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Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict: Perspectives from World Jewry

This Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) special report is based on discussions held all over the Jewish world on questions relating to Jewish ethics and values, and the use of force by the State of Israel in armed conflicts. These discussion seminars enabled us to learn firsthand about the opinions of Jewish leaders, professionals, rabbis, donors and activists. Most of the encounters were held in March and April 2015.

Alongside the discussion groups, all participants were asked to complete a questionnaire. Beyond the fact that it provides us with additional and focused information on participant attitudes, this questionnaire enables us to present a more accurate and detailed picture of the individuals who took part in the process (such as the age of participants and how many times they had visited Israel). It can also be used as a tool to compare JPPI Dialogue participants to the general Jewish population by looking at our data side-by-side with that of other studies.195 In preliminary research leading up to the Dialogue seminars we made extensive use of studies, surveys and articles, and we have relied on many of them in the process of drawing conclusions. References to all of the background materials used appear in the footnotes.
Naturally, the conclusions drawn from the seminars, the survey, and the background materials are subject to reservations and critique, and we cannot present them without raising several “warning flags” to explain the context in which the seminars were held, and to clarify what they can accomplish for certain, and what they cannot.

Structure and Content of the Seminars:

The vast majority of the seminars were between one and a half and two hours long, and in most cases each discussion group had fewer than 20 participants. In communities where there were a greater number of participants, they were divided into separate discussion groups, which were summarized separately.
Prior to the start of discussions, seminar participants were asked to complete a survey questionnaire. Discussions began with a brief presentation of the reasons behind the seminar and the main questions that would be raised. Later, two or three “case studies” were presented for more detailed examination (the materials prepared for facilitators included three case studies, and the facilitators made use of them according to their own discretion and time constraints). The first case had to do with the fighting in the refugee camp in Jenin and the decision to send IDF units into the camp at the beginning of Operation Defensive Shield (2002). The second dealt with the Second Lebanon War (2006) and the decision not to cause serious damage to civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. The third case related to the decision to destroy high-rise buildings in downtown Gaza toward the end of Operation Protective Edge (2014).
Following a detailed exchange on some of the examples, the discussion returned to central questions in three spheres, which had been defined as the main focus of the Dialogue:
1. What do non-Israeli Jews know about how Israel operates during armed conflicts, and what insights do they have about these methods of operation? (Perceptions)
2. What are their expectations of Israel, and how do they think the conflict should be handled? (Expectations)
3. How do Israel’s conflicts affect the lives of non-Israeli Jews and their connection with Israel? (Relations)

Specific questions were presented to discussion group participants, and their opinions about the three spheres were elicited, as were their thoughts on case studies they had discussed, which provided them with additional information – some of which was unfamiliar to many of them – on how the IDF operates.

Bias in Favor of the Jewish Community’s Core Population:

Understanding the process, its advantages and limitations, requires that we first understand that it relied heavily upon the local community (and local organizations). Each community was responsible for recruiting its seminar participants. Therefore, the composition and size of the groups varied. But one thing was common to all of them: The established community – usually the federation but sometimes other organizations as well – was the organizing body that gathered the participants. In many cases, particularly in the seminars held outside the United States, it was also the body responsible for submitting a discussion report/summary to the Jewish People Policy Institute. It is important to recognize that the vast majority of seminar participants are connected to the “core” of the organized Jewish community. Our findings do not necessarily represent the attitudes and opinions of Jews with weak or no connection to established Jewish life. We know from previous studies that members of the core community tend to be more connected to Israel, attribute greater importance to their Jewish identity, and, in certain cases, are less liberal than other Jewish groups.196 The information we gathered indicates, for example, that Dialogue participants tend to visit Israel more frequently than your “average Jew.”197 Naturally, these characteristics influence the attitudes of JPPI seminar participants.

Adding the Voices of Younger Community Members:

Since the groups convened for discussions were, by and large, composed of people with high standing in the community, they tended to include fewer young people. We know that, on average, the world view of younger Jews tends to be more liberal and more critical of Israel’s policies, and their connection to Israel tends to be more tenuous.198 We understood that young people were underrepresented in JPPI’s 2014 Dialogue process on Israel’s character as a Jewish and Democratic state, and having concluded that greater representation of young adults was essential, we made a concerted effort this year to include several young adult groups. University groups (Hillel at UCLA and the American Jewish University in Los Angeles), and several groups of Masa Israel participants, whom we met a very short time after their arrival in Israel took part in JPPI’s 2015 Dialogue.199 As a result, this year we can present findings based on a younger median age cohort than last year. Accordingly, this report includes a special section on the differences between the attitudes of young adults and those of their older counterparts. Age distribution data, which appears further on in the report, indicate that the number of young people participating in the 2015 Dialogue corresponds, more or less, with the proportion of young people in the Jewish community as a whole. Of course, with the help of these groups we could also compare and contrast the perspectives of older and younger participants as expressed in the survey results and in the discussions themselves.

