Three years ago, Dan Senor, now a foreign-policy adviser to Mitt Romney, was in my radio studio promoting a book he'd coauthored called Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle. It is a book that Romney acknowledges as having shaped his thinking on Israel.
Back then, Senor laughed when I said reading the book made me think of something once told to me by Bobby Greenberg, a businessman and former Philadelphia treasurer: "Always try to dress British and think Yiddish." But Senor was resistant when I said, "There is something cultural to be said for Jewish success. Why don't we flat out say that, acknowledge it, embrace it, and ask how to emulate it?"
Instead, Senor told me that some had offered an oversimplified reaction to the book: "I get it, Jews are smart. Jews are good at business, you have a country full of Jews, shocker, their country has done reasonably well." But, said Senor, that missed a key point: "If Jews are smart, they don't have a monopoly on smart, there are plenty of people who are smart." He proceeded to praise Singaporean eighth graders and Finnish scientists and said, "These are smart people, the problem is they are not entrepreneurial."
Soon after our discussion, he shared with me an advance of a Wall Street Journal review of his book. He noted in his e-mail that the review agreed with my take that "the Jewish gene and culture are the key factors." The review was written by James K. Glassman, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute. Glassman observed:
"The authors . . . dispose, a bit too blithely, the argument from ethnic or religious exceptionalism, dismissing 'unitary Jewishness' or even individual talent as major reasons for Israel's high-tech success. (George Gilder, in a recent book treating some of the same matters, The Israel Test, disagrees: 'Israel today concentrates the genius of the Jews.')"
Last week, I was motivated to go back and listen to my conversation with Senor, knowing that he had accompanied Romney on the candidate's recent trip to Israel. There, Romney created a stir by reportedly saying that "culture" explains the economic disparity between the Israelis and Palestinians.
"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," Romney reportedly said.
His comments have been criticized from the left and right. John McCain said it is government, "not cultures," that defines the difference between Israelis and Palestinians. And at Huffington Post, Peter Goodman wrote: "By standing in Jerusalem on Monday and declaring that Jews are richer than Palestinians because of their culture - this, as he was asking wealthy Jews for money at a campaign fund-raiser - Romney effectively exploited the Israeli-Palestinian divide as cover to enunciate a racist notion that resonates with a key slice of the electorate at home: white voters."
Romney backtracked on the remarks while still overseas, but once home seemed to underscore the controversial comments. In Poland, Romney told Fox News, "I . . . did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy. That's an interesting topic that deserves scholarly analysis, but I didn't address that. I certainly don't plan to address that during my campaign. Instead, I will point out that the choices a society makes have a profound impact on the economy and the vitality of that society." But he just wrote a piece for National Review titled "Culture Does Matter."
So I don't know what Romney really thinks. But my view is unchanged from when I first raised the matter with the man now advising him on foreign policy, including Israel.
I get that Romney misstated some facts and offered a view that was both simplistic and naive. The Washington Post reported that Romney's comparison between Israel's economy and that of the Palestinian territories (a comparison that treats the territories as a country) was wrong. He said Israel's annual per capita gross domestic product is $21,000 - it is actually $32,282 - and that the Palestinian figure is $10,000 - more than five times larger than it actually is.
And a more accurate and complete answer to the question of why there are pronounced economic differences between Israelis and Palestinians would have discussed the effects of Israeli security measures. The CIA World Fact Book notes that with regard to the Gaza Strip: "Israeli-imposed border closures, which became more restrictive after Hamas seized control of the territory in June 2007, have resulted in high unemployment, elevated poverty rates, and the near collapse of the private sector that had relied on export markets."
And in the case of the West Bank: "Israeli closure policies continue to disrupt labor and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce, eroding the productive capacity of the West Bank economy."
Maybe if Romney had used the word chutzpah there would be less of a controversy. Senor's book had an entire chapter discussing that business attribute. But three years ago, Senor stopped short of embracing the sort of thing Romney seemed to offer while in Jerusalem.
"If you say it's just a Jewish trait, I am worried people in this country will throw up their hands and say, 'Well, we can't learn from them because it is unique to them genetically and culturally,' " Senor told me.
Too bad we ran out of time before he could answer my final question: Would the Israeli economic miracle continue unabated if we swapped the populations of Israel and the United States?
Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.