Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

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

In 2015 the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) conducted, for a second consecutive year, a large-scale and complex dialogue involving different groups within Diaspora Jewry. The aim was to enable decision-makers in the Jewish world to assess intra-Jewish processes and trends with a deeper understanding, and to foster fruitful discussion among all Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities on the fundamental challenges facing the Jewish people. Last year’s dialogue focused on Israel’s character as a “Jewish and democratic” state (against the background of proposed legislation to enshrine Israel’s legal designation as such a state). This year’s dialogue focused on Jewish values and Israel’s use of force in armed conflict. The topic was chosen shortly after the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip last summer (2014), and in light of the various responses the operation elicited within the Jewish world.

This year’s dialogue, as in the past, took place via structured seminars in several dozen communities around the world.3 Hundreds of participants were presented with several “test cases” typifying asymmetrical warfare scenarios, of the kind Israel has been faced with in recent decades.4 The aim was to elucidate the operational and moral dilemmas that arise in such instances. Participants dealt with questions posed in three main areas: how they understand the way in which Israel acts in wartime and what they know about Israel’s actions; how the way in which Israel uses military force squares with their understanding of “Jewish values,” and what ideological-moral standard by which they expect Israel to abide; how Israel’s actions affect their attitudes toward the country, and their own lives. In addition to taking part in the discussions, participants completed a comprehensive survey on these issues.
There is a dual working assumption behind this kind of Dialogue.

On the theoretical plane: recognition of the need for a broad-based intra-Jewish discourse on moral and ethical issues, and of the benefit that intellectual cross-pollination brings to Jewish communities and sub-groups by diversifying and enriching discussion of essential issues, such as the use of force.
On the practical plane: recognition of the possibility that instances in which Israel uses force, and Diaspora Jewry’s responses to these incidents, actively affect Israel-Diaspora relations, Israel’s status in the eyes of World Jewry, World Jewry’s status in Israel’s eyes. These two assumptions will be explored in depth in the chapter, Is Israel Willing to Take Diaspora-Jewish Opinions into Account? and in other sections of the report.

JPPI’s 2015 Dialogue was characterized by severe dissonance. On one hand, the discussions held indicate that, by and large, Jews in communities around the world understand and accept Israel’s need to use force in its dangerous and hostile surroundings, identify with the modes of action that Israel employs, accept Israel’s contention that it does its best to avoid harming civilians and to wage war as ethically as possible, agree that the criticism to which Israel’s actions are subjected in international forums and the international media are exaggerated and biased, and affirm that Israel suffers from unjustified discrimination compared to other countries.

In many of the dozens of seminar discussions, Jews used the word “we” when talking about Israel and the IDF. “We are held to a high standard”;5 “We value life”;6 “The Palestinians want fatalities, we don’t”;7 “This is war – them versus us.”8 Many participants took stands supporting decisive Israeli action when drawn into armed confrontation, and frequently made comparisons to other armies that act aggressively but are not subjected to the same criticism that the IDF is forced to counter again and again. “No one asks how many civilians were killed in the Saudi Arabian air force attacks on Yemen,” a participant in the Stamford, Connecticut dialogue noted.9 Similar remarks were made at other seminars, and many other examples are available.

On the other hand, the discussions also revealed a certain amount of distress. They called attention to a growing difficulty that many Jews have understanding Israel’s long-term policy – which they see as contributing to, if not actually creating, the need to engage in repeated violent confrontations with its neighbors. They also evinced a rising tendency among Diaspora Jews to regard their ties to Israel as a disruptive factor in their personal and communal lives. Although they are not the ones who have to fight – none of the participants was confused on that point – they, nevertheless, at times feel that they are positioned on a certain kind of frontline where they would rather not be.

Many – most – Jews still feel close to Israel, are concerned about Israel, want the best for it and to see it succeed. One cannot, however, ignore the many voices testifying to a growing difficulty in accepting the price this closeness entails. “Israel’s wars have an immediate and, usually, a negative effect on Diaspora Jewry,” concluded the summary of one of the Brazil discussions.10 The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania seminar noted that, “We are all held accountable for Israel’s actions… [There is] no separation between Zionism and Judaism; how Israel acts and negotiates peace affects all Jews.” “Whether I want to or not – I become an ambassador of Israel,” said one participant in St. Louis, Missouri.11 “It affects me at work because I work with mostly non-Jews. People come to my office and ask my opinion,”12 explained one Cleveland, Ohio participant.

