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

Jews around the world are uncomfortable with a security policy based on “Jewish values,” due to definitional concerns, or because problems might arise vis-à-vis the international community. Most prefer “international law” as a basis for Israeli security policy, despite their harsh criticism of the international community and the way(s) it interprets Israeli policy.

The use of force as a “Jewish” issue is too complex to be summed up in this paper. Jewish tradition forbids the taking of life, but also commands that Jewish life be defended. Ecclesiastes explicitly refers to a “time for war;” accordingly, a dual fear will arise at such times: “… In all wars there are two fears: that one will be killed and that one might kill […] Both are Torah transgressions.”122 Jewish law views war as a necessary evil that is “devoid of aesthetic value.”123 Aviezer Ravitzky, a scholar of Jewish thought, argues that “the prohibition [of war] is the starting point for any specific discussion” of the laws of war in Jewish tradition. Professor Ruth Wisse, in her 2007 book Jews and Power, reminds readers that even before Jews were scattered throughout the world, the Prophets had “linked a nation’s potency to its moral strength,” not to its military prowess.124

The Torah gives rules for two types of war, which Jewish tradition refers to as either “obligatory” or “optional.” However, later sources disagree as to how this paradigm might be applied in future situations. Michael Walzer, an American political theorist and intellectual, put it bluntly: “There is no Jewish theory of war and peace.”125 Not everyone shares this unwavering view, but a consensus exists that if one is to determine what Jewish tradition says about war and peace, one needs to make creative use of the relatively small body of Jewish source material on the subject.126

The absence of commonly-accepted laws of war in Jewish tradition is hardly surprising, given the conditions under which Judaism evolved. In any culture, historical developments greatly affect theological approaches to all issues, including waging war.127 The Jews, for most of their history, were unable to wage war, and consequently had no need to explore the laws of combat in a practical context. When they did need to wage war, it was clear to all that defensive war is permitted, or even obligatory (a mitzvah, or commandment).128 However, the meaning of the term “defensive war” isn’t fixed, and a discussion of how one ought to fight wars that are not in response to a clear and present danger remained open. The question of who has the authority to declare war also remained a point of contention. The traditional sources refer to “the king” or “the Sanhedrin,” two authoritative entities that have long since disappeared from Jewish tradition. The issue of whether a contemporary institution exists that might, halachically, take the place of these institutions – e.g., the Israeli government or the Knesset – has remained open as well.

The applicability of any tradition under modern Israeli conditions also remains an open issue. Does Israel need to plumb the depths of Jewish tradition and sources when formulating its policies for war and peace? Should it merely make symbolic use of Jewish sources (as in the Declaration of Independence, with its vague reference to the Prophets),129 or should it treat those sources as a true guide for policymaking, as a number of Religious Zionist rabbis have suggested?130 And if so, what relative weight should be ascribed to international law and Jewish values/tradition in the formulation of Israeli policy?

Israel is a Jewish-majority state that looks to “Jewish values” as the populace and its various sub-factions understand them. Because politics, even the politics of security policy, are “inevitably influenced by values,” Jewish politics are “necessarily influenced by Jewish values,” in the words of scholar Yehudah Mirsky.131 According to Mirsky, “Jewish values” affect Israeli policy whether Israel wants them to or not. At the Glen Cove brainstorming conference, several participants argued about the kind of influence “Jewish values” should have on Israeli policy – that is, the degree to which Israel should consciously aspire to such an influence (as distinct from any subconscious influences), and how.

Some expressed concern that in today’s Israel the concept of “Jewish values” is merely a code term for the kind of hawkish policies dictated by the religious right; others noted that, on issues of war policy, Israel has to engage in “discussion with other countries and so it has to speak a language that the rest of the world understands”132 – i.e., not in the “Jewish-values” language that is specific to Israel. Similarly, a seminar participant from Melbourne raised the “difficulty in applying such subjective concepts [as Jewish Values] on a global scale.” Others, in contrast, felt that a Jewish state cannot formulate a code of conduct on issues of the utmost importance without looking to Jewish tradition. Accordingly, the conclusion that emerged from the discussion was, more or less, that Jewish tradition can serve as a cultural inspiration, but not as an authoritative source, for the shaping of Israeli policy.133

