He's a liberal Jewish congressman. He's been here for years: tough-minded, outspoken. In any hall of fame honoring politicians who unequivocally stand with the world's suffering people -- from citizens back in the district who've been hurt by Ronald Reagan's attacks on social programs to forgotten political prisoners in dictators' jails -- he would be among the inducted.
But when I ask him why he hasn't publicly condemned the violent scorched-earth policies of Menachem Begin and Gen. Ariel Sharon in Lebanon, he becomes the opposite number of the fearless liberal Jewish congressman. He isn't speaking out. Bold strokes that can paint right from wrong on other issues become doodlings of evasiveness when the subject is the Begin-Sharon reign of death and destruction in Lebanon.
After confessing that the carnage is so bad that "I don't know what to say about it," he says a lot: "It bothers the daylights out of me. Sure I'm troubled. It's a very tortured time for me."
The congressman didn't need to be reminded that people are putting him to the hypocrisy test. He takes no pleasure in talking about this issue, and he requests anonymity when it comes to attribution. Ducking is against his nature. He thrives on open intellectual combat. He understands that large numbers of liberal American Jews, in politics and out, are feeling the pressure to distance themselves from Israel's unprecedented violence and, at best, to break ranks and denounce it for the ravening that it is.
He knows that anger about American silence over Israel's killing of civilians in Lebanon -- the cluster bombs, the shelling of hospitals and homes -- has been expressed in Congress, but that collegial courtesy has kept it from being directed at him and the other Jewish members. Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, a Cleveland Democrat, said on the House floor in mid-June: Ronald Reagan's "going horseback riding with the queen while thousands of people are being killed and maimed is despicable. Why is the president and the administration mysteriously so silent on this issue?"
It is simplistic to label this congressman's silence as political cowardice, the electoral fear that the Jewish voters in his district will throw him to the pharaohs this November. To come forward and join such liberal Jews as I.F. Stone and Nat Hentoff in signing full-page ads "to oppose Israel's onslaught on Palestinians and Lebanese" would be, he says with feeling, like breaking ties with "a member of the family."
Going with the metaphor, he spoke of the Israel of David Ben-Gurion, the wise father, and Golda Meir, the earth mother. But even as he subjectively remembered the past, his sophistication lurched him back to the reality of what's happening today: "The American Jews have been conned -- intimidated -- into equating Begin with Israel. We fear making a mistake and being a disservice to Israel."
The disservice has already been done. Begin has not only gotten away with bringing the stench of death to Lebanon in the name of Israel's security, but he came to America and persuaded many American Jews that this was a time to stand behind the homeland. Begin knows the tendency -- often the compulsions -- of many American Jews to be more Jewish than the Israelis.
The congressman sees the ravel he has tied himself into. He knows that large numbers of Israelis are saying the Lebanese invasion is a military mistake and moral horror. He is in sympathy with their protests, this kind of bonding of his conscience to good causes being second nature to him in domestic politics. But he begs off of being in the forefront of this cause.
In Congress, he has ample company. On June 10, Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat whose four grandparents came to America from Lebanon, introduced a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all foreign combat forces from Lebanon. Only nine members joined Rahall in cosponsoring the resolution. Three weeks later, with the news of the killing now cascading out, the number had edged up to 13.