Why America has kept so quiet

Democrats and Republicans alike have much to lose if they criticise Israel, says John Carlin in Washington
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The Independent Online
Marlon Brando may be a confused and tragic individual whose finest hour is long past, but when he mumbled during an interview on CNN television two weeks ago that Hollywood was run by Jews, America's Jewish community showed no mercy.

"Shame on you and shame on the next Jew for giving you a job," cried Irv Rubin, the chairman of the Jewish Defence League. "We're going to make the rest of your life a living hell."

The outburst provides a clue to understanding why the US government has been so muted in its response to Israel's onslaught on southern Lebanon in the past week. For US politicians, from the President down, know better than the woebegone Brando that to incur the wrath of organised American Jewry is to risk career suicide.

The memory remains fresh in Washington of what happened a decade ago to Charles Percy, a Republican senator with a long record of support for the Israeli cause who one day had the temerity to start asking questions about Israeli policy in the West Bank. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), by far the most powerful foreign policy pressure group in the US capital, swiftly orchestrated a campaign against him.

Jewish groups around the country distributed flyers denouncing him as Israel's greatest enemy and poured funds into the campaign of his election rival. Mr Percy lost the election and disappeared from political life. Tom Dine, then the president of Aipac, declared: "All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy. And American politicians got the message."

Among them was Bill Clinton, who on 5 March denounced the Hamas suicide bombings in Israel as "desperate and fanatic acts aimed not just at killing innocent people, including children, but at killing the growing prospects for peace in the Middle East". His response to the slaughter of the Lebanese innocents on Thursday, on the other hand, was not to condemn the perpetrators, but merely to call on "all parties" for a ceasefire.

Bob Dole, the Republican senator who will be challenging Mr Clinton for the presidency in the 5 November election, responded in like manner. Indeed he echoed the refrain all week of Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State. "You have to keep in mind it was all initiated by Hizbollah," Mr Dole said. "I don't know what other recourse Israel had."

Arab-American leaders, less trained than their Jewish counterparts in the art of political persuasion, have been able to do little more than complain after the fact that had the US spoken out against Israel's operation in southern Lebanon from the beginning, Thursday's massacre might have been averted. George Cody, the director of the American Task Force for Lebanon, said America's failure to send Tel Aviv a disapproving signal had effectively given Israel "the green light" to step up the offensive.

An outcry from the American public, on whose tax dollars Israel's very survival depends, might have pressed the Clinton administration to urge some restraint on the Peres government. But none has been forthcoming.

This is partly because of the grip the Nazi genocide holds on the popular imagination: across the US there are more than 50 Holocaust memorials or research centres. Loyalty to Israel - through thick and thin - is deeply ingrained. It is partly the legacy of US involvement in Lebanon and the heavy cost it has exacted down the years in lives and humiliation, often at the hands of Hizbollah. But it is partly, too, because of the Arab stereotype fixed in the culture by the US film industry.

Take Arnold Schwarzenegger's hugely successful True Lies, praised by Senator Dole last year during an otherwise fierce attack on the decline of family values in Hollywood. In the film Schwarzenegger, who plays the hero, kills 80 terrorists. Russell Baker of the New York Times noted in his column that the murdered villains were all Arabs, "apparently the last people whom Hollywood feels free to offend en masse".