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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Summer Holiday II

Galilee Diary #506, September 1, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

...Zebulun did not dispossess the inhabitants of Kitron or the inhabitants of Nahalol; so the Canaanites dwelt in their midst, but they were subjected to forced labor. Asher did not dispossess the inhabitants of Acco or the inhabitants of Sidon, Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, Aphik, and Rehob. So the Asherites dwelt in the midst of the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not dispossess them...
        -Judges 1:30-32

Prague: We're not really into goulash, dumplings, and beer, but the feast for our other senses was satiating: cathedrals and synagogues, castles and bridges, monuments and art exhibits; you get a stiff neck walking around looking up at all the amazing buildings. To a layman, keeping track of all those dynasties and their machinations - and trying to keep straight all the different architectural styles in their chronology - can be quite daunting.

As we referred again and again to the guidebook, and read the writings on the walls of the museums, we became aware of what we probably learned in 10th grade European History but forgot: like other peoples in central/eastern Europe, the Czechs have been involved for centuries in an ongoing struggle for self-definition. Already in the 14th century, the drama surrounding Jan Hus was not just about religious reform, but also about culture - Hus spoke Czech, and his struggle is remembered as national as much as theological. In the ensuing centuries there was a constant tension between the impulse to maintain and develop Czech language and culture, and the influence of German, which, in the centuries of the Holy Roman Empire, of which Prague was even the capital - and its successor the Austro-Hungarian empire - was the official language of the country. Remember the Habsburgs? This was their turf.

Finally, the First World War ended the "old order" in Europe, and the Czechs, like many others, became free to create an independent state (well, actually, together with the Slovakians, but that's another story) whose official language would be Czech, and whose culture would reflect a particular local identity and no longer be submerged or subjugated by German/Austrian culture. However - and the Czech story is not unique - it was impossible to draw ethnically "clean" borders, and all over Europe the Versailles Treaty left pockets of ethnic minorities inside states that defined their identity and culture according to the majority. Despite elaborate negotiations to protect national minority rights, minority-majority tensions throughout the region festered between the wars. Indeed, Hitler's excuse for annexing the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia was the oppression of the German minority living there - and after the war the Czechs solved the problem by expelling the Germans in short order. This process of trying to match political boundaries to ethnic identities has continued, and in the past twenty years the map of central and eastern Europe has bloomed with still more colors, as smaller and smaller entities have become ethnically defined nation states. And the wars of secession continue.

There are still places where national minority cultural rights are protected by treaty, as we learned when we visited Slovenia on an earlier vacation. But after a century of bloodshed one is entitled to wonder if this system can work in the long run.  What are the alternatives? Large political entities in which local ethnic groups have only limited autonomy, but not sovereignty (as under the Habsburgs, or the Soviets)? Relegating ethnicity to the private, voluntary realm, as in the US (i.e., no autonomy at all)? A patchwork of small, ethnically "pure," independent states, which seems to be the current trend?  And if the latter, is purity possible? Is it worth the moral cost of the "cleansing" required to attain it?

What does this have to do with us? After all, the Middle East is not Europe (or so we keep being told); as Sharon's advisor Dov Weisglass famously said, peace will come when the Palestinians turn into Finns. Ask a Finn about the Roma (Gypsy) minority there and you are likely to discover that the dilemma of finding a model for the co-existence of different ethnic groups in close quarters is universal, and not just our problem. It was comforting to learn, in Europe, that we are not alone in our quandary; it was daunting to learn that the European experience has not yielded much applicable wisdom to help us solve it.

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