Israel's recent bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in heavily residential Beirut and the large number of Lebanese civilian deaths that resulted have prompted deep concern, dismay and anger among prominent American Jews who have long been Israel's strongest supporters.
A number of leaders in American Jewish affairs still say they understand and approve of the bombing raid that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin approved in the wake of his razor-thin election victory last month.
But a number of others are speaking openly of their concerns over the bombing of the residential area, and their fears that it may have seriously damaged the long valued "special relationship" between the United States and Israel. Now, for the first time, an American president has ordered the indefinate suspension of arms delivered to Israel.
Many prominent American Jews interviewd expressed concerns that for the first time Israel, which has long told the world of how Arab terrorists were indiscriminately killing its civilians, including children in schools, has caused massive casualties among Lebanese civilians, themselves the innocent victims of a war raging around them. The loss of that moral and ethical position was the most troubling aspect to a number of those interviewed.
"It is very, very painful," said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "I don't know enough to know that there is a justification. I would hope that it won't cause any serious damage to the relationship between the United States and Israel. . . . It is a very painful sight. We've seen Israeli women and children mained and killed. We cannot be heartened by the sight of Lebanese women and children killed."
Hyman Bookbinder, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, said, "This is a difficult moment for the friends of Israel. I feel very sad that a country like Israel felt compelled to take such action."
Some of those interviewed directed their bitterness at Begin in no uncertain terms. "I blame Begin," said Meyer Berger of Pttsburgh, a leading figure in industrial real estate, Deomcratic politics and fundraising for Jewish and Israeli causes.
"This is the last of a long series of steps which has undermined American's support for Israel and undermined that great reservoir of good will that has been built up within the American public. To date this is their greatest blunder, and I supported the bombing in Iraq. But this is senseless. It is wrong on an ethical basis, and it is wrong on a political basis."
Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron is to appear before the presidents of 37 major American Jewish organizations in New York City this afternoon to lay out the Begin government's rationale and justification for the raid.
The question of the moral and political propriety of the raid has provoked sharp divisions among American's leading Jews.
PHILADELPHIA BUSINESSMAN s. Harrison (Sonny) Dogole, long active in Jewish affairs, in support of Israel and in the presidential campaigns of Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), ws quoted in a Knight-Ridder newspaper article as saying that "Begin has gone too far. That's what I've been learning from the Jewish community and Washington. There is sympathy with the need to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, but Begin doesn't know when to quit, when to restratin himself."
ydogole said that after the article was published he received telephone cals from four others prominent in American Jewish affairs, who said they disagreed strongly.
One man who has worked to build support for Israel in Washington and elsewhere in this country spoke emotionally of his concerns about the raid, with the understanding that he would bot be quoted by name."I'm anguished," he said. "We are people who want to hear that Israel has high standards, even in wrtime. This was a raid with 300 civilians casualties. Could it have been avoided?"
"So we are asking ourselves, why? . . . Maybe part of the answer is that four weeks ago the state of Israel went through the sering emotional experience of [ceremonies involving] the Holocaust survivors. That moves a guy like Begin emotionally, and some would say irrationally, to act . . . "
He paused, then continued: "But none of this explains that particular raid. It's not like knocking out bridges or a military headquarters. It's just those bombs, those . . . bombs that dropped Friday. I want to know the answer to one question: when the judgement was made to to drop those bombs, did they know that it could result in 200 or 300 civilian casualties?"
The question was put to the Israeli ambassador. "One should ask that of the PLO when they established their headquarters among the civilians in Beirut," Evron replied. ". . . And it was the responsibility of the civilian population to ask them to get out." He will not answer the question in any other way, he said.
Of his meeting today with American Jewish leaders, Evron said: "I suppose that poeple who are not aware of the facts" will come "with different views. Where there are two Jews, you have three views right away, and I don't suppose this will be an exception.
"But people who are concerned about the Lebanese civilian blood must be concerned about what brought it about. . . . By the end of the meeting, at least some who have [critical] feelings will change their minds."
America's major Jewish organizations have been unusually silent in the wake of President Reagan's decision to suspend indefinitely the delivery of 10 F 16s to Israel. Reagan had decided to approve the delivery after a review of Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor, but the subsequent bombing of Beirut just days before the planes were to be delivered prompted him to reverse his decision.
On reason for the lack of early comment from these pro-Israel organizations may be a request from Howard Squadron, president of the Conference of Pesidents of Major American Jewish Organization, that the organizations refrain from making statements until they have heard Evron today.
"If there is going to be a permanent freeze on the weapons deliveries, I would be concerned," Squadron said. "But I do not think that will ; be the case. It is President Reagan's view . . . that Israel is the most important strategic ally of the United States. Israel is, after all, anti-Soviet. And I do not think there is a debate going on in the White House about that. If there is criticism within the White House, it is about the timing of these events. It might have been more thoughtfully timed."
Squadron does not underestimate the effect that the bombing of Beirut could have on American public opinion or, in turn, on American foreign policy.
"I do not think that those pictures of a man with his dead daughter in his hands coming out of a building in Beirut can do any good," he said. "It is bound to have an adverse effect on American public opinion. And American public opinion and policy are intertwined."
These concerns are shared privately by the Israeli government.
And among America's most prominent Jews there is the concern that, in approving a raid when he did, Begin may have prompted a steep decline in his personal relations with the new American president, a slide that could reach the same low state of affairs that existed between Begin and Jimmy Carter.