Understanding The Bellicosity of Israel’s Defense Policy

Israel is a state that inspires passionate debate, particularly surrounding its use of force, or, more specifically, its willingness to use violent force as a first option, as they perhaps most controversially did at the start of the Six-Day War. In early June of 1967, Israel responded to Arab troop build-ups with an effective pre-emptive strike against Egyptian airfields, launching what is now known as the “Six-Day War.” International law, however, is murky on whether or not pre-emptive strikes are legal.

What could explain this bellicose military policy? Israel is far from a universally-accepted state, and thus has little political capital to spare on controversial military endeavors. This article proposes that the most fruitful way to comprehend the military policies of Israel is to utilize the theory of Constructivism. When using the lens of Constructivism, outsiders can peer into the Israeli, and Jewish, zeitgeist. The roots of Israeli military policy are found in the ways in which Jews, and thus the Israeli military establishment, understand certain threats. Due to the threat perception of the Israeli military establishment, the international system is viewed as a Realist one, suggesting that existential threats can only be circumvented through the accumulation of power, and the willingness to use it. While it is beyond the scope of this article to either defend or criticize Israeli bellicosity, reaching a peaceful solution to the cleavages plaguing the Israel versus Palestine paradigm is dependent upon understanding the zeitgeists of all involved factions.

Constructivism: Understanding Israel’s View Of Threats Through Stories, Violence, and Oppression

Constructivism is a theory of international relations positing that international actors “construct” their own identities and realities. The experiences, stories, and history of a people create a shared identity and a perceived context around different situations. In the political sphere, these constructed identities and perceptions synthesize to generate policies. To a nation, such as Israel, that possesses a history and identity imbued with persecution, less severe threats, such as a one-off stabbing, are viewed existentially, demanding decisive and oftentimes, destructive, action.

One example of Constructivism’s usefulness as an explanatory tool concerns the different attitudes toward intra-European war during the 1900s. Prior to World War II, war in Europe was the product of intense nationalism, realpolitik and imperial ambitions. After the horror of World War II shocked European society, new initiatives to integrate European states ensued because Europeans realized that they could not continue on such a destructive and divisive path. The constructed realities of nationalism and the subsequent warmongering gave way to the new realities of a fully-integrated community of European nations with the establishment of the European Union, forming a new body politic. The change from frequent wars to a genuine attempt at perpetual peace in Europe is best understood through Constructivism. An appreciation of different viewpoints and zeitgeists provides us with an explanatory model of an actor’s actions.

Understanding Israel’s actions in 1967 is predicated on acknowledging the recent and painful history of Jews and how it informs the state’s military policies. The modern Israeli state is an ideological project, one created to provide a safe space for the Jewish people to prosper away from the existential threats that have historically tended to plague them. One of the fathers of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, promulgates in his famous pamphlet, Der Judenstaat (translated literally: The State of The Jews), notions of anti-Semitism as hatred of the Jews as a nation, not a religion or culture. In other words, to the wave of 1800s anti-Semites, Judaism was a biological race, not simply a religion. This new wave of hatred peaked with the Holocaust, in which the Nazis systematically murdered approximately six million Jews (as well as millions of others).

Yet, the Holocaust was not the only instance or type of recent anti-Semitism Jews experienced. Consider the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903, in which drunken rioters murdered 49 Jews and destroyed the Jewish quarter. In 1905, rioters killed or wounded 66 Jews and looted 125 Jewish owned homes and businesses in the Dnepropetrovsk Pogrom. The Dreyfus Affair in 1894 highlighted a less violent form of anti-Semitism, in which implicit biases against Jews forced the perception that they were inherently treasonous criminals. Jewish-French army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused and punished for revealing sensitive information to Germany. In 1893, Karl Leuger founded the anti-Semitic “Christian Social Party,” and became the mayor of Vienna. Leuger and the Christian Social Party’s political success brought anti-Semitism into the mainstream of political thought, normalizing extreme individuals such as Georg Ritter von Schonerer, who held a young Adolf Hitler as an ardent follower. The synthesis of anti-Semitic politics with the encouraged violence of the pogroms created a seriously inhospitable atmosphere for Jews. Yet, Jews were not altogether unaccustomed to such antagonism and, in many ways, the stories created in the time preceding this new race based anti-Semitism helped to inform the ways in which Jews, and eventually Israelis, perceived threats.

Several Jewish holidays either commemorate or mourn Jews who overcame or succumbed to genocide, diaspora, and enslavement. Purim, Passover, Sukkot, Hannukah, and Yom HaShoah are all concerned with different, and violent, events in Jewish history. The synthesis of the stories with the all-too-recent memories of oppression and genocide in the 1800s and 1900s facilitates the view that any threat is an existential threat to either the Jewish identity or Jewish lives.

Purim is a holiday that celebrates the defeat of Persian Prime Minister Haman. Haman had ordered all of the component nations living in the Persian Empire to bow to him, and when the leader of the Jews, Mordechai, refused, Haman sentenced all Jews to death. The emperor of Persia, however, was married to a Jew (unbeknownst to him), and when this information came to light, Haman was executed. According to this story, ancient Jews had successfully circumvented their genocide through strategic planning and clever manipulation of court politics.

