A year ago as rockets rained down on Israel from the Negev to Tel Aviv, and Israeli Defense Forces were a week into the ground incursion into Gaza, worldwide anti-Israel protests and toxic Twitter feeds were also ablaze.
While Israel ended Operation Protective Edge on August 26, 2014, its battles continue to be fought in the Diaspora — on campuses, in the media, and in the streets. And with anti-Semitism increasingly assuming the guise of anti-Zionism, overt support for the Jewish state is often met with verbal, and even physical, violence.
Israel’s policies clearly affect worldwide Jewry. But should the state ask for — and weigh — Diaspora Jews’ opinions when making existential decisions?
According to a new Jewish People Policy Institute report pre-released to The Times of Israel ahead of its publication next week, an overwhelming 69 percent of surveyed Diaspora Jews state that Israel should take world Jewry’s voices into consideration.
The respondents’ motives were varied, with 38% in favor of Israel considering Diaspora views because of “the impact that confrontation might have” on their lives. Another 20% said Israel should listen to the Diaspora if it wants world Jewry’s continued support. And 11% said Israel should weigh Diaspora positions because “all Jews are partners.”
69 percent of surveyed Diaspora Jews state that Israel should take world Jewry’s voices into consideration
As the struggles over Israel’s legitimacy are flourishing on college campuses, a frontline for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, it is no surprise that an analysis of younger participants’ responses shows that 45% feel Israel should listen to Diaspora Jewry because of the potential impact of its policies on Jews outside of the state, up from the 34% of older participants.
The JPPI report also notes the discrepancies between younger (under 30) and older American Jews in their attitudes to the basic nature of the threat against the state. When asked if Israel’s enemies constitute an existential threat, for example, there was a 20% spread between the two generation’s answers, with only 70% of the under-30 participants saying yes, versus almost 90% of the older voices.
Titled “Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict: Perspectives from World Jewry,” this is the second installment of an annual Diaspora dialogue series. The report’s findings are sourced in 40 group discussions in Jewish communities across the globe, the subsequent distribution of questionnaires and a brainstorming conference in New York in May with the participation of top American Jewish leaders, rabbis and academics. It was compiled by journalist Shmuel Rosner and Brig. Gen. (Res.) Michael Herzog, both senior research fellows at the JPPI.
Especially concerning younger voices, there are disheartening figures sprinkled throughout the almost 100-page report, whose strength is in bringing together decades of surveys and sources in support of its 580 participants’ assertions.
With 334 participants from the United States, the report was perhaps skewed to American Jewish communities’ responses. However, some of the more pithy personal quotes were from South Africans (35 participants) and Brazilians (63).
And although an interesting question was only alluded to by the authors, it may merit more research in the future: is this seeming disaffection of Diaspora youth, which dissipates during war and returns in peace, anything more than a cyclical generational pattern?
The frontlines shift, but the battle still rages
Diaspora communities were variously affected by last summer’s war. Among the epicenters of anti-Israel protests was South Africa, where even the government revealed overt anti-Semitism in its ranks as evidenced by a recent incident.
The deputy minister in President Jacob Zuma’s office, Obed Bapela, last week threatened to punish students who visit Israel and said that the Jewish state was offering free trips in a campaign “to distort our stand on Palestine. We have a clear position that supports Palestinian freedom. No leader of the ANC in a private capacity or for the party will visit Israel. It will be putting the ANC in disrepute.”
A South African dialogue participant quoted in the report reflects the Jewish community’s desire for Israel to maintain a careful balance between its interests and those of world Jewry.
“Israel’s actions (particularly in the military sphere) often impact negatively on Diaspora Jewry. Israel has to do what it needs to protect its citizen regardless of this fallout. Israel should nevertheless be open to hearing views of Jews in the Diaspora. Not only because unpopular Israeli policies impact negatively on Jewish communities elsewhere, but the latter are primarily motivated by a desire for Israel to do what is best for itself. And since their own wellbeing is tied up with that of Israel, their views should be taken into account,” the South African Jewish leader told the researchers.
