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Columbia Spectator Staff

Passions travel long-distance, so Columbia sometimes feels like an outpost of the Middle East, an echo chamber where emotions collide, a university where issues get sharpened, or both. This week's news brought Israel close to me—terribly so, in both senses of the word. Let me single out two events: one physically violent, the other morally. Insult compounds injury.

Injury first. On Oct. 8, in an Arab neighborhood near the Old City of Jerusalem, where the Jewish settler group Elad has been installing the families of Jewish fanatics and knocking down buildings for touristic purposes (with the approval of the city government), an Arab boy threw a rock at a settler's car. The driver was the head of Elad. He ran his car into the boy. The neighborhood has been in an uproar, especially since last month, when a private security guard from the group shot and killed a 32-year-old father of five.

Then the insult. On Oct. 10, the Israeli Knesset voted to require all non-Jewish immigrants to swear loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state." An amendment to require the oath of all immigrants failed in the Cabinet. The deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon—from the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, which insisted on this measure as a price for participating in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—wrote in the Jerusalem Post that immigrants who are Jews can be presumed loyal without any special affirmation: "The pledge becomes unnecessary for those who join us by virtue of their national and historic ties to our land and people."

The new law meshes with a government talking point much repeated in recent weeks—that the Palestinians must recognize Israel explicitly, in so many words, "as a Jewish state." Well, duh. As if there were any doubt of it! What else would its official Hebrew language, the law of return, and the insignia on its flag signify? The point is at least as much to humiliate the Palestinians, both within and outside pre-1967 Israel, as to stand for a value.

Now, it's the habit of many American Jews to overlook, feel defensive about, apologize for, downplay, and explain away the awful, embarrassing, and infuriating direction in which Israel's bankrupt political leaders are steering. Isn't the "neighborhood" rough and Israel embattled? Don't other states also impose special burdens on unprivileged Ausländer? Of course and of course.

But the question for a Jew is finally: What does it mean to be a Jewish state? Does Israel really want to be judged by the standard of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran? It was for this that Abraham moved to Canaan, that Moses freed the Israelite slaves, that the prophets thundered that Israel had failed to live up to a mission that was fundamentally ethical and not just a decision to follow dietary rules and call themselves Jews? It was for this that the Jewish people persisted, against long odds, through centuries of exile?

Jewish Israelis, like Americans, have never freed themselves of the burdens of chosenness—indeed, they cannot legitimately do so, because those burdens and hopes of redemption are fundamental to their raison d'être. Yet, in a state consecrated to the renewal of a time-old and distinguished mission, a mission centrally concerned with how to treat people, people who call themselves Jews—true Jews, observant Jews, excellent Jews—insist on exalting themselves over insulted others.

In their evasions, Jews are gripped by an all-too-standard tribal impulse, a habit of mind reminiscent of an old joke about a Communist responding to charges that Stalin's Russia maintained vast prison camps: "It didn't happen, it was necessary, and they're not doing it anymore." Nothing unique about that: Tribalistic evasiveness is everywhere, and infectious. Some fervent Muslims tend to fall eerily silent about such atrocities as, for example, the recent murderous terror attacks on Sufis in Pakistan. Many Americans are content to call torture "enhanced interrogation techniques"—when it is committed by Americans.

But just because this moral tic is common doesn't make it admirable, or right, or a destiny of which this Jew can be proud, whether in Jerusalem or at far-off Columbia.

The author is a professor of journalism and sociology and the chair of the doctoral program in communications. He is the co-author, with Liel Liebowitz, of the recent book "The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election."

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