Interest in Israel:

It can be assumed that the groups taking part in the discussions exhibited a self-selection bias. In other words, we must assume that Jews who have little interest in Israel probably did not participate in the seminars, even in cases when they received an invitation to do so from their local communities. Thus, the general picture we get from the seminars undoubtedly skews toward those members of the worldwide Jewish community for whom Israel is important, and who are interested in participating in the discourse with and about Israel. We can find clear-cut evidence of this in the fact that the percentage of visitors to Israel among seminar participants is much higher compared with the rates among the general Jewish population.

Religious Composition:

JPPI’s 2015 Dialogue process included very few ultra-Orthodox participants. This is a Dialogue limitation that has repeated itself (this was also the case last year), and our efforts to correct it were not sufficiently successful.200 What we know this year that we did not know last year is the specific religious makeup of the discussion groups. Below is a table that presents this data, and compares it to other studies. Generally speaking, the percentage of participants who define themselves as “Conservative” is higher in the Dialogue than their share in the general Jewish population. In contrast, the percentage of participants who are not affiliated with a specific stream of American Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or other) is lower than their proportion in the general Jewish population. In other words, those participating in the 2015 Dialogue were more “religious” (not necessarily in terms of observance, but in terms of identity and identification) than the “average Jew.”

Geographic Distribution:

The geographic distribution of the seminars was quite diverse. Communities from several continents took part in the 2015 Dialogue process. The impressive representation of North American Jewry corresponds to the relative size of the Jewish population there.201 This year quite a few new communities joined the process, mostly in the United States. We were less successful than we had hoped in adding additional non-American communities to the process. Communities in countries such as the Czech Republic and Belgium expressed an interest in participating, but ultimately could not organize their discussions in time. We hope to expand the number of participating communities next year, and for now we have attempted to overcome the under-representation of these communities by analyzing existing background materials and research.

Gaps in the Process Itself:

We relied, in certain cases, on the communities to record protocols of their seminars and summarize them for us, and in other cases JPPI staff was responsible for the summaries. In some communities the Institute’s researchers facilitated the seminars, while in other communities the seminars were run by the communities themselves. Additionally, the length of the seminars varied, as did discussion intensity and level of the summation. Full details regarding each community’s seminars appear in Appendix D below. It should be noted that all the participating communities demonstrated an impressive level of earnestness and commitment to the process, and we thank them for it.

Advantages:

After outlining some weak spots of the 2015 Dialogue process, we should also present some of its advantages. A discussion among Jews who have a clear and unequivocal interest in being connected to Israel, and are involved in its interests can and should take priority over a discussion that also includes Jews who are weakly connected to Israel with a low level of interest. Since the purpose of the process is to discuss Israeli policy, it is reasonable to argue that such a discussion should take into account primarily (and perhaps only) the outlook of Diaspora Jews for whom Israel is important. Taking into consideration the perspectives of Jews uninterested in Israel is less than reasonable in this context. Undoubtedly, taking into account individuals for whom Israel is unimportant would not seem reasonable to most Israelis who, as can be seen in the report, do not always wish to consider even the opinions of deeply involved and committed Zionist Jews. Nor would it be reasonable for the voices of those Diaspora Jews who do not frequently invest, visit, contribute and express an interest in Israel to carry equal weight to those involved in the community.

But in spite of all this, in order to give a full and comprehensive picture of the “perspectives of the Jewish world” we supplemented our study with a considerable amount of data and information from other studies and articles that shed light on the outlooks of groups who are more distant from the organized community. This was very important this year, as the 2015 Dialogue was initiated under an implicit assumption that among certain, and perhaps many, groups of Jews around the world support for Israel’s actions during combat – and an understanding of its actions – had weakened, or perhaps was weak in the first place. Presenting a broad range of attitudes, including those of Jews with little or no likely interest in attending one the seminars seemed, therefore, to be essential.

We have gone to considerable lengths to present a full and comprehensive picture, one that also includes the voices of Jews critical of and less connected to Israel.

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