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How Israel’s Wars Hurt Diaspora Jews

The Israeli cabinet held a special session June 28, dedicated to one of its least-known and potentially most fraught rituals: the annual briefing on the current state of Jewish life worldwide. It’s presented each spring by a semi-official Jerusalem think tank that monitors Israel-Diaspora relations, the Jewish People Policy Institute.

Some of what they talked about might surprise you. What they didn’t talk about might shock you.

The hour-and-a-half briefing focused on a few key topics in the newly released Annual Assessment of World Jewry (read it here, Hebrew only), published by the policy institute every year since 2004. The main themes presented to the cabinet were the geopolitical implications of the Iran nuclear negotiations and the struggle against anti-Israel boycotts. They were presented by the institute’s co-chairs, veteran Washington hands Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat.

A third section of the briefing, presented by the institute’s founding director, veteran Israeli journalist Avinoam Bar-Yosef, covered changing Jewish demography. He reported on the unexpected growth in worldwide Jewish population, which is due partly to the fact that adult children of intermarriage are identifying as Jews in unanticipated numbers. Bar-Yosef described the high rate of Jewish identification among children of intermarriage as a potential source of strength for the Jewish community, if the right policies are pursued.

Perhaps even more surprising, the ultra-Orthodox cabinet ministers listened to this section of the briefing attentively and without objection, Bar-Yosef told me over lunch in Manhattan last week.

The real shocker of the cabinet meeting, though, was what wasn’t covered in the briefing: namely, the most explosive of the assessment report’s 12 chapters, “Relations of the Communities and Israel.” It describes dramatic changes detected in the past year, mostly for the worse, in Diaspora Jewish attitudes toward Israel, its government policies and its military actions.

In part the changes reflect shock at Israel’s behavior, both in the domestic arena and in warfare. In part they’re due to discomfort and inability to explain Israel’s actions when asked by non-Jewish friends and family. And in part they’re due, particularly among European Jews, to the increase in “frequency and severity” of anti-Jewish attacks whenever Israel takes military action against its neighbors.

The report quotes community leaders describing a rise in Jewish alienation from Israel, coupled with intense polarization within the community, which often makes civil discussions of Israel impossible. There’s a growing tendency to leave the topic of Israel off the community agenda altogether, reflected in synagogue sermons, local programming and informal discussions, in order to avoid the sort of vituperation that regularly surfaces when Israel is discussed.

Three main factors appear to drive the change in attitude. One, touched on only briefly in the report, is widespread Diaspora unhappiness with the rightward turn in the policies of the current government, at a time when Jews in the Diaspora, especially in the United States, remain firmly liberal.

Alongside the enduring liberalism of the community’s majority, the report says, is lively growth in numbers among the Orthodox minority. Between those growing sectors is a sharply declining center. Long identified with Conservative Judaism, the center traditionally provided much of the leadership of the mainstream community. These three demographic trends — growth at the edges and disappearance of the center — aggravate the increasing polarization.

The report has a lot more to say about the other factor affecting relations with Israel: fallout from last summer’s Gaza war. This is reflected in several spheres, but most important are the strains placed on Diaspora Jews’ relationships with their “environment,” as the report puts it. These strains are serious and growing.

There’s a high level of support for the principle that Israel has a right to defend itself. There’s also widespread agreement with the statement that the Israeli military “made every effort to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza” — though support for that last statement was markedly lower among Jews under 30 than among their elders.

But it found that “many Jews do not accept the assumption that ‘the current government of Israel is making every effort to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.’” Significant numbers conclude that some of Israel’s armed conflicts could be avoided. That undermines the degree of Jewish support for Israel during those conflicts, though the extent is not clear.

During a roundtable discussion the institute held near New York with local Jewish community leaders, “most said that Israel’s actions during war cause them to be ‘prouder’ of Israel,” the report says. But “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.’”

Far more alarming, the report says that Israel’s wars have a strong, direct impact on the relationships of Diaspora Jews to their surrounding communities and societies. Mainstream Jewish community leaders in several countries told the institute that there is an “automatic tendency” for the surrounding non-Jewish society to “view Jews as representatives of the pro-Israel position.”

