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

Many Jews around the world feel that they are entitled to express an opinion and to have the State of Israel take their views into account, even on major security issues. The justifications given are varied: Diaspora Jewry’s support for Israel, the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, the impact of the events on their own lives.

Last year’s Dialogue report discussed in depth the issue of Israelis’ desire or willingness to take World Jewry’s views into account, in the framework of dialogue about issues that are, first and foremost, of domestic Israeli concern. It is worth reviewing a few of that report’s insights and expanding on them with some additional data from this year’s process.75

One could certainly debate the benefit to Israel of policy input from Jews who do not live there, most of whom have no intention of ever becoming Israeli citizens. Clearly, given that it is their country that is facing security challenges, the opinions of Israelis on the issues in question are much more important than those of people who live in other countries and not generally exposed to the dangers with which Israelis have to cope, not subject to IDF conscription, and not expected to actively defend Israel in a military service capacity.

Thus, like last year only more so, seminar participants and organizers devoted considerable attention to the question of how valuable Diaspora Jews’ input on these domestic-Israeli matters actually is. A participant in the Cleveland, Ohio seminar, who had served in the IDF, disputed the legitimacy of consulting with Diaspora Jewry on security policy: “Speaking as an IDF soldier – there is no legitimacy for us to have judgment on this situation … This discussion is not appropriate for us to have.”76 Other Cleveland participants mentioned that Diaspora Jews have trouble understanding what goes on in Israel. They sit safely in the U.S. and their children do not have to serve in the army – which disqualifies them from judging Israel’s actions. “We as Americans write checks, but don’t send kids to war. We’re not hiding in bomb shelters. We can’t sit here and judge.”77 A Paris participant said, “We trust Israel to weight in a correct manner the moral dilemmas and to choose the most moral decisions.”78

Not everyone agreed with this stance. Attendees at many of the seminars (including the Cleveland discussions) disputed it. They felt that Israel should at least involve Diaspora Jews in its discussions, and also, at times, take their views into consideration. An interesting example of this discord came up at a seminar in Australia, where some participants suggested that, “Some consideration should be given to World Jewry.”79 They were met with opposition from Israeli residents of Australia who were taking part in the seminar and who felt strongly that Israeli decisions should be made without reference to Diaspora Jewry.

For the survey question posed to all of seminar participants on this topic, the responses were distributed as follows: a little less than a third (30 percent) opposed any Israeli consideration of Diaspora views on armed confrontation. All other participants chose one of three pro-consideration options, each for a different reason. One reason was obviously rooted in World Jewry’s interests, one in Israeli interests, and one in the desire for pan-Jewish unity.

More specifically, 38 percent of respondents chose “consideration” for Diaspora Jewish views because of “the impact that confrontation might have” on their lives. 20 percent said that Israel should show consideration for Diaspora Jews’ opinions if it wants their support. Another 11 percent said that Israel should take World Jewry’s positions into account because all Jews are partners in defining how conflicts are managed according to Jewish morality. A separate analysis of the younger participants’ responses to this question finds that a slightly larger proportion of them (45 versus 34 percent) believe that Israel should give consideration to Diaspora Jewry because of the potential impact of its policies on Jews around the world. A smaller percentage of younger Jews (22 percent) felt that Israel should act without taking World Jewry into account at all.

As the response breakdown shows, a fair number of Diaspora Jews feel they are entitled to express their opinions and that Israel should take them into account, even on major security issues. Their justifications are varied – their support for Israel, the fact that Israel is a Jewish country, the impact of the events on their own lives (a topic to be discussed later on at length), and the like. A Chicago seminar participant said, “Israel has to consider non-Israeli Jews and vice versa to benefit World Jewry. See things as a people. Not voting does not mean you don’t have a voice.” In Brazil it was argued that “Israel, as the Jewish State […represents] the Jewish people. Because of this, Jewish communities all over the world must be consulted as a main partner and support for Israel.”80 A South African attendee stated, “Israel should nevertheless be open to hearing views of Jews in the Diaspora. Not only because unpopular Israeli policies impact negatively on Jewish communities elsewhere, but the latter are primarily motivated by a desire for Israel to do what is best for itself, and since their own wellbeing is tied up with that of Israel.”81 Participants in St. Louis said, “Israel should take into account the impact on World Jewry and World Jewry’s position. However, World Jewry can’t try to tie Israel’s hands.” On the other hand, a majority of St. Louis attendees agreed, “most Israelis feel that if one does not live in Israel, they are not entitled to have an opinion or a say in what happens in Israel.”

