Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

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

 As noted above, Diaspora Jews’ expectations of Israel with respect to the use of force relate to two different planes – that of cause and that of effect; these two separate planes, as we shall see, are linked. One has to do with Israeli conduct during war: how much force is used, which moral-ethical code is embraced, what standard is to be upheld, and the like. The other has to do with Israel’s conduct on the paths leading to and from war. This plane is subject, far more than the other, to ideological and political interpretation: Is the survey respondent for or against a two-state-for-two-peoples solution?; Does s/he feel that Israeli policy advances efforts to establish peace in the Middle East?; Does s/he or does s/he not believe there is a chance for a peace agreement with the Palestinians?, etc.

Most of the exploration that took place in the Dialogue framework related directly to the first plane, that of Israeli conduct in wartime. And the reassuring insight that emerged from this exploration was, as one Glen Cove participant put it, that “that’s not the problem.” Both regarding the Gaza operation when, in the words of a Glen Cove participant, Israel “made a decent hasbara effort,” and regarding Israeli actions in general over the past few years – in Gaza, Lebanon and other places where Israel has operated less intensively and less frequently – most Jews feel that Israel has been meeting their ethical expectations.

Make no mistake, the standard is high. A Pittsburgh participant asked, “Why should Israel compare itself to anyone, especially to those neighbors in the region setting a low bar?” “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 (even if the other side does not do so). The Jewish past demands a high moral standard from Israel, higher than usual,” said a young participant.68

Two different approaches are generally encountered in this context. One views Israel as bound by the behavioral norms adhered to by Western countries, while the other sees even this standard as insufficient, insisting that Israel distinguish itself by upholding moral values above and beyond the prevailing norms. “Israel is a democratic country and 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,” said a South African seminar participant. This statement, however, did not reflect a consensus view. At the same seminar an opinion was voiced that, as the state of the Jewish people, Israel should act “in such a way as to be an example to others – a ‘light onto the nations.'”69 Many participants also gave expression to a pragmatic aspect of the moral argument. Israel should behave ethically because it is better to be ethical – but also, and no less importantly, because only by behaving ethically will Israel be able to retain the support of the rest of World Jewry. “Diaspora Jews need to know that Israel is behaving morally,” said an Atlanta seminar participant. In Dallas someone said, “In order for Jews to support Israel it must be better than other countries.” However, another participant in the same seminar said, “It’s good that Israel is moral – but not too much so.”

Many seminar participants expressed a degree of discomfort and questioned their own ability to hold Israel to a particular ethical-moral standard. “It’s strange to me that we get asked what Israel should do,” said a Los Angeles seminar participant, “We don’t live there.” On the other hand, another participant in the same seminar used the term “we” when noting, “The question is whether we want to be butchers.”70 And again, at the same seminar, “We have to set the bar higher.” In New York, by contrast, a participant stated that decisions should be made “more on a pragmatic basis, not just a moral one.”71 Arguments based on Jewish values were raised frequently in the seminars. “There aren’t a lot of Jews but they are a ‘light unto the nations,’ I have a higher standard for Israel and for all Jews,” said one Washington participant.72

The participant survey gave respondents four possibilities for Israel to choose among: being “like everyone else,” “like Western countries,” holding to the “highest standard,” or “striking a balance between morality and the fact that it faces ruthless enemies that want to destroy it.” It is interesting that the survey respondents expressed a desire to set a special standard for Israel, one unlike that to which the rest of the world is held – “every country” or “Western countries.” About half of the respondents stated that Israel should determine its own balance between the aspiration to be moral and the need to address security challenges, while a third felt that Israel should set the bar higher than all others. Ultimately, only a little over 10 percent of participants chose one of the two options that set for Israel a standard similar to that of other countries.

It should, however, be noted that in the group discussions themselves at least two viewpoints were heard that depart from the overall picture described here.

One maintains that Israel’s status in military situations is so dubious because of its general policy (referring primarily to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), that no standard that it might set for its conduct in actual combat would make that conduct ethical. “Jews have no problem understanding Israel’s response to rocket attacks – even an aggressive response – but not the daily impact of the occupation,” said one Glen Cove brainstorming participant. Another agreed: “The occupation is what may erode Jews’ identification with Israel.” A Toronto participant said that Israel’s actions before and after the war made “what it does during war very problematic, since it’s impossible to take them out of this context.”73

Echoes of this sentiment can also be found in the survey question that assessed the respondent levels of agreement with the statement, “Israel’s occupation of the West Bank makes all of its armed confrontations with Palestinian groups immoral.” Although the vast majority of participants rejected this argument (57 percent strongly disagreed, and 29 percent “somewhat” disagreed), there were some who somewhat agreed with the statement (13 percent) or even strongly agreed with it (about 1.5 percent). It is worth noting that this is one of the questions that was answered differently by older and younger people. Most of the younger respondents also disagreed with the statement, but did so less decisively than their older counterparts.

The other dissenting viewpoint was that Israel tries too hard to be moral and that it should focus on winning its wars, rather than on addressing an internal-Israeli or external need (of the international community, or Diaspora Jewry) to set a high moral standard. “It’s one thing to sacrifice soldiers for peace, but to sacrifice soldiers in order to save enemy lives is a major mistake,” said a Toronto participant. “Israel needs to use as much force as necessary to protect its citizenry,” a St. Louis participant stated. The London seminar summary stated that “[T]he standard for IDF policy should be self-defense. First, to defend its citizens; second, to defend citizens on both sides; third, to use minimal force; and fourth, take into account world and media opinion.”74 At a seminar of Israeli-Americans, one woman stated that “[S]ometimes we need to do less [than what is required) by international law. We must remember that Hamas’s goal is to destroy the Jews.”

Moreover, many seminar participants expressed disappointment and dismay over the fact that Israel has not been “winning” the wars of the past few decades. “We have to examine the issue of deterrence (and not just morality),” said a participant in the Stamford, Connecticut seminar. “I’m 35 years old, and Israel has not won a single war since I was born,” noted an AJU seminar attendee. He – like others – was not blind to the possible contradiction between demanding a high moral standard and expecting clear Israeli victories; but this kind of awareness did not prevent many participants from expressing their desires in just this way. Clear victory should involve no compromises and reflect outstanding military performance (“Israel should be a start-up nation in this as well,” said one Toronto participant) – but without sacrificing an exacting code of combat ethics.