This has the direct result — as the institute initially noted last year, the current report points out — of “increasing the frequency and severity of harassment/attacks on Jews in various places around the world.”

“This insight was particularly emphasized this year in light of the bloody incidents in the Jewish community of France,” the report says. It quotes a Jewish community leader from France saying: “Every time [Israel uses force] synagogues are burned.”

Curiously, the report avoids the word “anti-Semitism” when describing these attacks as consequences of Israeli actions. No less curious, there’s an earlier chapter in the report, Chapter 8, that’s devoted exclusively to the rise in European anti-Semitism, essentially referring to those same attacks. But Chapter 8 never mentions the testimony by European Jewish leaders in Chapter 9 about a link between Israeli actions and attacks on European Jews. “Anti-Semitism” and “Israeli actions” don’t appear in the same chapter.

In a way, the reticence is understandable. Drawing a causal link between European anti-Semitism and Israeli behavior — between any anti-Semitism and any Jewish behavior, for that matter — is taboo in current Jewish discourse, to the point that suggesting it is itself treated frequently as an anti-Semitic act. It must have been frightening for scholars operating in this environment to stumble across first-hand testimony that the link is real. Even more frightening when they’re preparing to face an Israeli cabinet some of whose ministers view criticism of Israeli military actions as tantamount to treason.

The impact of the war is also felt, though less severely, in Jewish communities like America’s that are relatively more secure. Jewish community leaders in America reported to the institute that Jews find themselves regularly drawn into arguments with non-Jewish friends and family, and significant numbers react by avoiding the topic “and sometimes even avoid being identified as Jews, so as not to be drawn into a confrontation and argument with harsh critics of Israel.” The problem is more severe among younger Jews than their elders, the report says.

This suggests another paradox within the report. As we noted, one of the first chapters notes the surprisingly high proportion of children of intermarriage who identify as Jews, or at least “embrace Judaism as part of a complex, multidimensional identity.” It describes this phenomemon as an opportunity to strengthen the Jewish community through outreach. It recommends investments in research to “identify levers that can draw them toward interest in Judaism and involvement in the life of the Jewish people.” The assumption, of course, is that a stronger numbers and stronger Jewish identities make a stronger Jewish community, and that makes Israel stronger.

But what are the prospects for drawing young people of complex identity closer to the Jewish community — of encouraging children of two faith traditions to embrace their Jewish side — at a time when even deeply rooted Jews find themselves hiding or fleeing from their Jewish identity? How many in the months and years ahead will echo the experience of a convert to Judaism who told the researchers that during last summer’s war, “my family asked me, ‘this is the religion you joined?’ They watched TV and couldn’t understand what this had to do with me.”

The analysis of changing attitudes toward Israel is drawn from a series of moderated group discussions the institute conducted last March and April with close to 600 members of Jewish communities in nine countries on five continents. The discussants were recruited by Jewish federations and councils in some 40 cities worldwide.

Several sessions were held on college campuses in order to obtain a representation of young adults. Of the full international discussion panel, 27% were between 18 and 29, compared to about 20% of the Jewish population at large.

The participants were mostly individuals with a relatively high level of personal attachment to Israel, as shown in survey questionnaires each participant completed afterward. As a result, it’s likely that the report understates rather than exaggerates the level of alienation in the communities.

In addition to the eight-page chapter on community attitudes in the assessment report (the report is 60 pages long and has appeared only in Hebrew so far), the institute has published a separate 132-page report specifically on the five-continent discussions and their findings. It’s in English, and you can find it here.

It’s telling that the title of the long report, reflecting the intended theme of the dialogue, is “Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflicts — Perspectives from World Jewry.” As it turned out, the question of Jewish values in armed conflict takes up a relatively small part of the overall report — just one of the report’s 10 chapters, eight pages out of 132.

It appears the discussants didn’t have the patience to ruminate on theoretical questions of Jewish values. Far more extensive — and infinitely more compelling — are their comments and views on Israeli behavior and its impact on them and their communities as Jews in the Diaspora.

