Julius Berman, the newly elected chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, assumes office Thursday at a time when Israeli–American relations — like almost everything else as result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon — are at a crossroads, with more questions asked than satisfactory answers found.
In a one-hour interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency held at Berman’s law office in Manhattan just hours before Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s resignation was announced, the 46-year-old Berman, who is president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and also secretary of the Board of Directors of the JTA, gave his views on a wide variety of topics.
In this first part of the interview, Berman discusses the current situation in Lebanon, the attitude of American Jewry and the implication of the crisis on U.S.-Israel relations.
In Part II to be published tomorrow, he gives his views on the Presidents Conference, its role in American Jewish life and its relationships with the Government of Israel and the White House.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
Q. How would you assess the degree of support among American Jews of the Israeli operation in Lebanon?
A. I believe that generally there is an overwhelming consensus of the American Jewish community in support of the decision by Israel to ensure, once and for all, that the thousands of inhabitants of the Galil shall live and sleep in safety and security and no longer live from minute to minute with the overwhelming fear that another incursion will take place from southern Lebanon or a Katyusha rocket will fall on them.
Q. What are the short term and the long term implications of the operation in your view?
A. The immediate implication, as I indicated above, is that the hoped-for “Sholom L’Galil (Peace in the Galilee)” will actually take place, i.e., that the inhabitants of the North will live in peace as in the rest of the country. The long term implications may be extremely far-reaching. There is great hope and desire, not only in Israel but in the United States as well, that Lebanon as a country, will finally have a new opportunity to reconstruct itself, to be the free and independent country it once was, where Christians and Moslems — and Jews, for that matter — can live together in peace and harmony, without being occupied by foreign elements, whether they be Syrian forces, PLO terrorists, or even Israeli troops.
Q. The operation faced a lot of criticism here in the media and in official circles during Begin’s visit. Do you think support for Israel is eroding in the United States?
A. I do not believe that to be the case. I believe one of the problems that has recently arisen is the fear, repeated again and again in the media, that Israel will attack west Beirut. Between that fear and the exaggerated figures that have been thrown around about civilian casualties in Lebanon, the impression may have arisen in various places within this country that Israel intends, for all intents and purposes, to take over Lebanon. Because in my mind there is no question but that Israel wants to get out of Lebanon as quickly as possible — provided that adequate assurances are established within the 25 miles of the southern border of Lebanon against further incursions from Lebanon into Israel — and the Israeli troops never attempt to kill or maim civilians.
Q. Do you think the Reagan Administration is seeing eye to eye with Israel on the importance of the operation to American interests? Are there any parallels between American interests and Israeli interests?
A. There are certainly parallels. And there is no question that there is a similarity of thinking in large part with respect to Lebanon. However, there is no question that both Israel and America believe that this may be a golden opportunity, in terms of both the future of Lebanon and peace in the Mideast. However, that does not mean that both countries are of the same mind with respect to each individual decision made by Israel in the course of the battle. That has never been the case, nor could it be, with two independent countries, each with its own relationships, priorities and opinions. For example, since we have known for many months now that it is the position of the Reagan Administration that the allegedly moderate Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, should be accommodated by the United States in various ways, including the provision of the most advanced technological weapons we have, there is no question that the United States is approaching the Lebanon situation keeping in mind that this general desire of it shall be salvaged or, if possible, even secured.
Q. In recent days there has been criticism regarding the civilians killed as a result of the Israeli invasion. What is your answer to these charges and especially to charges that American Jews are keeping silent on the issue?
A. My answer basically is that all Jews, including the Jews living in Israel and those within the Israeli government and, for that matter, in the Israeli armed forces, abhor the killing of any human being of whatever religion. This is our tradition of old, and it is ingrained in our personalities. If I felt that even one civilian died because of an intentional infliction of death upon him or her by the Israeli armed forces, I too would feel a sense of criticism toward what was occurring. However, it is my clear understanding that whatever civilians died, died as the result of attacks or counter-attacks upon Syrian armed troops or PLO terrorists, and, the unfortunate positioning of these entities near or within the civilian population, which leads to this unfortunate — very unfortunate — by-product of war.
Q. There is no doubt that the situation now is in a crisis state. How can American Jews help? Is there any role they can play?
A. I believe that the American Jewish Community has to gird itself for the immediate task ahead which is to support the Administration’s desires to aid in the effort to create a new inde- pendent country in Lebanon. I have reason to believe from personal contacts upon the meetings between Prime Minister (Menachem) Begin and the President, that it is the intention of the Administration to aid in arranging for a new government authority that will be sovereign in the country of Lebanon. To the extent political support is needed to implement those desires, the American Jewish Community has its task cut out for it.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.