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

Israel’s international public-opinion woes echo and are also felt throughout the Jewish world. This problem relates both to the reasons behind the war – for which some Diaspora Jews view Israel as partly responsible – and to the war’s outcomes, which give no sense of completion, neither victory nor defeat. Of course, the problem also has to do with the nature of Israel’s recent wars, which have involved civilian populations to a much greater degree than in past wars.

Recent decades have witnessed a growing polarization in Diaspora Jewish communities into different “camps,” and a shrinking of the “middle.”38 This trend is not unique to Jews. Societies and regimes the world over are having trouble locating a middle path, one that reflects a broad consensus. This is pushing individuals and groups toward opposite poles on a variety of issues – diplomatic, political, economic, and religious. In the Jewish world too, this trend is visible in several spheres – religious, cultural, and social – and also applies to the relationship with Israel, and attitudes toward Israel. According to Professor Theodore Sasson, there has been a trend toward “fragmentation and weakening of the center” in the wake of Israel’s recent elections.39 Many communities in which Diaspora Jews live take a dim view of Israel,40 and even those with generally positive opinions of Israel, such as the American communities, exhibit greatly varying attitudes toward Israel.41 Their reactions to negative attitudes and to the controversy surrounding Israel span a broad spectrum, encompassing active opposition to criticism, active participation in criticism, profile lowering, or the adoption of a detached or indifferent stance. Naturally, these trends are more conspicuous during periods when international political attention is focused on Israel and during periods of diplomatic or political crisis, and they have a dual outcome:

  • Intra-communal tension in some communities, due to the (sometimes very wide) variation in community member views regarding the appropriate position to take or the right response to developments on the ground (e.g., is the U.S. or the Israeli government stance on the nuclear agreement with Iran the correct one?).
  • Possible tension between each specific community and Israel – in a situation where a large swath of the community sees recent developments as grounds for criticism, anger, disappointment or alienation vis-à-vis Israel. This kind of tension can, of course, increase in instances where large numbers of community members oppose Israel’s actions. But it can also emerge when the group opposed to Israel’s actions is not large numerically, or when such groups are particularly adept at conveying its messages and thus achieve prominence in the public discourse, regardless of their size in proportion to the Jewish community.

When the Israeli government was involved in a heated dispute with the American government over the nuclear talks with Iran, debate erupted within the Jewish community over policy vis-à-vis Iran (a number of surveys have indicated broad American-Jewish support for an agreement with Iran).42 Also at issue were the various Jewish positions (in contrast to surveys indicating American-Jewish support for the agreement, others showed a decline in Jewish support for President Obama due to the emerging agreement), and the conduct of the Israeli government.43 For example, several commentators have expressed the view that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Iran had “split” American Jewry44 to such a degree that some communities were finding that discussion of Israel had become “impossible.”45

When, in the wake of this year’s bloody terrorist attacks in France, the Israeli prime minister and several other senior officials called upon European Jews to immigrate to Israel, internal debate arose within the Diaspora Jewish communities, and between some community leaders and Israel. These events focused debate on the issue of whether Israel should be calling for Jews exposed to anti-Semitism in their home communities to make Aliyah to Israel – as well as on the question of whether and to what degree Israel and its elected officials represent the Jewish people as a whole.46 The debate carries on throughout the Jewish world, but also within the French Jewish community itself, which encompasses a diverse range of viewpoints.47 At an Institute seminar in France the opinion was voiced that “Benjamin Netanyahu’s invitation to French Jews to immigrate to Israel put the French Jews in an embarrassing situation. They had to explain to their fellow French citizens that they are not ‘Israelis living [in France] on borrowed time.’”48

When the outcome of the 2015 Israeli elections dissatisfied many Diaspora Jews, debate ensued over whether, and to what degree, the results might affect Diaspora Jewry’s relationship with Israel. At the Pittsburgh seminar it was noted that the issue of how Israeli conduct affects World Jewry had “flared up during the war, but even more so during the last weeks of the Israeli election, regarding Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments which have made Jews everywhere uncomfortable.”49

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. When Ariel Sharon won his bid to become prime minister of Israel in 2001, there were reports that his election was “dividing” World Jewry.50 When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a friendly visit to President George W. Bush, whom most American Jews did not support politically, it was reported that the visit had “illustrated the distance between the two major Jewish communities, not the closeness between them.” 51 The 2015 elections also provoked a wave of news articles and public statements. The election results, it was said, “are going to make Israel an ever more complex cause for many American Jews.”52 The publisher of Los Angeles’ main Jewish magazine, Rob Eshman, wrote that “Bibi tacked hard right to win the Israeli election. If he keeps sailing in that direction, he’ll leave American Jewry on a distant shore, waving goodbye.”53

When controversy over Israel engages Diaspora Jews, it is not always easy to identify, in each particular instance, the precise demarcation lines between different camps. When does a given debate address a problem that concerns most of the community, and when is it a disagreement to which local Jews are largely indifferent? What are the majority and dissenting opinions, how are these views arrived at, and how often do they change? Do younger and older community members have different views, and why? Does some consensus exist alongside the disagreements? We will address most of these questions in greater depth later in this report. What is relevant at this stage is the fact that it is not only “political” or “diplomatic” incidents that spark lively discussions within the Jewish community. This also happens, and in recent years with greater frequency, when Israel is in the news due to a military conflict with one of its neighbors.