Passover concerns the escape of Jewish slaves from Egypt. As the story goes, Egypt had enslaved Jews for many years, forcing them to build pyramids and lavish palaces for the Pharaohs while living in squalor. Moses, who eventually became one of the Jewish leaders, brought a message to the Pharaoh from God. When the Pharaoh refused to emancipate his Jewish slaves, God sent ten plagues, culminating in the deaths of Egyptian first-born sons. After the Pharaoh’s son died, he freed the Jewish slaves (only to chase them through the desert immediately after). Jewish slaves were able obtain freedom through the use of overwhelming force in the form of plagues. In the aftermath of Jewish emancipation from Egypt, the former slaves wandered the Sinai desert for 40 years, living as nomads. This diaspora is remembered through the holiday Sukkot, in which Jews are encouraged to sleep and eat in huts covered in branches in remembrance of their stateless history, placing further emphasis on the need for a home in which Jews may permanently and safely live.

Hanukkah commemorates the success of a violent guerrilla movement, called The Maccabees, over the Syrian-Greek Seleucid Dynasty, who ruled the land that became Israel. The Seleucids attempted to Hellenize the Jews, converting them to their religion and destroying Jewish holy places, especially the Grand Temple in Jerusalem. Antiochus, the leader of The Seleucids, was wary of an indigenous guerrilla movement and sent a general named Apolonius, along with (roughly) 40,000 soldiers, to eliminate the threat. Judah, the leader of the Maccabees, responded defiantly, stating “Let us fight to the death in defense of our souls and our Temple!” Eventually, and against all odds, the Maccabees won, restoring the Temple to its original glory. In this case, the desire to preserve the Jewish identity against either overwhelming odds or the threat of forced assimilation called for a fierce and incredibly brutal defense.

Yom HaShoah is both the day of remembrance for Jewish victims of the Holocaust, as well as a celebration of Jewish resistance to the genocide. On Yom HaShoah, all activities in Israel are centered on spreading knowledge about the Holocaust. Entertainment programs are canceled in favor of interviews with survivors, businesses are closed, and two sirens, one at 11 am and one at sundown, calls for complete silence throughout Israel. The Israeli educational system, perhaps wishing to assign a more hopeful message to the holiday, discusses two forms of Jewish resistance against the Nazis: Passive resistance insofar as many Jews retained their Jewish identity throughout the Nazi’s rule; and active resistance such as the Warsaw Uprising (which shares the same date as Yom HaShoah). The dual focus on the preservation of Jewish identity as well as active resistance highlights the ultimate goal and primary method through which Israel intends to survive as a state: preservation of its Jewish character and a fiercely resilient and resolute defense.

The recent cases of anti-Semitism, such as the pogroms, Holocaust, and legal discrimination, mixed with the stories told every year during holiday gatherings promotes the perception that unless Jews take matters into their own hands, they will be at the mercy of those that wish to do them harm. The product of these experiences promotes three beliefs, first: threats are everywhere; second: most, if not all, threats are existential; and third: the only way to survive in the face of these threats is through the strength and military power of the Israeli state. Famous Israeli general Ehud Barak stated, “Until the wolf shall lay with the lamb, we’d better be wolves”, providing a key insight into how Israeli’s view and understand threats.

Israel, as a state founded by Jews, views the international system in a way that is largely informed by the experiences and realities Jews faced throughout history. As Barak stated, Israel views itself as a lamb, neither inherently violent nor bellicose, but surrounded by threatening wolves nonetheless, suggesting that Israel should become more wolf like, willing to strike decisively to continue as a state.

This understanding explains the events of the Six-Day War, in which Israel attacked Egypt first. Although this might ostensibly make Israel the aggressor, consider Israel’s viewpoint of the situation. Egypt announced hostility to Israel; set its military to its highest alertness level; expelled UN emergency forces from the shared Sinai Border; strengthened its forces on the same border; closed the important Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships; and fomented a more favorable balance of power by signing alliances with Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. To a state created by people with the shared history of subjugation and near destruction, this seemed to be a serious threat for the continued existence of Israel. The response to these threats was a swift and decisive attack, in which 90% of Egypt’s air force was suddenly destroyed without warning. A similar attack was also conducted in Syria. The aftermath of the surprise attacks provided Israel with a prodigious air advantage, and allowed them to capture the Gaza Strip and West Bank in three days. What was perhaps the most powerful and overwhelming alliance in the history of the Arab world was completely defeated in six days as a direct result of Israel’s threat perception and military policies.

The Israeli perception of threats promotes a view that the international system is a Realist one. Realists believe first that the international system is anarchic, in that there is no real central authority to regulate the actions of the state. Second, Realists believe states cannot be entirely sure of the actions of other states, which creates uncertainty and requires significant strategic planning. Finally, the way to ensure continued existence against such uncertainty is through power. States strive to be more powerful than other states because that is deemed the only way to deter unpredictable threats. Israel’s Realist understanding of the international system mandates an assertive defense policy.


Israel is a state mainly populated by Jews, who through stories and myths as well as all too recent memories of anti-Semitism and genocide, perceive the world as an inherently threatening and dangerous place. This zeitgeist is translated to the Israeli defense policy, which continually focuses on a twofold strategy centered on accruing and developing the newest technology and assertive and decisive responses to threats. While bellicosity certainly has its drawbacks, international condemnation, civilian casualties and accusations of warmongering chief among them, Israel feels the need to assert itself in such a way as to ensure its survival. The policies of the Israeli military are directly informed by the Jewish reality. The synthesis of these experiences and stories creates a hypersensitive threat perception, explaining the decisive actions and refusal to be bullied we saw enumerated in Israel’s pre-emptive strikes in 1967.

Adam Goldstein

About Adam Goldstein

American University senior on the BA/MA track for Comparative Politics. Unapologetically obsessed with Iranian politics, political science, and Phish. Contributing editor and Middle East/Africa columnist.