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The Beirut massacre: a response for American Jews

It is time that the private doubts of American Jewish leaders and of American Jewry in general about Menachem Begin's disastrous and inhuman policies give way to public protest. It is not enough to call for an independent Israeli commission of inquiry in order to identify those who allowed war crimes to continue for two or three days. Instead it must be recognized that the Beirut massacre is the logical outcome of policies based solely on military might and the accompanying anti-Palestinian climate fostered by Begin and Sharon.

That policy and orientation are at odds with the best traditions of Jewish life and the very principles on which the Jewish state is founded. The Zionist dream was not merely to create a country where Jews could be free from persecution but also to establish the spiritual center of the Jewish people.Israel was to be a state rooted in Jewish morality, exemplifying the values of justice and compassion. The protests in front of the Knesset indicate that those values are very much alive in Israel.

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It is impossible to believe that American Jews feel that Begin's policies have been successful. Israel has never been so isolated. Even the United States, Israel's most steadfast ally, is highly critical of current Israeli policies. Moreover, reliable friends in Congress have begun to voice their concern and outrage over the developments in west Beirut.

In part, American Jewish leaders have given Israel uncritical support because of a fear of triggering anti-Semitism. It is, however, the horror of the events themselves which, more than anything else, feeds and brings to the surface vicious anti-Semitic sentiment. It is possible, and indeed necessary, both to criticize specific Israeli policies and to unite and vigorously protest bombings in Paris and Vienna.

Another reason for uncritical support has been a concern that anything except absolute unity would weaken Israel and endanger the lives of its citizens. But this fear of weakening Israel through public criticism has helped contribute to the current tone and orientation of the Begin regime. In 1978, the outstanding Jewish and Zionist leader, Nahum Goldmann, wrote: ''American Jews who support Israel in its present intransigent policy and who feel they must prevent America from taking a position are harming Israel more than many of its adversaries.'' The atrocities in the Shatila and Sabra camps are grim testimony to the prophetic nature of Goldmann's remark.

Given the recent events, it is not enough to call for criticism of Begin and Sharon. A more fundamental response to the massacre itself should be forthcoming. Some prominent American Jews have expressed their anguish, while others have claimed that a gesture of some sort is needed. Symbolic gestures and feelings of self-doubt, however, are essentially hollow. The Jewish tradition demands that positive action be taken, action that will help the living to live better and more decently.

As a first step in that process, I propose that American Jews call for an international commission of inquiry and urge the rest of diaspora Jewry and Israel to join them. Such a commission would be designed to go beyond the narrow question of which individuals are responsible. It would instead focus on the issue of how the Beirut massacre could occur. The goal of the inquiry would be a deeper understanding not only of the history and circumstances that led to the events of Rosh Hoshana 5743, but also of the other atrocities of the twentieth century. In other words, an investigation of the events that produced Shatila would help to illuminate the general mentality that has also produced a Kishinev pogrom, the attempted extermination of Armenians, the slaughter of Manchurians, the Holocaust, and the horrors committed in Indonesia, Cambodia, My Lai, and Maalot.

A call for a commission by American Jewry would reaffirm the historic role of Jews as a people whose experience has universal implications. Given our history as victims and our recent actions as victimizer, the universality of the Jewish experience has never been more clear. It is our role to urge that lessons be learned from the Beirut massacre, lessons that will decrease the likelihood of future war crimes and acts of genocide. This international commission of inquiry would, in effect, help create a world in which any and all peoples would be correct when stating ''never again.''

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