To many Americans, the fact that Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, like its maintenance of a separate school system for its Arab citizens, seems foreign, if not downright unsettling. But, argues Megan McArdle after a recent visit, it gives the country’s minorities something hard to find in other Western countries:
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 Israel generally does, 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. . . . Israel is able to accommodate [such minorities] more tolerantly not despite its particularist self-definition but because of it. . . .
[T]he 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 [gay couples’] wedding cakes.”
Thinking about the unrepentant ethno-religious identity of Israel, and of 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.