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Should Moral Considerations be Brought to Bear in Foreign and Security Policy? Attitudes of Israeli Jews

Main findings of the Report

  • A large majority of Israeli Jews feel that Israel is a moral country and that the IDF is a moral army.
  • A large majority believes that in foreign and defense policy, interests and moral considerations must be balanced.
  • However, the more prevalent tendency is for a balance that prioritizes interests over morality.
  • There is a clear connection between political views (right-leaning) and the assessment that Israel is a moral nation.
  • There is a significant relationship between political views (left-leaning) and a preference for moral policy.
  • Most feel that the main lesson of the Holocaust is the need for determination in protecting Jewish lives.
  • Those whose preference derives from Israel being a “Jewish state” tend to prefer interests over morality.

Introduction

The war in Ukraine has created an array of policy dilemmas for Israel, which require it to navigate issues pertaining to its relations with other countries, the security interests it needs to safeguard, its image as a state, immigration and absorption issues, and more. These dilemmas have provided an opportunity to address the larger questions of balancing “moral” and “policy” considerations in Israel’s conduct, and to examine the Israeli public’s attitudes toward the appropriate balance on these matters. Ahead of a Jewish People Policy Institute conference on this topic in early June 2022, a public opinion poll was conducted to determine what Israeli Jews think about a number of questions pertaining to morality and policy, both in general and in terms of specific dilemmas presented in the survey. In this short document, we will discuss a few of the conclusions that emerged from the survey.

Self-image

The purpose of this survey is to examine the question of whether there is or should be a connection (and if so, what the nature of the connection is) between Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and the management of Israeli foreign policy along a range of national interests and moral considerations. Because a large proportion of Israel’s Arab citizens are not reconciled to the state’s constitutional designation as “Jewish,” we chose to examine only the positions of Jews, among whom the national-constitutional designation is an almost universally accepted convention.

The Jewish public in Israel believes that it is a country that operates morally and has confidence in the morality of the IDF. Only 16% of respondents, nearly all of whom identify as “leftists,” believe that Israel is “not very moral” or “highly immoral.” Among those aligned with the “center left” there is a similar percentage of those who think Israel is “highly” or “quite” moral, and of those who believe that Israel is as moral “as the world average.” Among those who self-identify as aligned with the center or the right (center, center-right, right), Israel is perceived as more moral than the average, and the majority in these groups think Israel is “highly moral.”

The IDF’s image as a moral army is even stronger than Israel’s overall image as a moral nation. Three out of four Israeli Jews agree with the claim that the IDF “is the most moral army in the world,” and nearly half feel that this is a “highly accurate” claim (47%). These figures are similar to data collected for comparable questions in earlier years, and indicate that the incidents that occur from time to time that raise questions and criticism abroad, as well as in Israel, regarding the IDF’s conduct (as in the recent incident where the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was hit by gunfire of unknown origin)[i] do not undermine the Jewish public’s confidence in Israel’s values-based conduct.[ii]

Public’s attitudes on this issue are decisive in emphasizing the gap between Israel’s image among certain critical circles abroad, and the way Israelis perceive their country. In many parts of the world, the image of Israel is negative. This negative image is evident when questions such as “Does Israel have a positive influence on the world?” elicit negative responses from most citizens in the UK, Germany, Turkey, Australia, Japan, France, and many other countries.[iii] It should be noted, however, that an earlier JPPI study concluded that, despite the growing number of reports that Diaspora Jews are distancing themselves from Israel, and a sharp rise in criticism of  its policies, most Jews still “accept Israel’s stance that it maintains moral values in combat and  avoids harming innocent civilians.”[iv]

In this context, the survey examined the question of how the IDF should conduct itself in armed conflict, and based on the options presented it is clear that a majority of the public wants to emphasize the importance of victory, without sacrificing the importance that the IDF attaches to human life. Two-thirds of all respondents chose the option “Fight to win while striving not to harm innocent civilians.” That is, the respondents are unwilling to compromise on victory (a minority of 20% are willing to risk defeat in order to avoid harming innocent civilians), but neither do they disregard the desire to protect those who, through no fault of their own, have become entangled in conflict (except for 14% who feel that, when innocent civilians are at risk, it is better to lose). It should be noted that the groups occupying the two extremes of the political spectrum (groups which are not equal in size!) deviate from the general Israeli norm. This is particularly striking among those who identify as “leftists” – two-thirds of whom are willing to compromise on the magnitude of victory in order to avoid harming innocent civilians. Deviation from the norm is also discernible to a certain degree (and among a much larger group of respondents) among those who identify with “rightist” views – a third of whom do not attach importance to ensuring the safety of innocent civilians.

