I define myself as a liberal, tolerant person and a secular Jew. I did not grow up in a religious family or in Israel. Yet, having lived in Israel for more than 26 years, I have become acquainted with many religious people, especially my wife's family, who accept me completely. Living in the Galilee, I teach as well as work and interact with many local Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, and have visited many Druze houses. So, the terms "religious Jew" and "Arab" represent real people to me.
Recently, I experienced two "challenging" situation in terms of my self-definition as a liberal. Several weeks ago, on the train from Ben Gurion Airport to Acco after a long flight from California, a group of five Arab college students entered the train, filled with enthusiasm and energy. After 20 plus hours, my wife and I wanted some peace and quiet but did not get any. The students talked loudly, told jokes and made comments about a series of videos on their phones, all in Arabic. We could not conveniently go to another carriage as our luggage was on the rack there. To clarify, they were not behaving badly but instead boisterously. After being asked to lower the volume a bit, they tried but were simply unable.
During the hour we shared that carriage, I considered the reasons for my annoyance. Was it the level of noise on my already frayed nerves? Was it the sheer energy level when I wanted serenity? Was it the fact that they were loudly speaking Arabic? In other words, if a similar group of Hebrew speaking students had entered, would I have been equally disturbed? After careful thought, I had to admit that the third issue was also a factor. It somehow bothered that they were so loud in a foreign language and Arabic at that. I then considered the issue and realized that, while it may annoy me at this moment, the Arabic language was a matter of their cultural identification and, moreover, national pride for Israel, which allows its minorities to feel sufficiently comfortable to express themselves openly in their own language, even in public.
Last week, I visited a religious family in mourning. The deceased having left behind many siblings and children as well as a husband, the apartment was packed with people with almost everybody wearing a kippa or head covering. I did my best to blend in and looked for a conversation to participate in or at least listen with interest. In fact, everybody, young and old, was talking about the manner of the upcoming Yom Kippur prayers in all their aspects. More strikingly, they were discussing such matters with great joy and interest. This attitude ignited the question that generally pops up in my mind when seeing religious conversations: why do you waste so much time and energy on such irrelevant matters? Of course, the question presupposes that my secular way of thinking is correct as compared to the "brainwashing" religious people get. In all probability, they considered my lack of interest in Torah equally errant. In such cases, I remind myself that the world is made of many faiths, no matter how ridiculous I may consider them.
The cultural gap between me as a Jewish atheist and them is as least as great as I felt on the train. The latter is easier to bridge as I consciously recognize the legitimacy of cultural self-expression. On the other hand, my inability to grasp the faith base of religious people makes it harder to maintain my tolerance. Marx wrote that religion is the opium of the people. Accepting the right of people to take opium creates much discomfort.