Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

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

There is a significant correlation between participants’ political-diplomatic views and the way in which they interpret Israel’s actions. The greater the number of Jews with doubts regarding Israel’s overall policy, the more inclined some of them are to doubt Israel’s actions even in wartime.

Political views of Diaspora Jews impact their opinions regarding Israel’s use of force.

Nonetheless, it should be stated from the outset that the effect of Diaspora Jews’ political stance on their connection to Israel is complicated and confusing. Often, findings regarding the magnitude of Israel criticism are conflated with the intensity of Israel connection. Different measurements often produce different, or even conflicting, results about the effect of political stance on the strength of connection. In this chapter and those that follow we will present several of these findings, and the difficulties in deciphering the reality.

Many studies have already shown that Jews belonging to groups that differ politically (i.e., the various religious streams occupying different points along the liberal-conservative spectrum) also differ in terms of the strength of their attachment to Israel,107 as well as the position Israel occupies in their priorities (i.e., what weight does Israel carry in their home-country electoral decisions).

The issue of how Diaspora Jews’ political viewpoints influence their attitudes toward Israel and the strength of their Israel attachment has been a point of controversy for quite some time (the relevant studies have used different terms to describe Diaspora-Israel interaction dynamics: attachment to Israel, closeness to Israel, concern for Israel, centrality of Israel, etc.). At one end of the spectrum are those who feel (or argue, as a means of advancing their political views)108 that Israeli policy is the main reason non-Israeli Jews become distanced from Israel, while at the other end are those who feel (or argue, as a means of advancing their political views) that Israeli policy on diplomatic-security issues has no real impact on its relationship with the Diaspora.

The debate over the political impact of Israel attachment joins an even longer-running and no less ardent debate over whether World Jewry is “distancing” itself from Israel. The main question concerns the strength of young American Jews’ attachment to Israel, with particular emphasis on whether the decline in their exhibited attachment compared with older generations is a “lifecycle” issue (their attachment will deepen as they get older) or a generation gap within the Jewish people that is bound to persist. On one hand, troubling indications from a number of surveys, including the 2013 Pew study, do indeed suggest a major generation gap. On the other hand, a long-term assessment of average levels of attachment to Israel (e.g., by comparing American Jewish Committee surveys) shows that at this point attachment data are still very similar to those of earlier decades, with no evidence of erosion.109

This, of course, does not guarantee that erosion will not set in over the coming years. Any number of things might trigger it, whether political issues related to the use of force in the Middle East or, perhaps, the non-Jewish world’s attitude toward Israel. Recent years have witnessed eroding support for Israel among left-leaning groups the world over, including in the US and other countries where general public support for Israel has traditionally been very strong.110 Declining support for Israel on the part of left-leaning groups was clearly evident in the US during Operation Cast Lead (2008-09) and Operation Protective Edge (2014) in Gaza.

A number of studies111 from the past few years, including the Pew Research Center’s comprehensive Portrait of Jewish Americans (2013), found a correlation between the Jewish respondent’s basic political outlook and his or her “emotional attachment” to Israel – even when controlling for religious affiliation.112 Ultimately, the religious and political rankings are the same – the more right-leaning the respondent, the stronger the sense of attachment to Israel. Among liberals, 61 percent of American Jews feel “very” or “somewhat” attached to Israel, compared with 73 percent of moderates and 81 percent of the politically conservative.113

The evolution of these figures will likely result, of course, in a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Is it Israeli policy that makes it difficult for left-leaning Jews to feel attached to Israel, or are changes in the political outlook of left-leaning Jews themselves causing the difficulty? The answer to this question cannot be expected to change the current situation – but it should be taken into account when considering whether ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry’s left-leaning factions might best be strengthened via Israeli policy modifications or through a change in the political stance of non-Israeli Jews.

Seminars that directly addressed Israel’s foreign and security policy tended to underscore the impact of Israeli policy on participant views (the question asked is the one that gets answered). Still, even among dialogue participants there are many who realize that Israeli policy is by no means the sole factor, or even necessarily the dominant factor, determining Diaspora Jews’ level of attachment to Israel. The strength of the attachment, as one American Glen Cove participant put it, is also determined by “our side, mixed marriages, Jews not by religion […].”114 All of these factors, as well as other social trends related to the internal dynamics of the Diaspora communities, strongly affect levels of Israel attachment.

Among the factors known to have, or likely to have, an impact on Diaspora Jewry’s attitude toward Israel, four stand out in particular:115

1. The historical memory factor – i.e., the impression dramatic events have left on the collective Jewish consciousness and their impact on the sense of attachment to Israel. This factor is generally assumed to weaken as both Israel and the Diaspora communities gain temporal distance from the 20th century events that shaped the Jewish world, first and foremost the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, followed by second-order-of-magnitude events such as the Six-Day War and the struggle to free Soviet Jewry (today’s Israel is no longer the “Nachas Machine”116 it was when it was fighting wars for clear reasons, and against more obvious enemies).
2. The Jewish identity factor – i.e., the significant correlation between Diaspora Jews’ level of “Jewishness” and the strength of their attachment to Israel. Many studies have shown the existence of such a correlation and have shown that it can be tested along a range of parameters. We learn from this that attitudes toward Israel cannot be distilled in isolation, but must rather be understood within the larger context of Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
3. The social-demographic factor – this refers to a dramatic rise in the number of mixed marriages among Diaspora Jews, particularly within the large American Jewish community. Intermarriage, as many studies have shown, has a significant impact on attitudes toward Israel. The higher the incidence of Jews married to non-Jews, and the higher the proportion of Jews who are themselves the products of mixed marriages, the larger the sub-group with weak Israel attachment.117
4. The political factor – this refers to differences in outlook on an array of issues between Jews living in Israel (as reflected in the policies of Israel’s elected government) and Jews living outside of Israel. In an earlier study we discerned four main spheres in which outlook differences could potentially complicate relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry: Israel’s foreign and security policy; Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and their treatment of Israeli Arabs; the relationship between the state and Israel’s religious establishment – particular dissatisfaction has been noted with respect to the dominance of the Orthodox-Jewish establishment; and general dissatisfaction with Israel’s prevailing culture and discourse.118