Morality or Interests?

The “morality” versus “interests” dichotomy is largely artificial, and is designed to sharpen a dilemma that is often not binary (this or that), but rather a matter of balance (some of this and some of that). Thus, in the case of the war in Ukraine, Israel has many interests (preserving its place in the Western bloc, its relations with the United States, maintaining its relations with Russia, ensuring freedom of action in Syria, etc.), which must be weighed against values-based considerations of various kinds and degrees of importance that are not always easy to identify. For example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was clearly an act of aggression, and the moral instinct is to repudiate it. On the other hand, Israel is not a country that automatically repudiates any act of force in the international arena, nor would it like the world to take that approach in instances where it itself is compelled to use force.

The survey respondents’ general position of principle is that Israel’s interests should be regarded with primacy, as a fundamental given, to which moral considerations, if possible, should be added. Only 13% of the Jewish public feel that moral considerations should not be included in foreign and defense policy in general, while a large majority (83%) chose one of the three “balance” options. Slightly under a third chose “interests,” with exceptions for moral considerations in special cases. A similar proportion chose the opposite option: morality, with exceptions for Israel’s interests in special cases. Another fifth chose an “equal” balance of the two options (only a very small 2% minority would like Israel to base its actions solely on moral considerations).

The range of responses to the fundamental question of how to balance interests with values is consistent with the typical range of Israeli responses when broken down by religiosity level (from secular to ultra-Orthodox) and political ideology (from left to right). In both cases, the further one moves in the right-religious direction, the greater the weight of interests versus morality. An analysis we performed to determine which of the two scales is the more significant in this context (religiosity or political ideology) found that the political scale is the more important one. Thus, even when looking solely at the secular, one can discern the same gradations of opinion shift from left to right.

Another analysis found a correlation between those who say that their guiding consideration is the fact of Israel being a “Jewish state,” and those who tend to prefer interests over moral considerations. This finding is consistent with the results of earlier studies that examined the significance of Israel being a “Jewish state” in the eyes of its Jewish citizens.

Policy Implications

The two basic positions we have noted – belief in the fundamental morality of Israel and its institutions, and the aspiration to defend the Jews of Israel and their country as an overarching goal – drive Israelis’ choices when presented with various foreign and defense policy dilemmas. First, in the case of Ukraine and Russia, it is clear that most Israelis are satisfied with the government’s course of action so far.  They understand and accept the need for the government to attempt to strike a balance between expectations that Israel will join the Western bloc working to thwart Russia, and the special circumstances that oblige Israel to act cautiously vis-à-vis Russia.

On the one hand, almost no one in Israel’s Jewish sector feels that Israel should have sided with Russia in the war. On the other hand, the share of those who would have risked harsher condemnation of Russia and more significant support for Ukraine is relatively small (17%). Most respondents believe that aiding Ukraine without jeopardizing Israel’s relations with Russia is the right choice. There is also a sizeable minority who think the war is none of Israel’s business and that it would have been possible to avoid involvement in it (24%). Only among those who self-identify as “left” politically (a small segment of 5% to 7% of the Jewish population) was there a clear tendency to choose the option that could potentially endanger relations with Russia (48%).

In two hypothetical scenarios presented in the survey, the following questions elicited similar answers: 1) Should spyware be sold to an Arab ruler who would presumably use it against his citizens; and 2) Should we maintain our regular warm relations with an Asian country whose democratic system has been replaced by a dictatorial regime? In both cases, most respondents tended to choose an intermediate option that would protect Israeli interests while upholding moral principles. In the Arab-country scenario, 42% chose the middle option: “sell the software only if it’s possible to verify in advance that it will not be used against citizens” (from this one may infer that if such verification is impossible, then the sale cannot be made, although the question wasn’t explicitly posed that way). It should be noted that a large segment of respondents – about a third – opposed selling the spyware to the Arab state under any conditions. In the Asian country scenario, a large majority (72%) said that relations should be cooled slightly, especially in the security sphere, but that ties should be maintained.