It seems they had something on their minds, and when presented with an opportunity to tell Israel about it, they seized it. In fact, three of the report’s 10 chapters touch on the question of whether and how Israel should consider their views on its behavior. Those chapters’ titles are, first, “What Do Jews Expect of Israel?”; second, “Do Diaspora Jews Think That Israel Should Take Them into Consideration?”; and third, “Is Israel Willing to Take Diaspora Jewish Opinions Into Account?”

The answers to the three questions can roughly be summed up as follows. First: ethical behavior, balanced by an awareness of the moral ambiguities of war and the complexities of Israel’s situation. Second: Yes, they very much want to be heard, particularly given “the impact of events on their own lives.” And third: Yes, sort of, but only up to a point.

On that last question — Israel’s willingness to take Diaspora Jewish opinions into account — the report offers some fascinating observations, based not on the institute’s dialogues but on other Israeli opinion polling. It finds that Israelis by large majorities are open to their leaders consulting with Diaspora Jews, in part because of the perceived power and connections of American Jewry. However, Israelis are overwhelmingly opposed to giving Diaspora Jews any formal voice in Israeli decision making.

Two paradoxes emerged in this context. One poll asked Israelis which issue is “the most important for Israel’s leadership to consult about with American Jewish leadership.” No. 1, at 51%, was “cultivating Israeli-U.S. relations.” A distant second, at 15%, was “military and security issues.” Dead last, at 2%, was the issue American Jewish leaders are most eager to raise with Israelis, “issues of religion and state.”

The second paradox: The Israelis who tend to have the strongest “sense of ‘belonging’ to a wider Jewish world,” namely religious and right-wing Israelis, also tend in surveys to be the least likely to favor consultation with Diaspora Jews.

The Jewish People Policy Institute was founded in 2002 at the initiative of the then-chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sallai Meridor. In an interview at the time he told me that one of his major goals was to set up a channel to help the Israel government consider the needs and interests of Diaspora Jews when it makes decisions that might affect them.

Meridor said he’d been profoundly shaken up by the bombing in 1994 of the AMIA building, the headquarters of Argentina’s main Jewish organizations. Israeli intelligence believed it was carried out by Hezbollah and Iran in retaliation for Israel’s assassination in 1992 of Hezbollah’s founding leader, Sheikh Abbas Musawi. Meridor had been present as a senior aide in Israel’s Defense Ministry at the time the decision was made in 1992 to “take out” Musawi, he said, and it never occurred to anyone at the time to wonder whether the action might blow back onto Diaspora Jews.

Since then, the recommendation that Israel develop a channel to consult with Diaspora Jewry before taking actions that might affect them has appeared in nearly every one of the institute’s annual assessments. Never, though, was it driven home as powerfully as it was this year.

Unfortunately, the message has gained its new urgency just at the moment that Israel acquired a government less open than ever to foreigners’ views, and more intent than ever on hobbling, defunding or silencing Diaspora-linked organizations that question Israeli government policies.

During my lunch with Avinoam Bar-Yosef last week I asked why he and his co-chairs hadn’t briefed the cabinet on impact of the Gaza war on European and American Jews. He said they’d reported to the cabinet in past years on the need to consider Diaspora interests. Some progress had been made, though it related to intelligence gathering and he couldn’t discuss it. So it didn’t seem necessary this year.

I thought he sounded a little uncomfortable as he spoke, though it could well have been my imagination. We’re old friends, Avinoam and I, and it felt like he wanted to tell me more but couldn’t. I’ve long been a huge fan of the work he’s done building the institute. As I listened, I wondered if he hadn’t been worried when planning the briefing that pushing things too hard could hurt the institute’s ability to continue influencing events in the future. But maybe I was just imagining it.

I also thought about the ending of the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke,” in which Paul Newman, playing an escaped prisoner, shouts out to the warden, “What we got here is a failure to communicate,” a moment before he’s cut down in a hail of bullets.

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