“Israel’s security policy is making it increasingly harder for Diaspora Jews to present a unified voice vis-à-vis the Jewish state,” asserts the author of a comprehensive study of Diaspora Jewry and Israel.54 This argument is based on a hidden assumption that, while debatable (Israel’s security policy, rather than changing Diaspora-Jewish viewpoints, is the root of the problem), nevertheless reflects a reality well known to those who follow the vagaries of Israel-Diaspora relations. Although Jewish communities around the world once tended to unite in support of Israel when it became mired in violent confrontation or war – to raise money, take political action, send solidarity missions and the like – this solidarity has eroded in recent years.

This erosion is natural, almost inevitable, given the changing character of Israel’s wars, as noted earlier. It is rooted both in the reasons for war – some Diaspora Jews assign Israel responsibility for some confrontations (due to policies unfavorable to producing a peace agreement), and in the outcomes of war – which provide no sense of closure, no victory or defeat, and thus make it difficult for outside observers to identify with Israel. And, of course, it is connected with the nature of the wars being fought today, which involve civilian populations to a much greater degree than Israel’s past conflicts.

Last summer, while Operation Protective Edge was being waged in Gaza, the divergence in attitudes toward Israel was all the more pronounced. Clear support for Israel’s actions was expressed in Diaspora Jewish communities; yet quite a few voices were raised in criticism – even harsh criticism. Objection to Israel’s actions, along with other signs of eroding Jewish support for Israel,55 are a source of concern for the Israeli government and for Israeli citizens. This concern has a practical side: Israel depends on Diaspora Jewish support and draws strength from it. But an ideological element is also at play: Israel sees itself in the role of World Jewry’s protector (whether its services are solicited or not) – the nation-state of all Jews. Wartime attacks on Israel by Jews in the name of “Jewish values” challenge Israel’s self-perception as the Jewish homeland, and may even exacerbate the sullying of Israel’s image by non-Jews.

Operation Protective Edge was not the first or only occasion in recent years when criticism of Israel was voiced in Diaspora communities. During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, the organized Jewish community at first rallied around Israel and its assault on Hezbollah; but breaches in this support quickly emerged, and reservations about Israel’s actions were expressed.56 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-09) garnered less support for Israel to begin with, and several instances in which objections were raised within World Jewry. One of the most prominent voices was that of J Street, which self-identifies as “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” This criticism sparked debate within the community – as well as criticism of the organization for having “misread the issues and misjudged the views of American Jews,” as the Reform Movement’s then-president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, put it.57 Similarly, J Street’s (cautious) support for Operation Protective Edge also generated debate. This time J Street was criticized by those who felt that it had abandoned its mission; these disappointed parties sought out other organizations whose criticism of Israel was harsher.58

Israel’s international public opinion problems during Operation Protective Edge were sometimes reflected by Diaspora Jewry. A broad range of responses to Israeli actions – from discomfort to repugnance – were expressed within the Jewish world, via articles, speeches, sermons, and statements by opinion-makers, leaders, academics, rabbis and journalists. “The Israeli case for the bombardment of Gaza could [have been] foolproof,” wrote New York Times columnist Roger Cohen – who, however, concluded that Israel had no such case.59 “I can’t defend killing children […], and I believe Israel should have avoided bombardment of UN safe harbors,” wrote a Duke University professor.60 A British academic who presents himself as belonging to the camp of Jews who “have traditionally supported Israel but in recent years are feeling less and less comfortable doing so due to Israeli policy” has raised doubts regarding Israel’s claim that it adheres to international law.61

Jonathan Freedland, executive editor of The Guardian and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, reported in the latter publication a “weariness in the liberal Zionist fraternity. Privately, people admit to growing tired of defending Israeli military action when it comes at such a heavy cost in civilian life, its futility confirmed by the frequency with which it has to be repeated.”62 New York Magazine commentator Jonathan Chait exhibited a similar weariness, “the unintended deaths of Palestinians [that are] so disproportionate to any corresponding increase in security for the Israeli targets of Hamas’s air strikes.”63

Chait’s article, like the others quoted above, is just the tip of the iceberg of opinion pieces written explicitly in a “Jewish connection” framework. And like many others, the article attempts to persuade the reader that its author has an instinctive empathy for the object of his or her criticism – Israel. Jewish critics of Israel mount their arguments affirming that they are not hostile to Israel, but simply (and in spite of themselves) having trouble identifying with it; or else they have identified with Israel in the past but are no longer able to do so. Leon Wieseltier, in the New Republic, controversially asserted, “It is not sickening that Israel is defending itself – it is, by the standard of Jewish historical experience, exhilarating; but some of what Israel is doing to defend itself is sickening.”64

Although the articles and statements quoted above were published either during the war or shortly after it, they have continued to resonate and to generate discussion. Nearly a year after the war Yehuda Kurtzer wrote, “liberal Zionism is in crisis. Last summer’s war in Gaza provoked a spate of essays purporting that the confrontation between liberal values and the policies of a hawkish Israel were making the ideology untenable.”65 One participant in the JPPI’s Glen Cove brainstorming conference stated, “[T]here are groups of Jews who have completely lost faith in Israel and in what it is doing.”66 Mention was also made of declining enrollment in the Taglit-Birthright Israel and Masa Israel programs, and concerns were expressed that this could be attributed to the Gaza war.

Do these criticisms and statements reflect the frustration of a small minority of Jews, or do they reflect something larger? Do they indicate a misreading of reality by Jews who observe Israel from a distance, or are they the manifestation of fundamental differences in perspective that result in differing interpretations of reality? These are some of the questions that we sought to address in the 2015 Dialogue framework – questions that also trouble Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as noted in a letter to JPPI that warned of “wide gaps in the reading of realities” and underscored the need for a systematic investigation of Jewish attitudes in this sphere.67

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