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

Discrepant worldviews between Israeli Jews and Jews living outside of Israel are sometimes significant, and the many reasons for those gaps exceed the scope of this paper. As shown in previous chapters, these gaps are even more prominent among the young when it comes to Israel – the generation which, for various sociological, demographic, and political reasons, is not as close to Israel as the older generation. In the previous chapter we presented research that found American young adults – including those who support the left – felt closer to Israel during Operation Protective Edge.182 But data is one thing and feelings are something else entirely. In the seminars and at the Glen Cove brainstorming conference, the opinion that Israel has a problem with the younger generation of Diaspora Jews was pervasive. There was also a consensus that this problem becomes more acute when Israel goes to battle or undertakes a military operation (the previous chapter also dealt with the question of whether this particular detachment is generational and long lasting or a temporary result of a particular lifecycle phase.)

The discussion of the younger generation’s attitude is of interest to both Israel and World Jewry for one obvious reason: This is the generation whose attitude (and the attitude of the Jewish leadership that will come from it) will define the status of Israel-Diaspora relations in the future. In recent years there has been much concern regarding the tendencies of the younger generation of Diaspora Jews, particularly in North America. This report discusses this concern from the relatively narrow angle of attitudes on questions raised in the 2015 Dialogue. But even a discussion from this angle will enable us to understand the significant attitude gaps between (non-Orthodox) young adults (18-30) and their older counterparts with respect to Israel, which seem especially pronounced when Israel engages in armed conflict.

This year’s Dialogue made an effort to include several groups of young adults, most of whom – but not all – were from the United States, in addition to the young people who participated in the general seminars (which tend to skew toward an older demographic).183 The bulk of this chapter relies on the attitudes JPPI Dialogue participants expressed in their survey responses. Our purpose is not to describe the attitude of the young participants toward all the questions presented in previous chapters, but to demonstrate how they differ from their older counterparts.

Concern over the attitudes of the younger generation of Jews is shared by Israel and Diaspora Jewry – and was frequently expressed in the seminar discussions. In other words, not only is Israel itself worried over the question of whether it is “losing” or is likely to lose young Diaspora Jews, older generation non-Israeli Jews are also alarmed. Some of them are worried because of the importance they ascribe to Israel and their desire that the next generation also be a source of support. Some are dismayed because they understand that the young adults who do not feel close to Israel will, in most cases, also be alienated from the Jewish community and their own Jewish identity.

The question of the “young people” and their affiliation with Israel was emphasized by many seminar participants. Seminar attendees in Tenafly, New Jersey raised the argument that “young people find it difficult to connect to something negative.” “Young people want to be like everyone, to be part of the world [and therefore] it is hard for them to identify with Israel” reported a Washington participant. In Dallas, we were told that if there is alienation from Israel, “it was mostly being tired of seeing violence – but there is also a great deal of criticism from young people on the left.”

One Toronto participant said, “What Israel does [during war] makes me feel proud… but naturally the young people have less of an instinctive feeling such as this.” In Cleveland, the question of the “young people” was raised by participants in all of the discussions: “College kids feel insecure when Israel uses force”; “There are huge gaps between Israel and the Diaspora, mainly among young Jews who lack the knowledge and understanding”; “There are fewer Zionists among the younger generation.”184

Numerous participants expressed the belief that for young liberal Jews in the Diaspora,185 the debate on “moral behavior” is sometimes a pretext for holding Israel to a higher moral standard than is expected of other countries.186 Many participants wanted to focus their outreach efforts on the younger generation – with an emphasis on left-leaning young Jews – whose fundamental beliefs and lack of knowledge make them tougher customers in terms of affiliation with Israel. “We need public diplomacy with progressive young people,” we heard in Atlanta. “Something must be done with regard to educating young people,” said one Stamford, Connecticut participant.

Indeed, young people think about Israel during an armed conflict differently from older adults, and this incongruence is significant in both general attitudes toward Israel and its position in the world – that is, the extent to which Israel is threatened, and the appropriateness of its policy in response to that threat – and, more specifically, attitudes about Israel’s actions when engaged in military operations or war. Some young Dialogue participants expressed a general resentment of Israel over various issues. For example, that Israel “acts as if it represents all Jews,”187 or the impression that “a large number of the wars it fights are unnecessary and could have been avoided.”188 Younger participants also tended to demand that Israel uphold a particularly high moral standard, with statements such as, “All lives have equal value, we cannot prefer our lives over theirs [the Palestinians].”189 Some aired the concern that “Israel leaves people [in
Gaza] homeless, and if and how Israel would compensate the innocent civilians [in Gaza] that were harmed [as a result of Operation Protective Edge].”190

Gaps between young Jews (up to age 30) and older Jews are also seen quite clearly when participant survey responses are sorted by age cohort.

