Ethnic jokes are always dangerous. Gen. James Jones, as Barack Obama's national security adviser, famously regaled a friendly Jewish audience with a variation of a joke about the Hamas militant in Jerusalem who went into the shop of a Jewish merchant and asked to buy food.
"I'm sorry," the merchant said. "I don't have any food, but I've got some nice neckties."
"I don't need a tie," says the Hamas militant, "and I'm hungry."
"Well, my brother has a restaurant down the street, and he has lots of food."
The Hamas man ran down the street, but he returned a few minutes later, angry. "Your brother wouldn't let me in his restaurant without a tie."
It wasn't a sidesplitting story, but it struck a familiar note about kinship, loyalty, entrepreneurial drive and aggressive tactics of Jewish invention and salesmanship. Some of the Jews in the audience laughed. Some of the others didn't, and it set off a minor media outrage, and the general had to offer the ritual apology "to anyone who was offended by it." Politics often plays with our perceptions over what's funny. It does that with simple truths, too.
When Mitt Romney spoke to a group of wealthy American Jewish donors at a fundraiser at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and ascribed their accomplishments to lessons and inspiration from their culture, he was called out as a "racist" by Palestinians who said he was blaming their culture for the lack of Palestinian economic progress. Romney told Fox News the next day that he hadn't been talking about "the Palestinian culture" but he thinks that's a topic that "could deserve scholarly analysis."
What he was talking about was the dramatic disparity between the per capita income in Israel, about $31,000 a year, and the income of the average Palestinian, about $10,000, living under the Palestinian Authority. It's a truism (which could be repeated by any economist), he said, "that the choices a society makes have a profound impact on the economy and the vitality of that society."
Culture, of course, is a word with lots of different meanings, whether about the values of a society or what goes into making yogurt. I remember a definition of culture from Anthropology 101, written by a learned professor: "Culture is man's past working on the present to shape the future." I've never forgotten the native wisdom in that definition.
From that point of view, Israel's economic success is a perfect example of that definition. "As I come here and look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation," Romney said in Jerusalem, "I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things." He implicitly acknowledged the daunting obstacles Jews had to overcome in the recent past by creating an encouraging business environment in the present. At the same time, he appreciates the reach of "the hand of Providence" showing the way to the future.
It's the "chutzpah theory" in action, suggest Dan Senor, a senior Romney adviser, and Saul Singer, an Israeli commentator, the authors of "Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle." An outsider, they write, "would see chutzpah everywhere in Israel: in the way university students speak with their professors, employees challenge their bosses, sergeants question their generals and clerks second-guess government ministers."
Such ability to challenge intellectual argument, combined with cross-disciplinary creativity and teamwork, meshes with the contributions of the Russian Jews who brought a mastery of math and science with them from the ruins of the Soviet Union. They arrived just when it became necessary to build a modern military response to the constant threats from the enemy around them.
The Middle East Media Research Institute tracks the ugly messages broadcast daily by Palestinian media, and the poison passed on to their children through textbooks that glorify the suicide terrorists, turning hatred into heroism and inspiring young Palestinians to blow up the innocent. They are in sharp contrast to the innovative and creative environment inherent in Jewish culture in Israel.
The cultural problems in the Arab world as they relate to human rights, restrictions on the education and empowerment of women, and the obstacles in the path to a free press have been fully described by numerous learned papers written at the United Nations by Arab intellectuals.
The American presidential campaign has been increasingly characterized as lacking substance, but Romney introduced provocative ideas for discussion in both Israel and then in Poland. It is the media that lack substance, dismissing the welcome provocation as a "gaffe." Once more the major gaffes were the work of a lazy media.