Elsewhere in the Diaspora, Jews also told the authors how Israel’s policies can have direct implications for their communities.
“The Jews of Europe feel the impact of Israel’s actions after every military
operation,” said a young dialogue participant. “Jewish institutions often need to increase their security as a result of [Israel’s] conflicts,” a London participant explained. “Israel’s battles have an immediate influence, and mostly negative, on Diaspora Jewry in the media and the universities,” according to the seminar discussions in Brazil. “We are all held accountable for Israel’s actions,” the report’s authors were told in Pittsburgh.
‘Israel’s battles have an immediate influence, and mostly negative, on Diaspora Jewry in the media and the universities’
Aside from the security impact, part of the core who believe world Jewry should have a voice in Israel hark to the Jewish nature of Israel’s statehood. Last year’s dialogue, “Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry,” explored this issue more in depth, and the authors of this year’s report frequently refer back.
According to the 2014 report, Diaspora Jews expect Israel to be pluralistic; strive for a reality in which it does not rule over the Palestinians; put an end to the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life and give equal standing to all Jewish streams; avoid imposing religious norms on its mostly secular civil society; and prevent dissipation of its Jewish character by strengthening its citizens’ knowledge of Jewish history, traditions, and values.
At this year’s New York brainstorming session, American Jewish leaders also noted disagreement with Israel’s views on issues including “the continuing opposition to conversion and the status of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. All of these issues had been voiced at previous gatherings, and highlight where Israeli policy is out of alignment with the values and viewpoints of many, perhaps most, Diaspora Jews.”
The report also addresses the question of whether Israelis want to hear from Diaspora Jewry, and if they are willing to consider its opinions.
76% of Israelis would agree to have one of the twelve annual Independence Day torch-lighters earmarked for a representative of Diaspora Jewry
In the 2014 report, the JPPI found that an Israeli majority is indeed open to criticism and the opinions of non-Israeli Jews and their inclusion, at least on a symbolic level. The authors cite a 2011 B’nai B’rith survey that found 76% of Israelis would agree to have one of the twelve annual Independence Day torch-lighters earmarked for a representative of Diaspora Jewry.
When speaking in terms of formal representation, however, the report cites another B’nai B’rith survey that states 63% of Israelis oppose the idea of non-Israeli Jews electing “a few” Knesset members. In a nuanced conclusion, stipulating a “strong and thriving American Jewry,” Rosner and Herzog postulate that Israelis feel the country is dependent on world Jewry to a great degree.
Diaspora Jewry – red or blue?
The authors went on to examine who, exactly, of American Jewry might, even theoretically, embody such a potential constituency in Israel’s parliament. Who are the American Jews who care about Israel?
“Ultimately, the religious and political rankings are the same – the more right-leaning the respondent, the stronger the sense of attachment to Israel,” write the authors. Some 61% of American Jews who identify as liberals feel “very” or “somewhat” attached to Israel, as opposed to 73% of moderates and 81% of conservatives.
It is unclear to the authors what the basis is for this more right-leaning support. The authors point to four factors that greatly influence American and world Jewry’s attitudes to Israel: historical memory, Jewish identity, social demographics, and politics.
‘The more right-leaning the respondent, the stronger the sense of attachment to Israel’
“The evolution of these [weakly attached, left-leaning] 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?”
Last summer’s war, however, resulted in a show of strengthened connection to Israel, especially among American youth, and especially those who had participated in Birthright. “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.”
Part of this rise could be because Diaspora Jews are often placed in the position of de facto ambassadors to non-Jews, including their non-Jewish family. And discussions were often necessarily diplomatic.
“When the argument is within the family you have to be more cautious because no way do you want to ruin the relationship, even if you feel [the other side] is completely wrong. And besides, I sort of understand him,” said one American participant with a non-Jewish brother in law.
“If I were not Jewish then maybe I wouldn’t understand why we should support Israel and why it is important,” said the participant.