Morality and the Holocaust



As with other studies conducted on this issue, the interpretation given by Israeli Jews to “the lessons of the Holocaust” became clear. Although, as Dr. Shlomo Fischer once wrote, “We reject Nazism based on our particular identity as Jews, but also for a universal-moral reason: we also believe at some level or other in the sanctity of man … ”[v] However, when this rejection is translated into actual preferences, we find that Israel’s Jewish citizens interpret the country’s Jewishness as something that chiefly dictates a “tribal” commitment to the protection of Jews – more than it dictates a commitment to the “universal” principles of humanism. More respondents chose as a key lesson “resolve in the protection of Jewish lives” (51%) than the option of special sensitivity to violence against innocents (32%).

We examined this finding cross-sectionally with the third hypothetical scenario presented in the survey. In this scenario there is a “country in Europe that supports Israel, sells goods to it, and maintains ties with it.” This country “passes a law that prohibits the transfer of any more of its money to Holocaust survivors who lost assets there” – similar to the law passed in Poland a year ago, which plunged Israeli-Polish relations into a crisis that began to resolve only after the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Only a small number of respondents felt that Israel should “sever all ties” with such a country because “there are things that cannot be tolerated.” This quote echoes what Israel’s Minister of Health, Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz, said after the Polish law was passed (“Such a law is not acceptable”[vi]). The majority of respondents (56%) also chose the middle option in this case: maintaining ties while also protesting the law. As with the earlier Arab-country scenario, a third of the respondents thought Israel should act on the basis of moral considerations even at the cost of harming relations (in the Arab instance, not selling the spyware; in the European instance, downgrading ties “even at a certain cost”).

When the answers to the European scenario question were cross-referenced with the data on attitudes toward the main lesson of the Holocaust, the results were surprising: no significant relationship was found between the principled conception of the meaning of the past events in Europe and the practical conception of how Israel should function today. Between the two main groups – those who felt that the lesson of the Holocaust is the need for sensitivity, and those who felt that the lesson is the need to protect Jews – the response to the “European state” question was nearly identical. The only ones who deviated from the general approach were those belonging to the minority who believe that “there should be no connection” between the Holocaust and Israeli foreign policy. Among this group, the overwhelming majority (80% versus 60%) chose a solution that would not disrupt continued functioning relations between Israel and the European country.


The Survey

The data presented in this paper were collected in preparation for the Jewish People Policy Institute’s June 2022 Ukraine: A Case Study conference. The survey was conducted by TheMadad.com in May 2022. Its findings were analyzed by Professor Camil Fuchs, based on 1070 questionnaires whose weighted answers represent the views of the Israeli Jewish public. Sampling error for the entire sample is 3.1%.

[i] Of particular interest in this regard is a CNN investigation that determined that the IDF was responsible for the journalist’s death. See: https://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2022/05/24/journalist-shireen-abu-akleh-death-update-lon-orig.cnn

[ii] An Israel Democracy Institute survey from 2021 found that a large majority (77%) of the Jewish public and 35% of the Arab public give the IDF a high rating for moral conduct in armed combat. In the same survey, nearly three-quarters of Israeli Jews (72%) said that strict compliance with the law limits the IDF and makes it hard for it to fulfill its military functions.

[iii] From a BBC poll: http://cdn0.vox-cdn.com/assets/4830948/BBC_Israel_polls_2012-2013-2014.png

[iv] See: Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict: Perspectives from World Jewry: a Special Report by the Jewish People Policy Institute, Shmuel Rosner and Michael Herzog, 2014.

[v] See: “Between Purim and Holocaust Day,” Dr. Shlomo Fischer, Zman Yisrael. https://www.zman.co.il/208204/ [Hebrew]

[vi] See: “The Polish Law: What is Israel’s Realistic Goal?” Shmuel Rosner, TheMadad.com and Kan News, August 2021. [Hebrew]