This is not necessarily the case, as we explained in last year’s report. But before we lay out some of the reasons that led us to this conclusion, we will note that the justification for including World Jewry’s voice in the debate on Israeli policy is not based solely on Diaspora Jews’ ability to influence the Israeli public or Israeli governmental policy. Clearly, the very decision to ask World Jewry for its opinion on Israeli policy reflects the view that Israel is a state in which all of the world’s Jews have a stake. This is, indeed, a widely held opinion in Israel, as we shall see later on. In any case, there are other important reasons for including World Jewry in discussions regarding Israeli actions, even if their actual influence on these actions would be limited. Some of these reasons have been presented in numerous earlier JPPI publications– documents that called for improved Israeli-Diaspora dialogue:

  • Because Israel sees itself as a “Jewish” state that is, to some degree, responsible for, and authorized to represent, the entire Jewish people, it is natural for Diaspora Jews to be involved in explicating issues that touch on the State of Israel’s character. The discussion taking place this year deals not with military tactics but with the attempt to determine how Israel should define its ethical-moral aspirations given the unavoidability of fighting – and this is an issue with obvious bearing on the character of the State.
  • The world’s Jewish communities have played a major role in reinforcing Israeli security, and it is hoped that they will continue their support, as active partners, especially in emergency situations. Israel would therefore do well to consult with them, even on security-related issues.
  • Israel was founded in order to realize “the natural right of the Jewish people”82 and sees itself as a country in which all Jews have a stake. So long as this premise holds sway, it should be natural for Israel to consult with non-Israeli Jews on issues pertaining to the state’s character.
  • Israel’s image, which is also affected by its security policy, could potentially influence the way in which Jews are perceived by non-Jews, and might even expose Jews to hostile actions on the part of non-Jews.
  • Israeli policy has an impact on World Jewry’s attitude toward Israel. Consultation that facilitates advance preparation for this impact is crucial.

Diaspora-Israel relations have evolved over the years since the State of Israel was founded. In the past, the mere idea that Jews in their communities around the world could have a real influence on Israeli policy seemed strange, as Diaspora Jews were focused more on providing aid and support to Israel as it was. However, in recent years the expectations of Diaspora Jews in communities around the world have changed,83 and they now wish to have such influence.84

Of course, individual Jews around the world expect to influence Israel on different issues, and aspire to differing levels of impact – from those who feel duty-bound to make themselves heard on all issues, including ones that are clearly security-related, to those who prefer to focus solely on issues of Jewish life in Israel.85

And yet, the expectation of being involved and having some influence is highly prevalent among non-Israeli Jews.86 This is a sign of change in the Israel-Diaspora relationship. At the Glen Cove brainstorming conference, when the round of seminars had concluded,87 senior Jewish leaders strongly expressed the opinion that Israel should take the views and perspectives of World Jewry into account “if it wants to continue to see them as partners,” as one participant put it. It is worth noting, however, that the Jews who had been invited to participate in a discussion of Israel’s security issues understood the invitation as an opportunity for dialogue, but were also somewhat concerned that Israeli Jews’ tolerance threshold for a dialogue might have been trespassed in raising such sensitive issue.

Decisions that Israel made over the past year indicate that the country’s diplomatic-political system does not feel obligated to conduct its affairs according to Diaspora Jews’ preferences. As noted above, Israel acted this year, in some key areas, in a way that many Diaspora Jews viewed unfavorably. Confrontations between Israel and high governmental officials of countries with large Jewish communities (the U.S., of course, but also France); public Israeli appeals for mass Aliyah, signaling Israel’s lack of confidence in the abilities of countries such as France and Belgium to curb anti-Semitism; and most recently, the formation of a new Israeli government whose basic policy orientation is antithetical to the views and desires of most Diaspora Jews with respect to political matters, and, no less importantly , over issues of religion and state. All of this raises doubts that Israel-Diaspora dialogue truly holds the potential to affect Israeli policy.

Glen Cove brainstorming participants raised many objections to the Israeli government’s handling of a wide array of issues, from the continuing occupation to conversion and the status of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. All of these issues had been voiced at previous gatherings, and highlight where Israeli policy is out of alignment with the values and viewpoints of many, perhaps most, Diaspora Jews.

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