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A street sign only in Arabic in the old city of Akko, Israel. What structures can protect the cultural interests of groups other than one in power?

I’m sitting in on a course at Hebrew University called “Binationalism in Israel/Palestine.” Professor Bashir Bashir, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, wants to consider “out of the box” ways to settle the conflict. As he said in the first class, he wants to look at non-racist alternatives to the two-state solution.

The initial readings reveal some of the theoretic structure underlying his thinking. Professor Chaim Gans, a legal theorist at Tel Aviv U, argues for “liberal cultural nationalism at the sub-state level.” “Cultural nationalism” is itself an interesting idea, one that I had not encountered before. It’s basically renaming ethno-nationalism and arguing that it is not all bad from the liberal perspective. It points out that people gain great meaning from culture, even particularistic culture, and argues that they be able to practice their culture and pass it down. Many caveats follow, but the central idea is that not everyone who wants to maintain their culture is necessarily going to turn into the German romantics and then into the Nazis. Gans contrasts cultural nationalism with what he calls “statist nationalism,” in which cultural homogeneity exists to support the goals and stability of the state, not the other way around. Both nationalisms contrast with the pure liberal conception, with the state existing to defend the rights of the individual, not cultures.

An Israeli example might be the government allowing the residents of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood (Mea She’arim) to close the neighborhood’s streets to traffic on Shabbat. An American (and many secular Israelis) might respond “They can’t do that; it is my right as an individual to drive where and when I want. They can practice their culture in private spaces.” But a defender of cultural nationalism would respond, “We increase human happiness by letting the state support some forms of particularistic culture.”

So where is this heading in terms of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? I think Professor Bashir wants to imagine governing structures that carve out spaces for various forms of Palestinian culture and various forms of Israeli culture to flourish, and not saying that those spaces need to overlap exactly with a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. My biggest question, of course, is trust. Because of the history of anti-Semitism, most Jews are skeptical of the claim that Jewish cultural interests will be protected by anyone but Jews. Because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the behavior of successive Israeli governments, most Palestinians are skeptical that Israeli Jews will protect Palestinian cultural interests. I’ll be interested to hear how Professor Bashir suggests addressing this problem.

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