It’s been over a week since Mitt Romney’s controversial remarks in Jerusalem about the relative performances of the Israeli and Palestinian economies, and the debate kicked up has largely run its course. As far as ripostes go, it’s hard to outdo Jared Diamond’s. One of two authors cited by Romney, Diamond penned a New York Times op-ed detailing Romney’s misunderstandings of both his position and that of the other cited author, economic historian David Landes. Romney’s oversimplified view of the two positions (he takes Diamond to be a pure geographic determinist and Landes a pure cultural determinist) is of a piece with his general management-consultant M.O.: boil the message down to where it can fit into a single, easily actionable Powerpoint bullet, and toss aside the rest.
In response, Landes’s son Richard — himself a historian who has attracted more attention as a staunchly pro-Israel political commentator — took to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page (that notable bastion of neoconservative agitprop) to attempt to enlist his father behind Romney’s position. (If David Landes himself had a position about the controversy, he wasn’t talking.)
In any case, Richard Landes’s piece has provoked one of the more interesting interventions into the whole debate, by Indiana University professor of Jewish Studies Shaul Magid.
(I am grateful to Madeleine Elfenbein for pointing out Magid’s piece.) Magid argues that Landes, and in his own way Romney, have revived an unfortunate self-congratulatory current among western European Ashkenazi Jews that has traditionally been used to disparage Eastern European, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews. Magid writes:
[W]hen 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. 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.
I’ve written in another context about the ways in which traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes have been revived and reapplied to Muslims, often by hawkishly pro-Israel commentators who are vociferous about policing alleged anti-Semitism in its original form. (Recent developments like the ongoing attacks on Huma Abedin and the burning of a Missouri mosque earlier this week drive home the point.) Magid highlights the way that similar currents within the Jewish community (this time, directed by Western European Jews again their less “cultured” co-religionists) have been repurposed to Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims more broadly.