When Israeli bombs fell on a residential Beirut neighborhood a year ago, killing about 300 civilians and wounding 700 others, S. Harrison (Sonny) Dogole, a Philadelphia businessman long active in support of Israel, declared that Prime Minister Menachem Begin had "gone too far."
But when Israel launched a far more powerful invasion of Lebanon this month to wipe out Palestine Liberation Organization strongholds and push back Syrian troops, leaving civilian casualties that may number in the thousands, Dogole viewed the conflict in entirely different terms.
"The Israelis have done an exceptional job in their own self-interest in protecting their country," he said. "This is the most constructive thing they could have done. They decimated the PLO. It was the only way to finally put this thing to rest."
This shift in thinking is echoed by many Americans Jews. And it underscores the surprisingly muted response of United States public opinion to the Lebanon invasion compared with the outcry that followed the bombing of Beirut and the Israeli destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor a year ago.
This is a matter of great import to Begin as he arrives in the United States to attend the United Nations disarmament conference, touch base with the American Jewish community and possibly meet with President Reagan.
"There's been far less criticism of the Israeli move into Lebanon than either the raid in Iraq or the bombing of Beirut," said Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), a long-time backer of Israel on Capitol Hill. "Most people understand the legitimacy of the military purposes Israel was pursuing."
Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.), who has often criticized Israel, agreed that the invasion has been met with "almost total silence" in the House. "It may be that the dimensions haven't been fully grasped," he said. Lebanese police have reported 9,583 people died and 16,608 were wounded in the Israeli air raids that started 13 days ago, but the precise count is still unclear.
"The toll of human suffering just has not sunk in yet. If 10,000 people have died," that would jolt American public opinion, Findley added. "This may tarnish the humanist image of the Israeli state."
The muted public response is maddening to Palestinians in the United States.
"There is passive acceptance of the slaughter of 10,000 people," said Rex Wingerter of the Palestine Congress of North America, an umbrella group for 55 Palestinian organizations in the United States and Canada. "By and large there is silence and people are seeing this as good for America: we wiped out a good portion of the Palestinians and we can now have peace, peace through violence." If there is anguish and soul-searching among Israel's supporters in the United States, it stems from the heavy toll in civilian deaths that occurred while Israel was pursuing its military goal of wiping out the PLO and pushing Syrian troops from Lebanon.
"This is the one great negative factor," said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "There would be unrelieved joy in the Jewish community were it not for these fearsome casualty statistics. This is something the Jewish community doesn't accept easily. I suppose we feel very much like Golda Meir must have felt when she said we are angry at the Arabs not so much for killing our sons, but for forcing them to be killers."
A number of prominent American Jewish leaders drew a sharp distinction between the Beirut air strike at PLO headquarters last year and the larger military offensive this month designed to eliminate PLO artillery shelling from southern Lebanon.
"The military purpose of the Beirut bombing was never very clear," Schindler said. "It appeared to be a random act of revenge." By contrast, the purpose of the recent invasion was crystal clear, said Howard Squadron, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "The people in northen Galilee were within range of artillery shells, and no government would permit its citizens to be in that situation," he said.