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

When Israel is at war there is a “domino effect,” said one seminar participant in Cleveland. Many of the discussions stressed the way in which Israel’s wars, the manner in which these are presented in the media, the attention they draw and the automatic tendency in the non-Jewish environment to see the Jews as representing a pro-Israel stance – all of these summarize the direct influence of the combat on the relationship Jews have with their surroundings. “When Israel bombs Gaza, I feel it,” remarked a discussion participant in Dallas, Texas.

Israel’s actions have ramifications for non-Israeli Jews as well. They are often subject to criticism if they support Israel, and on occasion, to unpleasant demonstrations or even violence purportedly in response to Israel’s actions. As last year’s Dialogue report also highlighted, “There is clear evidence that periods of tension between Israel and its neighbors increase the frequency and intensity of harassment/attacks against Jews in various places around the world. This is true for places where there are only a few Jews as well as places where the Jewish communities are larger and stronger.” This year such insights were particularly emphatic in light of the bloody incidents against France’s Jewish community, with one discussion participant noting that “any time [Israel uses force] synagogues are burned.”174

Following the attack on the Paris Jewish market in January 2015, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls claimed that anti-Semitic incidents are related to “the difficult neighborhoods, with immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have turned anger about Gaza into something very dangerous.”175 Former President Jimmy Carter took things one step further in suggesting that “one of the origins” of the attacks in France is “the Palestinian problem, and this affects people who are affiliated in any way with the Arab people who live in the West Bank and Gaza.”176

If Israel’s use of force supplies rationale for attacks on Jews the world over, it is totally natural for Jews the world over to feel they have a stake in Israel’s policy toward its Palestinian neighbors and its image overseas. Jews around the world, whether they want a connection with Israel or not, are forced to bear some of the cost for the way Israel is perceived by the world.
“The Jews of Europe feel the impact of Israel’s actions after every military operation,”177 said a young dialogue participant. “Jewish institutions often need to increase their security as a result of [Israel’s] conflicts,” a London participant explained, “Israel’s battles have an immediate influence, and mostly negative, on Diaspora Jewry in the media and the universities,” according to the seminar discussions in Brazil. “We are all held accountable for Israel’s actions,” we were told in Pittsburgh.

Thus, it would appear that the feeling that when Israel shoots, Jews feel it applies not only to Jews residing in communities under the direct and outright threat of violence, such as the European communities, but also to relatively safe communities, such as in the United States. Dialogue participants shared many stories that shed light on how IDF actions impact their lives. In Atlanta, one seminar participant remarked that Israel’s battles “make the interaction with non-Jews more complicated.” A St. Louis participant said, “Whether I want it or not I am forced into acting as an ambassador for Israel.” Another participant told of how he “chickened out” when he happened to be someplace where strong criticism was being leveled at Israel. In many other discussions, participants described incidents when they chose to remain silent, and sometimes did not identify themselves as Jews, so as not to be dragged into conflict and debate with adamant Israel detractors.

In several seminars, participants reported the problems that Israel’s actions create for them within their own families.178 For one parent in Los Angeles, the conflict engenders confrontation in his relationship with his own children, who are more critical of Israel and chastise their father for his support of the Jewish state. At a seminar in Dallas, one participant spoke of her conflict with non-Jewish family members. This topic came up in several other seminars and reflects the changing face of the Jewish world, a process that, in recent years, has been most evident in the North American Jewish community.

Presently, roughly half of all 18-year-old American Jews has one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent.179 This is a dramatic change in the makeup of the U.S. Jewish community (there is less data available on most Jewish communities in other countries, but we know that intermarriage rates in some of them are also very high),180 and this has some effect on how Jews relate to Israel.181

Certain aspects of intermarriage’s influence on Israel attachment have already been extensively documented. According to Prof. Steven Cohen’s analysis of the 2013 Pew report’s dataset , Jews who are not connected to Israel have distinct characteristics: they are younger (almost 20 percent of young people feel alienated from Israel), they are not affiliated with any particular stream of Judaism, they are politically liberal, and were raised in homes with at least one Jewish parent. Among those who grew up in intermarried homes, almost 20 percent have a weak connection to Israel, and believe that the United States is overly supportive of Israel. Among those who grew up in homes where both parents were Jewish, less than 5 percent feel the same way.

But the 2015 JPPI Dialogue discovered another angle regarding the influence of intermarriage on the connection to Israel – an influence that derives from the necessity that some Jews feel to justify their connection to Israel to non-Jewish family members, including close relatives. Jews married to non-Jews often have to explain to their spouses, in-laws or other family members their feeling of support and sympathy for Israel.

It also arises among Jews-by-choice (whether they have converted officially or perceive themselves as being part of a Jewish community without a conversion process).

In one seminar, a female Jewish convert reported that, “My family asked me, ‘this is the religion you joined?’ They watched TV and couldn’t understand what this had to do with me.” In another seminar a participant described a serious argument he had with his non-Jewish brother-in-law who felt that the United States needs to stop supporting Israel. “When the argument is within the family you have to be more cautious because no way do you want to ruin the relationship, even if you feel [the other side] is completely wrong. And besides, I sort of understand him: If I were not Jewish then maybe I wouldn’t understand why we should support Israel and why it is important.”

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