Since the Jewish State’s founding, religious Israelis have sought ways to integrate the Jewish vision of statehood into something real.
There have been arguments for decades about the mesh between Halakha (Jewish law) and the various bodies of civil law provided by the Ottomans and the British: Should the death penalty be permitted in modern Israel? Is the state obligated to prevent motorized transportation on Shabbat? What are the Jewish rules of war?
Rarely though is there as much discussion about foreign policy, although the questions here are just as pressing: Is the Jewish ideal one of neutrality or intervention? Are Jews in Israel more obligated to their own interests or are they equally obligated to concern themselves with the affairs (and welfare) of Diaspora Jews? With whom can we form alliances? Those questions are a research concern of Professor Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist and researcher with the Begin-Sadat Center for Security Studies.
Strategic thinking aside, Professor Sandler has found some trends and preferences in the Jews' long history of relating to people outside their own borders. Sandler qualified that this is a field of many, many issues. Jewish history, Judaism or Religious Zionism might demand different things of Israelis in international relations.
So what makes a foreign policy more Jewish than the next one?
"That's a good question," says Sandler. "I still haven't resolved it. I argue that it's very 'defensive' and 'survival-oriented' and not imperialistic. In other words, in our long history, we hardly see any imperialist tendencies. There are periods where we have a lot of power, but normatively (not imperialism)."
Sandler writes in an article for the journal Hebraic Political Studies that studying this subject requires one to separate between the ideal in foreign policy and realism.
“Many argue that it is possible to speak of a state of the Jews but not of a Jewish state. Underlying this approach is the logic that sees the state as an instrument rather than an ideal, and this is further applied to the realm of Jewish foreign policy.”
Sandler contrasts Judaism with Christianity and Islam to prove his point, namely in its reluctance to convert people to Judaism to expand the population who would be loyal to a subsequently expanded state.
"Islam from the beginning wanted to expand, but Jews - except for one period during (the rule of) the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) – have never tried to forcibly convert others."
“What’s the difference with Christianity? We never tried to compromise. They found people were very difficult to convince people to circumcise, so Paul abolished it. Peter abrogated kashrut to make conversion easier.”
Judaism has had its periods of popularity during Roman times, but has never seen itself as a vehicle for imperial takeover of other countries. Judaism and Jewish states have never been truly aggressive powers. When Arutz Sheva asked if the imperative to conquer the Land of Israel in the time of Joshua (Yehoshua) was worth comparing to nascent Islam's conquest of the Middle East, Sandler drew a distinction.
"Yehoshua was very limited (in conquests). Even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) was very upset with the two and a half tribes because they wanted to settle on the other side of Jordan."
Even Moses was averse to overstepping Israel's literal bounds in acquiring territory. There was a simple imperative with a limited scope, but beyond that Moses laid the groundwork for a generally more defensive world outlook. King David's own reign over most of Syria was temporary.
The defensive mindset of Jewish foreign policy is borne out of the sorts of alliances Jewish rulers have made over the centuries. They were made out of desperation, or survival. Generally speaking, Sandler has found little support for the notion of international alliances in Jewish tradition, at least from an idealistic perspective.
“Alliances are not ideal, but a matter of survival. I refer to Salo Baron in my article, who compares today’s Israel with days of old, saying Israel benefited from a period where two empires to the north and south (the Assyrians and the Egyptians) were weak. Once they started to make a comeback, they had to make alliances.”
“If you look now, you can see it,” says Sandler, referring to the modern Middle East’s major divisions.
However, Baron is also cited in the essay as saying Jews did not really take advantage of a time period where they faced no substantial pressure from an aggressive empire. The Kingdoms of Judah and Israel did not align when that intermediate period ended, leading to the disintegration of both monarchies.
With the rise of the Second Temple, there was a scattered tendency to align with the largest rival of Israel’s main enemy. For a time, that meant aligning with the Greeks against the Persians, then the Romans against the Greeks, then the Parthians against the Romans. The pattern here is that those alliances either were fruitless or gave too much influence to the larger partner.
“Judah Maccabee made a defensive alliance with Rome against the Assyrian Seleucids. Later on, attempts were made to make defensive alliances with the Parthians against the Romans,” says Sandler in his journal article.
“In other words, insofar as there was a realpolitik approach in alliance formations, it was defensive, not offensive. Relations with larger powers were more akin to those of our second type of alliances, namely vassal or protected states, as was the case with relations with the Parthians.”
Modern alliances might be different. The world’s superpowers are less likely to invade distant countries (although of course that does still happen) and there are far more complex dynamics keeping small countries from becoming completely subservient to one country or another. We see this even with Iraq, caught between the Iranians and the Americans.
Israel, for its part, is caught between several regional powers: Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Given the country’s proximity to so many rivals, it became a cornerstone of foreign policy early on to rely on a global superpower to ensure a balance of power in the region.
“Empires are empires. Now maybe we are caught between the regional powers. Beforehand they were global empires. That is why Ben-Gurion wanted to take the US, because Zionist Foreign Policy always looks for a great power.”