Again, all of these factors influence Diaspora attitudes toward Israel. But the question about the relative importance of each of individual issue is also relevant to the discussion of Israel’s use of force. That is, because only two of the factors noted here – history and politics – relate to it directly.

Regarding the historical factor, as mentioned in the previous section, Israel’s ability to present a clear and readily appreciated picture to World Jewry has eroded. It may well be that the more complex the regional picture becomes – the more the use of force is concentrated in civilian-populated areas where thornier operational and ethical dilemmas arise – the harder it then is for Diaspora Jews to square Israel’s violent confrontations with unequivocal and immediate support. With regard to the political factor, as noted above, the greater the number of Jews harboring doubts about Israel’s general policy (mainly on the Palestinian issue), the greater the tendency of some to also doubt Israel’s actions when it goes to battle.

Naturally, those who feel that Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Arab world are reasonable or good (or who think Israel displays insufficient resolve when interacting with that world) tend to defend Israel. Some even wonder about the need to question the morality of Israel’s use of force in the first place. One Glen Cove attendee said, “[T]o even talk about the morality of the IDF is wrong. The Palestinians are held hostage by the Arab world. But the finger is pointed at Israel.” Another participant, in contrast, stressed the fact that “We have not had an Israeli government of the past five or so years that looks like it really wants to resolve [the]conflict.”119 He, and other participants who share his views regarding Israeli policy on the conflict, tended to feel, as one New York seminar attendee put it, that “If there are diplomatic talks showing a sincere attempt to reach a peace agreement – it will also be easier to justify the military measures.” A Cleveland participant said, “There is a growing segment of the community who are uncomfortable with the situation in the West Bank. [They] cannot divorce discomfort with West Bank from morality of other situations.”120 In South Africa the point was made much more vehemently: “Policies that undermine Israel’s standing as a non-racist democracy, and therefore its legitimacy, make it very difficult for Diaspora Jews to defend it or even be associated with it.”

The Dialogue survey also revealed clear, unsurprising gaps between those who take a more critical view of Israeli policy and those whose view is more favorable. These kinds of gaps are evident even in surveys of an overwhelmingly factual nature. For example, in a survey that asked Israeli respondents how many Israelis had been killed during the Second Intifada, there were clear discrepancies between the answers given by right-wing voters (many of whom thought the number is higher than it actually is – about a thousand Israeli fatalities) and those given by left-leaning voters (many of whom gave figures lower than the correct one).121 Such discrepancies unquestionably characterize the responses to questions relating not to factual reality but rather to assessment/judgment of reality, as in the Dialogue participant survey.

The JPPI questionnaire did not include direct questions about respondents’ political views or ideologies (the meanings of “right,” “left,” “liberal,” “conservative” vary from person to person and place to place and could be confusing). But it did ask a question that enabled each participant to be identified according to his or her basic political stance on Israeli policy regarding the Palestinian issue: “Do you think the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians?” The wording of this question was identical to that used by Pew researchers in their comprehensive survey of American Jewry from two years ago (incidentally, the Pew and JPPI survey response distributions were quite similar – see Appendix B).

To assess how the participants’ political views affect their attitudes toward Israel’s use of force in wartime, we cross referenced the responses to this question with participants’ levels of agreement with two survey statements: “In general, Israel uses military force only as a last resort,” and “Israel’s military did as much as possible to avoid civilian casualties in last summer’s armed conflict in Gaza.”

The distribution of agreement levels for these two statements clearly shows that those who feel that “The current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians” agree with the statements far more than do those who feel differently. Put another way, there is a significant correlation between participants’ political-diplomatic views and how they interpret Israel’s actions in armed conflicts.

Eighty-eight percent of those who felt that Israel is making “a sincere effort to bring about a settlement” agree that Israel “uses force as a last resort,” compared to 67 percent of those who do not feel Israel is making a sincere effort to reach a settlement (the discrepancy within the “strongly agree” group is even larger – 54 and 20 percent respectively). Ninety-seven percent of those who answered that Israel is “making a sincere effort to reach a settlement” agreed that “Israel’s military did as much as possible to avoid civilian casualties in last summer’s armed conflict in Gaza,” versus 81 percent of those who do not feel that Israel is making a sincere effort to achieve peace (the gap within the “strongly agree” group is much larger, 79 and 42 percent respectively). Nearly a fifth of those with a more critical view of Israeli policy did not agree that the IDF did “as much as possible” to avoid harming civilians. Of the group that felt Israel is making a sincere effort to reach a peace settlement, only a negligible percentage did not agree with the statement that Israel’s military strove to avoid civilian casualties.