Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

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

A decisive majority of Israeli Jews feels that its relationship with World Jewry, especially with the large American Jewish community, is vital to Israeli interests. Accordingly, many hold the view that Israel should consult Diaspora Jewry on a range of issues.

In recent years, “official” and “non-official” Israel have gradually come to accept the changing pattern of relations between World Jewry and Israel. As far as Israel is concerned the relationship with World Jewry is part of its raison d’être, and many Israelis understand the vital importance of the Israel-Diaspora relationship. In last year’s Dialogue report, we presented survey findings indicating that Israelis, to a large extent, accept the idea of World Jewry criticizing its actions.88 The Israeli establishment has also, over the last few years, taken measures that point to a gradual understanding of the change in Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry, and of what that change means.89 The previous Israeli government decided to invest millions of dollars in strengthening Jewish identity around the world – and there is no indication that the new government intends to deviate from that policy.90

Israeli surveys do not always present a clear picture of Israelis’ willingness to have World Jewry intervene in their domestic affairs. In certain instances Israelis (Jews) overwhelmingly support symbolic gestures that give Diaspora communities a voice. For example: 76 percent of Israelis have said they would agree to have one of the twelve Independence Day torch-lighting slots “reserved for a representative of Diaspora Jewry.”91 Seventy-one percent supported the idea that “Israeli government officials should always be willing to meet and be in contact [even] with Diaspora Jewish organizations that criticize their policies.” Israelis also express a desire for World Jewry to be more resolute in its support of Israel.92 When Israelis are asked, however, about World Jewry being officially involved in formulating Israeli policy, the numbers favoring involvement decline. 63 percent of Israelis oppose the idea of Diaspora Jews being able to elect “a few” Knesset members to represent their interests.93 Forty-nine percent oppose “creating a mechanism that would oblige the Knesset to discuss issues relevant to Diaspora Jewry.”

Surveys from past years show that Israelis approve94 of measures taken by Israel aimed at reinforcing Jewish identity in other parts of the world. They also support the idea of Israel taking Diaspora Jewry “into consideration” when major decisions have to be made. In an Israel Democracy Institute survey, 71 percent of respondents stated that Israel should take Diaspora Jewry into account when making decisions, versus 26 percent who felt that Israel has no need to do so.95

It is one thing for Israel to acknowledge the changing dynamics of its relationship with the Diaspora, its need to work harder at strengthening Jewish communities abroad, and even the desirability of taking Diaspora Jewry’s views into consideration (while also recognizing the major implications of this process for the Zionism’s “negation of the Diaspora” ideology). It is another thing to agree to World Jewry’s intervention in Israeli affairs. Especially in security related matters, on which Israelis have a very different perspective from Diaspora Jews. Nevertheless, a new survey conducted this year by pollster Menachem Lazar shows that even when a more focused question is asked regarding topics on which, in the words of the survey, “the Israeli leadership should consult with the American Jewish leadership,” the Israeli-Jewish public is not alarmed by the idea of such consultation.96

The survey question was: “Of the following, which issue is the most important for Israel’s leadership to consult about with the American Jewish leadership?” Respondents were presented with the following list of options: “Cultivating Israel-US relations”; “Military and security issue”; “Social issues”; “Issues of religion and state”; “Their opinion should be sought on all issues”; “Their opinion need not be sought on any issue”; and “Don’t know.” The response breakdown was as follows:

Cultivating Israel-US relations – 54%
Military and security issues – 15%
Social issues – 4%
Issues of religion and state – 2%
Their opinion should be sought on all issues – 8%
Their opinion need not be sought on any issue – 13%
Don’t know – 4%

When the survey responses are analyzed via an array of parameters (age, gender, level of religious observance, political stance), only a small minority showed no interest in consultation, despite differences of several percentage points between different groups. The religious and right wing public show a slightly greater tendency than the secular-left public to oppose “consultation.” For example, 16 percent of religious respondents chose the “Their opinion need not be sought on any issue” option, compared with 9 percent of secular respondents; this aligned them closely with the masorti or “traditional” respondents, 15 percent of whom chose that option. Seven percent of right-wing respondents answered “Their opinion should be sought on all issues” against 12 percent of left-wing respondents.
This analysis somewhat contradicts earlier surveys that pointed to differences between Israeli sub-groups around Israel-Diaspora relations and the sense of closeness to World Jewry – factors that, of course, influence Israeli willingness to involve Diaspora Jews in formulating Israeli policy. According to these earlier surveys, the sense of “belonging” to a wider Jewish world is stronger for traditional and religious (Orthodox) Israelis than among secular Israelis.97

However, this survey substantiates past conclusions, namely that Israelis relate to non-Israeli intervention in their country’s affairs mainly in terms of the specific costs and benefits intervention could have for specific political objectives.98 The point is that the opinions and views of World Jewry are seen through an Israeli political prism.99 An earlier survey question on Israelis’ desire for Diaspora involvement in “Israeli social issues” – a question relating to a possible area where Diaspora Jews could actively affect the character of the State – elicited highly supportive responses for such involvement.100 However, this support for Diaspora involvement was lower than support for the “traditional” roles Israelis have ascribed to non-Israeli Jews, such as lobbying for Israel, donating money to Israel, and visiting Israel.

Similarly, the Lazar survey indicates that support [for non-Israeli involvement] is significantly higher when Israelis are asked about “consultation” where the benefit to Israel is clear – improved relations with the home country of the Jews being consulted – compared with the desire to consult with non-Israeli Jews on matters of domestic Israeli policy, e.g. religion and state, or economic and social issues.101

At the same time, it is interesting to note that “Military and security issues” was the second-most important option in the survey respondents’ eyes. This could, of course, reflect a sense that this is the issue of greatest importance to Israel’s future (though one on which Diaspora Jewry is less able to help than that of improving relations with their home countries). Even so, this choice indicates that at least a quarter of Israeli Jews, and likely many more, have no problem with, and even support, the idea of Israel consulting with American Jewry even in the sensitive military-security sphere (15 percent selected “Military and security,” while another 8 percent chose “all issues” – a total of 23 percent).102

Last year we noted a connection between differing Israeli expectations of World Jewry (regarding support for Israel) and Israelis’ assessment of the overall state of World Jewry.103 For example, we pointed out that over 80 percent of religious and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews (89 percent) are convinced that assimilation and weak Jewish identity constitute the greatest danger to the Jewish people, while the percentage of secular Jews greatly concerned by assimilation is much lower (22 percent are “certain” of the danger, versus 31percent who “think” it is a danger).104

Lazar’s 2015 survey adds nuance to this conclusion by asking respondents how American Jewry could best be “defined.” Jewish Israelis were asked to choose one of two options: a “strong and thriving community” or an “assimilated and weak community.” The responses indicate that a large majority of Israelis have a very positive impression of the state of American Jewry. Most (62 versus 26 percent) chose the “strong and thriving” option. As expected, an even larger majority of secular Israelis (72 percent) chose this option, compared with a smaller majority (almost parity) among religious Israeli Jews (46 percent “strong and thriving” versus 44 percent “assimilated and weak”).105

Under these circumstances, we can understand why many Israelis are willing to say, at least in a survey framework, that Israel should consult with American Jews, especially with regard to maintaining good relations with their home country. The impetus for this is a widespread Israeli-Jewish belief that the relationship with a “strong and thriving” American Jewry is essential to Israeli interests. This view was reflected in responses to a survey that asked, “To what degree is Israel’s future linked to or dependent upon Diaspora Jewry in general, and American Jewry in particular?”106 Nearly 80 percent of survey respondents said that Israel is dependent on World Jewry to a “very great” or “great” degree.