Jews around the world feel that their relationship with Israel complicates their interactions with the local non-Jewish community. This feeling is particularly pronounced in places where safety is a real concern, especially when Israel is in the midst of a confrontation and tensions are on the rise – as was seen in several major European cities this past year, particularly Paris. But they also feel that way in places where there is no great fear of physical harm– just awkwardness due to the constant need to defend and apologize for Israel, and to explain Israel’s actions (which they themselves may not fully understand). They may find themselves clashing with others over Israel (on college campuses, with anti-Israel activists), or feeling embarrassed to be identified with Israel. The discussion in St. Louis concluded, succinctly, with the group’s stated belief that, “Israel’s actions and the focus on them have diminished the St. Louis Jewish community’s willingness to celebrate Israel (for example, scaled-down celebrations of Yom Ha’atzmaut). The group feels that the Jews want to keep their heads down.”13 Participants in the Melbourne, Australia seminar felt that, “Harassment and intimidation of Jewish/Zionist students in universities and a lack of ‘support’ and counter actions left them feeling ‘morally betrayed’ by Israel and dispirited in their Zionism and defense of Israel.”14 At one seminar, an embarrassed Jewish father related how, during a tour of colleges with his son, he had been shocked into silence by a guide who bragged about his achievements as an anti-Israel activist on campus. And he was not the only one to behave this way. At the seminar in Tenafly, New Jersey, an Israeli-born participant told how he had often “chickened out” of opportunities to defend Israel from criticism.15

Jews around the world also feel that their connection to Israel complicates things for them within their own communities. Israel, which seeks to be a unifying force for World Jewry, has become, over the years, a source of tension. “There are deep rifts between Israel and the Diaspora, especially among younger Jews,” said one participant in Cleveland. “I support Israel, but prefer not to get into arguments with others (both within and outside of the Jewish community) because it is not worth being attacked,”16 said a participant in a young-adult group. At the Glen Cove brainstorming, one participant pointed out that liberal Jews “are unhappy with Israel, ashamed.”17 Other participants mentioned the 2013 Steven Cohen and Jason Gitlin study, according to which many American community rabbis are “reluctant” to talk about Israel in their synagogues.18 The study found that a fifth of American rabbis conceal dovish positions on Israel and the Palestinians from their congregations, while a tenth conceal hawkish views. Nearly 40 percent of the rabbis prefer not to express their “real feelings” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fearing that it might “hurt” their congregants.

This sums up the situation of Jewish dissonance regarding Israel: sympathy and concern on one hand; growing internal and external discomfort on the other. This contradiction is causing quite a few dialogue participants to request, or even demand, that Israel take their opinions and feelings into account. A participant in the seminar in South Africa said, “Israel has to do what it needs to protect its citizens regardless of [the] fallout. 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, their views should be taken into account.”19 In Brazil the same demand was formulated as follows: “One fundamental justification for Israel’s existence is that Judaism is clearly applied when it is necessary to take crucial decisions that involve life and security… Israel, as the Jewish state, willing or not, talks in the name of the Jewish people. Because of this, Jewish communities all over the world must be consulted as a main partner…”20

Interestingly, most specific requests for consideration were not connected to security, a sphere in which Israel enjoys the support of most dialogue participants. The requests focused, rather, on the diplomatic sphere, where many are critical of Israel – some due to political views contrary to those of the current Israeli government, and some out of an incomplete understanding of the circumstances in which Israel has to operate. And the requests focused no less on areas this year’s Dialogue did not directly address – domestic policy issues in particular (treatment of Israeli Arabs, the Bedouin, foreign workers, and the Ethiopian-Israeli community, which recently staged highly-publicized protests), as well as religion-and-state issues (the power wielded by the Chief Rabbinate, conversion, marriage, women’s status, discrimination against progressive streams). In some instances discussion participants explicitly stated that, “[N]o one expects Israel to do what we ask on an issue like Gaza, but consideration could be shown on other things that are important to us.”21

To what extent, if any, is Israel prepared to respond to this request for consideration? A separate, internal-Israeli discussion of the issue is urgently needed.

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We would like to thank the many people who participated in this process, especially the community seminar organizers who took on the challenge. Although the questions posed to them were difficult and complicated, participants in all the communities strove to answer them seriously and sincerely, out of an understanding that the questions were important and that they, the participants, had a role to play in addressing them. The discussions were sometimes tense and opinions were often divided, but a great effort was made to keep a free and open exchange going, characterized by respect for differing views. The names of all of the communities and many of the discussion participants appear in Appendix D. We would also like to thank those who took part in the Jewish People Policy Institute brainstorming conference in Glen Cove, New York, which contributed greatly to further developing our thoughts on the subject of this report. Additional information on the process, its advantages and disadvantages, is available in Appendix A.