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.

One Response to Responding to Magid on Culture

  1. Alan Potkin says:

    Yesterday, there were posted dozens of responses to this article (including one of my own), most of which were not notably worthless, hysterical, flaming, or troll jobs. Quite the contrary. But since last evening, every time I call up the Augean Stables blog, it show “no comments” in the header. What happened here?

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