American Jewish leaders yesterday generally welcomed the idea of returning U.S. troops to Lebanon and called for the speedy withdrawal of all foreign forces from that country. Some said Israel should withdraw immediately from Beirut as requested by President Reagan.
The Jewish leaders unanimously expressed horror and revulsion at what one group termed the "cold-blooded murder" of Palestinians in refugee camps in West Beirut over the weekend, and several said Israel bears some responsibility for the killings by failing to enforce law and order after occupying West Beirut.
Most Jewish spokesmen contacted expressed support for an investigation by the Israeli government into how the massacre took place and agreed that "those responsible be brought swiftly to justice," as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations put it in a statement.
Henry Siegman, national executive director of the 50,000 member American Jewish Congress, also demanded that Israel "sever all of its ties with the murderous Christian militias responsible for this outrage.
"If Israel's abhorrence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is to continue to have moral credibility then it must treat those responsible for this atrocity with the same abhorrence," Siegman said.
Siegman was backed in this view by Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who said Israel must "sever relations with any Lebanese force found guilty of this foul deed."
Up to now Israel has seen the Christian militias as allies in its struggle to impose a stable, pro-Israel government in its northern neighbor.
Siegman, in the most critical remarks, said in an interview that he supported the return of U.S. troops to Beirut, and the withdrawal of Israel from that city because "Israel has no business playing the role of restorer of Lebanon's stability; they should not be the policemen of the Middle East."
While the Jewish community both in Washington and around the country appears divided over Israel's responsibility for the massacre of the Palestinian civilians, a number of spokesmen said yesterday that Israel could not avoid bearing part of the blame even if only by omission.
"All nations -- Lebanese Christians, Lebanese Muslims, Palestinian terrorists, Syrians and Israelis, now embroiled in the conflict share a certain amount of guilt" for the massacre, said Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, president of the Washington Board of Rabbis, which represents about 80 area Jewish rabbis.
"Because Israel assumed responsibility by moving into Beirut, therefore it owes an answer as to why it exercised such bad judgment in allowing Christian militias to enter the Palestinian camps," Siegman said. "It is important to distinguish between guilt and responsibility. I do not believe Israel shares in the guilt; however they do share in some responsibility."
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a former president of the American Jewish Congress and long-time critic of the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, said, "It was at worst, carelessness or misunderstanding of the real nature of the situation." He called on Begin and and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to resign, adding: "They accepted the responsibility as policemen and they failed in responsibility. In any decent democratic society, if you fail in your responsibility, you resign."
Some Jewish leaders, however, denied that Israel bears any responsibility for the massacre.
Rabbi Joseph B. Glaser, the New York-based executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said, "It is a cruel, horrible and ironic thing that Israel should be weighed down with any kind of responsibility for this . . . I don't think that you can say that because Israel failed to close all the gaps and keep these people out, that they can be held responsible."
Glaser and Julius Berman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the massacre was a result of the "epidemic nature of terrorism" and criticized Pope John Paul for receiving PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.
One leader of the Washington Jewish community who asked for anonymity said he believed the weekend killings will further contribute to the privately voiced sentiment among a section of Jewish leadership that "Menachem Begin may have one great service to perform for the Jewish people -- to resign." However, he stressed that this sentiment is not widespread enough that spokesmen feel compelled to express it publicly.
B'nai B'rith's international president Jack Spitzer said his organization supports the "elimination of private militias and the withdrawal, as soon as possible, of all non-Lebanese forces" from Lebanon. Spitzer would not lay any blame on Israel for the massacre anymore than he would "blame a city police force for murder."
The American Jewish Committee said it was "shocked at the atrocities committed in Palestinian camps in Beirut over the weekend and we grieve for the victims." In a statement, it called upon the U.S. to speed the departure of all foreign armies and to work towards the restoration of civil order" in Lebanon.
Hyman Bookbinder, the committee's Washington representative, added, "That would include the judicious use of American forces again."
Only a few Jewish leaders yesterday questioned the value of an investigation into how those who committed the slaughter were able to get past Israeli forces surrounding the camps. Haberman said his board feels "it is pointless to quibble about the exact proportion of responsibility" among all the feuding groups. And B'nai B'rith's Spitzer raised the issue of whether results of the investigation would be accepted.
"Would you accept as impartial and factual an investigation by the Israeli government?" he asked.