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

As explained in the previous section, the effect of Israeli policies on the propensity of non-Israeli Jews to feel a close connection with Israel and to view it as a vital component of their Jewish identity is not entirely clear. On one hand, as already mentioned, numerous past studies have found no evidence of a clear linkage between the political views of Jews and the intensity of their attachment to Israel.163 It is clear that Jews with the strongest connection to Israel generally have a higher level of commitment to their Jewish identity. On the other hand, leaders, writers, and opinion shapers reiterate that Israel’s conduct has tremendous implications on the manner in which it is perceived in the eyes of Jews around the world, mainly those who disagree politically with government of Israel policy.

Rather than describing how one’s political positions affect his or her perceptions of Israel’s conduct in war, the following paragraphs describe instead how one’s opinions about Israel’s wars may affect his or her general connection with Israel.
Apart from the dialog process under discussion, JPPI, in 2015, conducted a structured iterative consultation, a scaled down Delphi study, with invited experts on American Jewry, which found that most participants believed that last summer’s Gaza war led to “a lessened global Jewish connection with Israel.”164
Among participants in JPPI’s Glen Cove brainstorming conference, too, the opinion that the recent wars have had a distancing effect on World Jewry was frequently expressed, an opinion that was also voiced in many of the seminars. “There are so many negative things here, with no positive vision that will draw us towards Israel,” warned a young participant in Los Angeles.165 “Jews also uphold a double standard and they too are part of the problem,” said a participant in New York. “Because of Israel’s actions, it is losing support among American Jews. That’s going to have a price,” asserted a UCLA student.

Even so, at least one empirical study has actually shown a significant trend of strengthened connections as a result of the war.166 According to this study, during the Gaza operation young American Jews identified with and increased their support for Israel. (The study examined Taglit-Birthright, both those who participated in the program and those who registered but did not participate during the summer of Operation Protective Edge.) This increased support held true for Jews with conservative or moderate political positions, but also for those with liberal positions, i.e., whose basic attitude toward Israeli policy is more critical. The study’s survey results167 showed that a large majority (79 percent) of young people who took part in Taglit-Birthright thought that Israel’s actions in the war were “totally justified” or “generally justified”; this was also true for a considerable majority (67 percent) of the registrants who did not ultimately take part in the program.

According to the study of Taglit-Birthright registrants, there is no evidence for the claim that “the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has brought about a distancing from Israel among young, politically liberal Jews.” In fact, the study’s data show an opposite effect: “Registrants (for Taglit-Birthright) from the entire political spectrum – including those on the extreme left –exhibited a considerable increase in their connection to Israel as a result of the confrontation in Gaza. The Gaza confrontation did not deepen the gap between liberals and conservatives (in the intensity of their connection to Israel); rather, it increased the intensity of the connection among both groups,” wrote the researchers.168

JPPI’s survey of 2015 Dialogue participants found that many of them also had a hard time deciphering the nature of the war’s effect on the connection of Jews to Israel. This difficulty was evident in the discrepancy between their answers to a question addressing their own personal positions and their answers to the same question addressing the position of the “Jewish community.” Despite the fact that most said that Israel’s actions during war causes them to be “prouder” of Israel, when asked to characterize how they thought “other Jews in the community” felt in the same regard, a higher proportion also identified feelings of “detached,” and even “embarrassed.” In other words: Jews know what they feel, but they also hear Jewish voices around them warning of alienation and estrangement, and, perhaps, they also personally know Jews who feel such alienation and estrangement (and who, therefore, probably did not attend a dialogue seminar). Whether a participant’s personal (and more positive) feeling is representative of the community’s majority position, or whether the fear that other members of the community feel less positively toward Israel is a more accurate reflection of current Diaspora realities remains open to assessment and interpretation.

A similar doubt over the war’s influence on Jews was also discernable in seminar discussions. A Cleveland seminar participant said, “Israel’s use of force affects how other Jews see it, but doesn’t affect my own position.”169 Many participants cautioned against how the wars affect young Jews. “Young people are asking what’s the significance of being Jewish; and if the answer to that means being a state that’s constantly dropping bombs, then maybe there’s no point in that,” a Washington seminar participant commented. “Young people feel that Israel uses too much force,” said a participant in Stamford, Connecticut. Others said: “Young people in colleges feel insecure when Israel uses force”170 ; “It’s not easy to walk around university and defend what people see on TV. Go explain to them that what they see isn’t really what’s happening and that they’re not being given the whole background. It’s better to just shut up and not be overly connected with Israel.”171; “Jews have a very comfortable life here, so why would they want to be connected to a state that’s constantly giving them trouble?”172 and, “From what I see around me, Israel is totally losing the young generation in America. Children here really aren’t interested, they have their own things, and what they see on TV doesn’t give them the desire to talk about Israel – certainly not with their non-Jewish friends.”173