As noted previously, we can see these gaps across a variety of questions. First, they are already obvious in the general questions, for example, the question of whether Israel’s enemies constitute an “existential threat.” Although the majority of young respondents answered this question affirmatively, it was a much smaller majority compared to older respondents. Among all respondents, 84 percent answered “Yes” to the question of existential threat, but this percentage consists of responses by both adults and young people. The gap between the age groups is almost 20 percent.

Nearly one-third of the young Jews who responded to JPPI’s Dialogue survey did not agree that Israel’s enemies pose an “existential threat.” Of course, this gap likely stems from a different understanding of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, or from information disparities between older and younger participants. It is also probably related to differing levels of existential concern over the fate of the Jews, among other things, because of different sets of historical memories and experiences between younger and older Dialogue participants. Those in the younger age cohort were born after Israel became a strong nation vis-à-vis its neighbors. They did not experience the anxiety that attended Israel’s War of Independence or the Six-Day War, not to mention the severe blow of the Yom Kippur War, and this, in all likelihood, factors into their reluctance to acceptthat Israel faces existential threats.

Previous chapters included graphs showing that young people, more than older adults, feel that control of the Palestinians makes it more difficult for Israel to present itself as “moral” in the context of armed conflict with the Palestinians. They also tend to think less than their older counterparts, that Israel did everything in its power to avoid injuring civilians during Protective Edge. Where do these gaps originate? Some, obviously, are related to the fact that younger Jews detect less of a threat against Israel, but, undoubtedly, the gaps also stem from a more critical approach to Israel’s conduct in the Middle East among the young. They feel, in large measure, that Israel is not doing enough to advance peace with its neighbors.

When we asked survey respondents whether “the current Israeli government is making an effort to bring about a peace treaty with the Palestinians,”191 the gap between younger and older respondents was obvious, but not vast. This is mainly because the level of faith in Israeli government in this context is fairly low across age cohorts.

Similarly, the gaps were pronounced, but still relatively limited, when the participants were asked to express their agreement/disagreement with the statement: “Israel is not making a sufficient diplomatic effort to avoid another armed conflict in Gaza.” Particularly among those who responded that they “strongly agree” there was a difference between older and younger participants, who were more inclined to believe that Israel is making an inadequate effort. Almost one-fifth of the younger participants believe that Israel is not doing enough, almost twice the number of older participants. Nevertheless, as with the question regarding the belief that Israel is sincere vis-a-vis the peace process, this question also touches on a similar issue (diplomatic arrangements in Gaza). The faith in Israel’s efforts is generally low (of all respondents, younger and older, some 44 percent “strongly agree[d]” or “somewhat agree[d]” that Israel “is not making enough of a diplomatic effort” – nearly half of all respondents).192

Gaps between younger and older participants were more pronounced, and perhaps also more important, when they were asked questions relating to them themselves. Younger participants, more than their older counterparts, felt that Israel should consult with them when it comes to delineating its security policy. Around a third of older participants did not feel that Israel is obligated to consult in any way with Diaspora Jewry, but among their younger counterparts only a fifth agreed with this position, while a large majority felt that Israel should consult with the Diaspora. This was mainly due to the perception that Israel’s policy directly impacts Diaspora Jewry – an effect that younger Dialogue participants emphasized in seminar discussions (“All participants in the group agreed that Israel’s military policy affects Diaspora Jews,” reads the summary of one seminar that only included young people.193)

Similarly, when asked to analyze reactions in the Jewish community to the Gaza conflict, many more of the younger respondents said that the conflict caused them to feel “worried about Israel’s character” or “detached” from Israel, than their older counterparts. Among the younger people, only half (compared to two thirds among the older group) said that the war in Gaza caused them to feel “proud” of Israel.194

The bottom line regarding young people is clear. Young JPPI survey respondents had at least a basic interest in Israel and in Israel-Diaspora relations – in other words, young people for whom “detachment” from Israel does not appear to be entrenched – gave significantly different answers than older respondents to each of the questions examined. And the gap is always in the same direction. Less trust in Israel, more of a tendency to recoil from its actions, more criticism, more demands of it. When asked whether Israel uses force “only as a last resort,” around 80 percent of older respondents answered yes, compared to 60 percent of younger respondents. Ten percent of the younger respondents “strongly disagree[d]” with the claim that Israel only uses force as a last resort, and another 28 percent disagreed “to a certain degree.” In other words, almost 40 percent of the younger survey respondents did not agree that Israel uses force only “as a last resort,” compared to less than 20 percent among the older respondents. Young people had less belief in Israel, accepted its claims about regional threats (existential danger) less. At bottom, younger participants, were less accepting of Israeli actions and responded to them with greater criticism than their older counterparts.