Most JPPI seminar participants expressed discomfort with the notion that solutions to complex situations currently faced by Israel should be drawn from Jewish tradition. Opinions ranged from “completely irrelevant,” as one rabbinical student at the Los Angeles seminar put it,134 to general statements about Israel needing to occupy the moral high ground in wartime because “as Jews the Torah commands us to be a light unto the nations,” as one Dallas seminar attendee put it.135 At the South Africa seminar it was also argued that “Israel, as the state of the Jewish people, ought to act in such a way as to be a ‘light unto the nations,’” though most other participants felt that “Israel, as a democratic country, should abide by the standards of other Western democracies and the international law. It is not the place for outsiders to demand that Israel go beyond such standards.”136 The St. Louis seminar found that “the group generally did not think that ‘Jewish standards’ were either meaningful or applicable.” Participants in Sao Paulo, Brazil also felt that “in practice, there is very little specific guidance on how to cope with war, and so the international standard should be used.”137

Sometimes, rather than focusing on Jewish tradition in the intellectual sense, participants switched the emphasis to tradition in the Jewish-history sense. As one attendee at a seminar for young Masa participants put it: “The Jewish past is an important part of what Israel stands for, the value of life in Judaism as a persecuted nation should be upheld …. The Jewish past demands a high moral standard from Israel, higher than usual.”138 The JPPI Dialogue survey responses reveal that many understand the term “Jewish values” as something that dictates an especially high standard of conduct in wartime – higher than that enshrined in international law. Only a negligible minority of participants associated the term with “a lower level of moral conduct” than that required by international law.139

A survey question asked seminar attendees which of several “frameworks” Israel should “consider most in guiding its military’s code for the use of force.” Their responses clearly indicate a preference for international law as a basis for policy, with the remaining responses divided between the options “Middle East realities,” “Jewish values,” and “Western norms.” A tiny percentage chose “Jewish halakhah.” Among younger respondents, a slightly higher percentage (45 percent) chose “International law,” while a slightly lower proportion (18 percent) selected “Jewish values.”140

It is interesting that respondents selected the “International law” option (and the “Western norms” option as well), given the harsh criticism expressed at nearly all the seminars at how the international community interprets international law and its discriminatory attitude toward Israel. (That is, it may be that Diaspora Jews, to the extent they are familiar with international law, feel that it reflects the right principles, though its implementation is lacking). Criticism focused particularly on the global media, an array of organizations (especially the UN and related agencies), and a large number of governments, especially in Europe (the US government under President Obama was also mentioned at many seminars by participants who are obviously not politically aligned with the Obama administration).

On this issue, at least, the views of World Jewry are, to a certain degree, similar to those of Israeli Jews. Israelis have little patience with international condemnation of IDF actions. Although many Israelis were dissatisfied with how Operation Protective Edge was conducted and concluded,141 their support for the operation was nevertheless quite high, and their rejection of outside criticism almost unanimous (among Israeli Jews). Very few Jewish Israelis doubt the IDF’s moral caliber;142 a sweeping majority trust the IDF;143 very few trust or respect the UN, its personnel,144 or its commissions of inquiry;145 and only a minority believe that the outside criticism to which the IDF is subjected is appropriate or fair.146 A majority of Israeli Jews believe that the moral standard that the international community sets for Israel is different than the standard required of other countries.147 Israeli Jews tend more toward the opinion that the army did not go far enough during the war, than to the view that the IDF was overly aggressive.148

“Israel is always expected to have higher standards,” said a Dallas, Texas participant. “The biggest problem is the international media, other countries bombard more,” a Los Angeles attendee said. “There is a global problem of major anti-Semitism and anti-Israel feeling,” another attendee noted. “Bomb, because one way or another they’ll vilify us,” another Los Angeles seminar participant said.149 “It doesn’t matter what Israel does, they will condemn it,” agreed a Washington attendee, adding, “The older I get, the more I think that Israel shouldn’t take into consideration what others say.” “There’s a double standard,” said an Atlanta participant. “Other armies, even if they behave the same way, will be judged differently,” another Atlanta participant added. “There’s a double standard of morality, America doesn’t have to worry about delegitimacy,” a Chicago attendee said.

Unwavering repudiation of the “world’s” treatment of Israel, and the way Israel is castigated in all sorts of forums, are also abundantly evident in the participant surveys, which revealed near-total agreement that Israel is the target of excessiv criticism, and is judged according to different criteria than applied to other countries. The vast majority of respondents – nearly 91 percent – said that Israel has been unjustifiably singled out for criticism in international forums. Only 9 percent feel that Israel is treated in the same way as other countries under similar circumstances, and only a fraction of a percent said that criticism of Israel is insufficient and needs to be intensified.