow this pattern than anyone expected.[3]  And second, that the cultural conditions for economic growth, at least in Western Europe, have a great deal to do with religious transformations

Let me begin with the question of cultures of impoverishment.  As you may be able to tell from my adjustment of the term that economic historians have recently discovered about the cultural dimension of poverty, that it is the culture that impoverishes.[4]  By this I mean that the political and social values of the culture, even where they may – indeed must – encourage some economic activity, have a very low ceiling of tolerance for extended economic growth.  They actually prefer poverty for most of the members of the society, and here I attribute agency – if not conscious agency – not only to the elites, but also to the laboring commoners.   The key lies in the psychological dimensions of zero-sum thinking and the structures of what I’d like to call Prime Divider Societies.

Acemoglu and Robinson contrast culture with institutions

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, co-authors of Why Nations Fail have weighed in on the “culture debate.” It’s a curious comment because it seems to misunderstand the culture argument (like Diamond and Zakaria), even as it uses data that supports that argument, and then concludes by swerving in a completely unsupported direction – surprise surprise – against Romney.

We were doing so well. Writing about economics and politics for the last five months here without once mentioning the US presidential race. But it’s all over. Mitt Romney has given us no choice, wading into the debate about the origins of inequality and prosperity around the world.

Here is what Mitt says:

I was thinking this morning as I prepared to come into this room of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries. And as you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. 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.

He continues:

Culture makes all the difference. And as 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. One, I recognize the hand of Providence in selecting this place.

Mitt Romney also identifies the origins of his thinking as David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations  and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (though presumably not the origin of his numbers, which are incorrect; the gap between per capita in Israel and West Bank and Gaza is about tenfold).

Well actually, Jared Diamond doesn’t say much about culture. In fact, his thesis is about how geographic and ecological conditions led to the differential development paths and prosperity among otherwise identical peoples. In fact his theory would predict that Israelis and Palestinians should have identical levels of prosperity.

Actually Romney cites Diamond to contrast him with Landes along precisely these lines.

Zakaria on Capitalism vs. Culture: Master of the Question mal posée

As part of a series of posts about the recent “culture-counts” flap, I’m tackling some of the (many) articles weighing in on the subject, partly as a way of clarifying the meaning of the “culture” argument for those who, for reasons well worth exploring, cannot abide it, partly as a way to address the classic problem of most social “science”, the badly posed question that sets up an unnecessary, even misleading antinomy – this, not that.

I begin with a high profile target, Fareed Zakaria, who ought to reread his own brilliant piece right after 9-11 on why Arab countries had so much trouble adjusting to modernity.

Capitalism, not culture, drives economies

By Fareed Zakaria, Thursday, August 2, 1:40 AM

Mitt Romney has explained that his comments abroad were simply truth-telling. “I tend to tell people what I actually believe,” he said. With regard to one much-debated comment — on the cultural differences between Israelis and Palestinians — many agree with him. The Wall Street Journal editorial page and columnists including Marc A. Thiessen and John Podhoretz all applauded. Podhoretz wrote: “Anyone who publicizes his remark is helping Romney win the election.”

“Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said at a fundraiser in Israel, comparing the country’s economic vitality to Palestinian poverty. Certainly there is a pedigree for this idea. Romney cited David Landes, an economics historian. He could have cited Max Weber, the great German scholar who first made this claim 100 years ago in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” which argued that Protestant values were the most important fuel for economic progress.

The problem is that Weber singled out two cultures as being particularly prone to poverty and stagnation, those of China and Japan. But these have been the world’s fastest-growing large economies over the past five decades. Over the past two decades, the other powerhouse has been India, which was also described for years as having a culture incompatible with economic success — hence the phrase “the Hindu rate of growth,” to describe the country’s once-moribund state.

China was stagnant for centuries and then suddenly and seemingly miraculously, in the 1980s, began to industrialize three times faster than the West. What changed was not China’s culture, which presumably was the same in the 1970s as it was in the 1980s. What changed, starting in 1979, were China’s economic policies.

The same is true for Japan and India. Had Romney spent more time reading Milton Friedman, he would have realized that historically the key driver for economic growth has been the adoption of capitalism and its related institutions and policies across diverse cultures.

This is a somewhat facetious line of argument. Chinese ex-pats always showed exceptional talent in economic and entrepreneurial activities. But the important issue Weber addressed in the Protestant Ethic (now available in a great new edition/translation by my colleague Stephen Kalberg) was not “who can develop economically at all?” but how was the West capable of generating a form of economic development never before seen on the planet?

The fact that copying that model took most countries (with the exception of Japan) several centuries merely underlines the exceptional nature of that effort. The question facing us now is not who can generate, but who can take advantage of both the blueprints of development and the massive global economy that beckons any country ready to open the gates. As Zakaria himself noted in his 9-11 essay:

[In] the Arab world, modernity has been one failure after another. Each path followed–socialism, secularism, nationalism–has turned into a dead end. While other countries adjusted to their failures, Arab regimes got stuck in their ways.

Now while Zakaria notes that “Importing the inner stuffings of modern society–a free market, political parties, accountability and the rule of law–is difficult and dangerous,” he does not seem, at least in this (very lite) current essay to realize the “cultural dimension” of that argument. Why is it difficult and dangerous for societies to adopt these “inner stuffings of modern society”? Is it merely because the dictators refuse (as the political model would like to imagine)? Or do the problems permeate the society, as in the strength of honor-murders as a reflection of profound anti-egalitarian patriarchal culture that runs throughout the social and political strata?

Moreover, Weber’s argument, which I know from personal experience had an enormous impact on my father, David Landes’ scholarship, was fundamentally about culture – indeed about religion, more precisely, demotic religiosity. As Weber says at the very start, it’s not about making money but what you do with your wealth. The spirit of capitalism that interests him, Weber notes, does not begin in wealthy Florence with the Medici, but in the backwoods of Pennsylvania with Ben Franklin. Until people stopped turning their fortunes into positions of leisured wealth and political power, and kept reinvesting them in further capital ventures, modern industrialization did not occur.