The head of one of the nation's largest and most influential Jewish organizations, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, called upon Israel on Sunday to stop the "indiscriminate" beating of Palestinian Arabs because "it violates every principle of human decency."
In a strongly worded telegram to Chaim Herzog, Israel's president, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, a leader of Reform Judaism, called the beatings "self-defeating" and a "counterproductive policy."
"We plead with you to bring this madness to an end," Schindler wrote.
Recent actions by the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have caused hundreds of injuries and represent an expressed policy on the part of the government of Israel to try to end the wave of Arab protests that began in the occupied territories in early December.
'Betrays Zionist Dream'
"I am deeply troubled and pained in sending you this message," Schindler wrote Herzog, "but I cannot be silent. The indiscriminate beatings of Arabs, enunciated and implemented as Israel's new policy to quell the riots . . . is an offense to the Jewish spirit. It violates every principle of human decency, and it betrays the Zionist dream."
American Jewish leaders usually have been reluctant to criticize Israel publicly. And though he is generally viewed as one of the most independent and outspoken of the American Jewish community's leaders, Schindler's airing of such harsh sentiments is a departure from tradition.
Schindler, the leader of the 1.3 million-member Union of American Hebrew Congregations, composed of 810 Reform synagogues, said in an interview with The Times that he was "shocked and alarmed" by what he saw on television and read in the newspapers about the new Israeli government policy.
In his telegram to Israel's president, Schindler warned that the policy could have serious consequences both in the United States and in the Middle East.
"Far from bringing order, it will only increase the cycle of violence and intensify hatred," Schindler cabled Herzog. "It also threatens to erode the support of Israel's friends here in the United States."
" . . . Your government's latest policy serves only to shift responsibility for the neglect and abuse of the Palestinians from the Arabs to the shoulders of Israel.
"Clearly, the decision must be yours. We (in America) live in safety. You and your children live under the gun. Still, we owe you the truth. Israel's present policy as announced by the minister of defense is morally wrong and practically unavailing."
Others, familiar with sentiment in the American Jewish community, predicted that Schindler's telegram could be the first step in a campaign by the leaders of some of the other major U.S. Jewish organizations to pressure Israel to stop the beatings. Some of the pressure will take place in private because of reluctance to attack Israeli policy in public.
'Dismay and Shame'
"It represents the genuine dismay and shame of Jews in the United States who are shocked at this policy," said a source familiar with discussions among U.S. Jewish leaders. Not only would many U.S. Jewish groups be hard-pressed to defend Israel's actions in Gaza and the West Bank, he said, but there is genuine shock at what is happening.
The source said that Schindler decided to send his telegram to Herzog because Israel's president may be in the best position to exert moral leadership against the beatings.
In Israel last week, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said that beatings administered by soldiers would be used to stop protests by Palestinians. And Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has since defended the decision as not Rabin's alone, but one taken by the government as a whole.
(In Jerusalem on Sunday, Rabin told the Cabinet that members of the security forces used their batons "only when necessary to disperse demonstrations." He said the clubs "are not used for punishment and they are not used on rioters already caught.")
Reasons for Action
Schindler told The Times that he undertook his initiative for several reasons.
"The first involved the moral factor," the rabbi explained. "It is jarring to the Jewish spirit to hear about a policy of indiscriminate beatings of Arabs. The second reason was, if you will, tactical. This kind of policy is self-defeating. It will not restore order. It can only increase the cycle of violence. The third reason for taking this step was political.
"The responsibility for the Palestinians plight certainly is not primarily Israel's. They are victims of the Arab governments and of the leaders of the PLO, who consistently have chosen terrorism and military confrontation over accommodation and political settlement. These latest events must not be allowed to obscure that point. And finally, if this Israeli policy is not stopped, it is bound to erode support for Israel among its American friends."
Schindler said he was speaking for himself, though the sentiments he expressed were "substantially" those of the Reform movement. He also said he had conferred "indirectly and unofficially" with the heads of other major Jewish organizations. "Some agreed with me and some did not," he said.
Support in Los Angeles
Schindler's action drew support from at least some Jewish leaders in Los Angeles.
Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, a Reform congregation, described the criticism as long overdue.
"It articulates what so many Jewish leaders must be feeling privately," Beerman said. "Their reluctance to express it openly has served neither the cause of Israel nor human decency. It's time for Israel to know that not only what it's been doing is outrageous but also that it damages the essential confidence that people . . . have had in Israel's moral stature as a nation.
"As the only democracy in the Middle East, we look for Israel to live up to the tenets of democracy and human rights."
No Surprise at Action
Beerman said he was not surprised to learn of the telegram Sunday after hearing Schindler speak at his temple during a dinner for about 100 Jewish leaders Friday. In brief remarks at the dinner, Schindler indicated that he was deeply troubled by the actions of the Israeli government, Beerman said.
"He felt it had gone beyond the realm of rationality. . . ," Beerman said.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation, also said he agreed with Schindler's stance but criticized the decision to send a telegram. The delicate issues involved make it more appropriate to have sent a delegation of American Jewish leaders to meet with Israeli officials, he said.
"I think they should stop," Schulweis said of the beatings. "I think very few people I know would disagree with that. The Israeli government's caught trying to control a very difficult situation. That is clearly not the way to do it.
"But neither do I think a telegram is the best way. I think I would have talked and expressed it . . . face to face" to prevent appearances of a rift between the American Jewish community and Israel, Schulweis said.
John J. Goldman reported from New York and David Ferrell from Los Angeles.