By: Fern Sidman
While visiting Israel on the second leg of his overseas tour, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney held a political fundraiser at the storied King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Monday morning, July 30th. The breakfast gathering featured casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson, who has emerged as the most magnanimous of Republican donors; with a reported $10 million contribution to “Restore Our Future,” the Super PAC supporting Romney. Other notable personalities in attendance were New York Jets owner Woody Johnson; Detroit developer John Rakolta and Lisa Spies, who is Romney’s finance chair. The Romney campaign garnered over $1 million in pledges from the 45 donors who paid anywhere from $25,000-$50,000 to attend.
The fundraiser followed a day in which Governor Romney visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall (the Kotel HaMaravi) on the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, known as the 9th day in the month of Av (Tisha B’Av). Donning a “Kippah” (traditional Jewish male head covering), Romney stood pensively at Judaism’s holiest site and stopped to pray as he placed a note in the cracks of the wall.
Initially, Romney’s campaign had intended to make the lucrative fundraiser off limits to the press; abrogating a generalized agreement with the media on how such events would be covered, however within 24 hours, Romney’s staff reversed that decision and allowed a small pool of reporters to cover his remarks. Romney also took several questions from the donors after reporters left.
Joined by his wife Ann and son, Josh, Romney projected a palpable connection to Israel and the Jewish nation when he said, “I am overwhelmingly impressed with the hand of providence, whenever it chooses to apply itself, and also the greatness of the human spirit, and how individuals who reach for greatness and have purpose above themselves are able to build and accomplish things that could only be done by a species created in the image of God.” He added that, “I come to this place, therefore, with a sense of profound humility, as I look around here at great people who’ve accomplished a great thing, and also a sense of spiritual connection, acknowledging the hand of providence in establishing this place and making it a holy city.”
According to reports from Associated Press, Romney created a firestorm of sorts amongst Palestinian leaders when he attributed the culture in Israel to the Jewish State’s economic successes, in contrast to less than stellar results amongst the Palestinians. “As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP 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,” Romney said.
Palestinian leaders were quick to condemn Romney’s remarks as “racist” and “out of touch” and said they could empower extremists and damage the peace process. “Today he referred to us as an inferior culture, when he said that Israelis have double our GDP,” Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator with the Israelis, said in an interview with the Boston Globe. “I’ve never heard such a racist statement from any Israeli. Yes, we have a conflict with the Israelis. But we never go down this road of racism,” he added.
Observers say the scathing critiques of the Palestinian leadership were unwarranted as Romney’s remarks were taken out of context. In his address, Romney was referencing the gap between other neighboring countries that also experience economic disparities such as Chile and Ecuador, or Mexico and the United States. Romney campaign staffers also distributed a full transcript of the remarks, something they seldom do for its fundraisers. During the remarks, Romney referenced the book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” by David Landes, saying it made points about economic vitality and how “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,” said Romney at the fundraiser.
Heaping particularly heavy criticism on Romney was Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, who said, “He’s said so many outrageous things that it’s very hard to decide which one to respond to.” She said it was unfair to compare the economies of the Israelis and the Palestinians. “You cannot compare the economy of a people who are in occupation — who don’t control exit points, who don’t control all of our land — to an economy in Israel that gets billions and billions of American dollars,” Ashrawi said in an interview with the media. “If we would get billions from the US, if we get presidential treatment, I’m sure our GDP would be at least 100 times what it is right now,” she added.
Stepping up to the plate for Romney back in the United States was the Anti-Defamation League. It’s national director, Abraham H. Foxman said he does not believe Palestinians are culturally inferior to Israelis and said Romney “was not maligning them.”
“In terms of Jewish culture allowing us to be more successful, there is a real emphasis on education, on hard work and self-reliance. If you read United Nations reports on the Arab world, part of the problem is culture. If there was universal education, if there was less conflict, they’d be more prosperous,” said Foxman. One conclusion of a 2010 UN human development report on the “occupied” Palestinian territory was that “cultural beliefs and practices that lead to the marginalization of women, elderly and young people, the disabled, Bedouin and other minority groups, must be challenged.”
“If they’re upset by what he said, then they should be upset by what the UN has said,” Foxman added. “I don’t think Jews, Israelis, or Palestinians should be offended by what he said. This is political nitpicking.”