Members of a Catholic Palestinian parish march in Jerusalem’s Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 19. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

Last week, I spent some time in Israel and the Palestinian territories, talking to people about religion, ethnicity and identity. Which of course made me think a lot about an old Irish joke.

Here’s the joke: A British lecturer comes to Northern Ireland to talk about railroads. At the end of his talk, an old man gets up and asks, “Pardon me, sir, but are you a Catholic or a Protestant?”

Startled by the digression, the lecturer says, “Actually, I’m an atheist.” The old man looks puzzled, so the lecturer proceeds to explain the meaning of the word “atheism.” At last the old man nods.

“I think I understand,” he says. “But tell me, is it the Catholic or the Protestant God that you don’t believe in?”

And why did Israel make me think about that joke? Because I heard eerie echoes of its fundamental premise everywhere I went.

The idea of a Catholic atheist may seem like nonsense to an American, but in Northern Ireland, religion isn’t merely a tidy matter of private belief, of no more interest to anyone else than your shoe size. It’s a proxy for ethnicity: Were your ancestors Catholics with continuous roots in the island for thousands of years, or were they Protestant imports who arrived during Britain’s 17th-century settlement of the Plantation of Ulster?

In short, religion in Northern Ireland is as much an identity as a faith, and it is an identity loaded with centuries of angry history. That also describes historical Palestine, except the disputes are older and more numerous. For that matter, viewing faith as integrally tied to your place and your ancestors and your history is probably more common worldwide than the modern American and Western European view of faith as a personal choice.

That radical difference in worldviews explains much of what makes many Americans most uncomfortable about Israel: calling itself the Jewish state, maintaining separate educational systems for Arabs and Jews, excusing most Arabs from mandatory military service while also granting Jews automatic immigration rights that are unavailable to others.

Israel gives its religious minorities ample freedom to practice their faith, to be sure, yet as long as Israel defines itself by Judaism, they can never be anything but minorities.

But Israel’s religious minorities don’t all necessarily resent that in the way Americans might expect. I spoke to Shadi Khalloul, a Maronite Christian activist in the Galilee who is working to revive Aramaic as the daily language of his community. He doesn’t want his community’s children to attend a separate school system for Arabs, true, but that’s because he wants a separate school system for their own identity.

Many governments that constitute themselves along ethno-religious lines oppress minorities, of course. But if a country protects the civil rights of minority citizens, as the Israelis generally do, it can offer the one thing that an aggressively secular liberal state can’t: easy preservation of the minorities’ own particularist identities, which tend to be lost in aggressively secular liberal nations as the minorities are more or less forcibly assimilated. The successful holdouts tend to be groups such as the Amish or ultra-Orthodox Jews who simply opt out of any significant contact with the mainstream.

Americans tend to view those sorts of communities as an aberration to be rued; Israel is able to accommodate them more tolerantly not despite its particularist self-definition but because of it. Judaism isn’t a universalizing creed — it doesn’t seek converts — so the Jewish majority feels relatively little threat from faiths that reject the its moral views.

The challenge, of course, is to keep from sliding into the kind of harsh discrimination that is now pushing Christians and Jews from many Muslim-dominated countries in the Middle East. That’s a challenge Israel hasn’t always met; I first encountered Mr. Khalloul on the site of Biram, a Maronite village Israel evacuated and destroyed more than 50 years ago, and which he is now fighting to get rebuilt. But then, such tolerance is always a challenge, which is why even the United States, a country that espouses tolerance as a prime virtue, has recently been struggling with how far to accommodate ancient and obdurately illiberal faiths as when we catapulted almost immediately from “legalize gay weddings” to “force Christian bakers to make their wedding cakes.”

Thinking about the unrepentant ethno-religious identity of Israel, and many Israeli minorities, and indeed of our own traditionalists, forces us to explore the limits of our self-proclaimed tolerance for dissenters. Which is why we need to grapple with that very different way of looking at faith. If we don’t, we risk committing exactly the sins we fear from a state such as Israel: pushing anyone who doesn’t hew to the majority’s creed onto the economic and political periphery.

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