Philip Cohen hardly seems like the type of person who would scream "Nazi!" at a 68-year-old member of the U.S. House of Representatives. But that's exactly what he did a few days ago as Rep. Helen Delich Bentley left a candidates' forum at Dundalk Community College.
"Really, this is not like me," the slight, bespectacled 39-year-old doctor said a few days later in his Bethesda apartment. "When I was in school, I didn't even demonstrate against the war in Vietnam. But when I started hearing about what was going on in Yugoslavia, about the ethnic cleansing, as a Jew, I heard echoes of the Holocaust."
Besides stirring criticism outside her district, Mrs. Bentley's almost lone voice on behalf of the Serbs in Congress has provided her opponent, Democrat Michael Hickey, with a major issue in his steeply uphill race for the 2nd District seat. He has accused the incumbent of devoting an inordinate amount of time to Serbian affairs as well as being on the wrong side of the matter.
The issue sent a tremor through the rock-solid Bentley campaign last week when her press spokesman Blaine Taylor resigned, calling for her to change her position on Serbia. Mrs. Bentley claimed that emotional problems led to Mr. Taylor's resignation.
Mrs. Bentley says she is merely trying to provide balance to the general perception of the war in the former Yugoslavia, a perception that has the Serbs as aggressors, pushing a policy of "ethnic cleansing" of captured territories that sounds close to genocide, and the Bosnians and Croatians as victims.
"We're not getting the whole story," she said in a recent interview.
Her stance has proved financially beneficial: She has received around $100,000 in campaign funds from Serbian-Americans out a total $842,000.
"I don't think she's a Nazi," Dr. Cohen said of his Dundalk outburst. "But I think she's an apologist for a Nazi regime, and that's just as bad. All I care about now is defeating this woman."
He quit his research job at the National Cancer Institute to devote full time to an organization called the Maryland Coalition to Stop Ethnic Cleansing, which has sponsored demonstrations and paid for newspaper and radio advertisements against the Republican representative.
Dr. Cohen said he believes the United States should help to rearm the Bosnians and Croatians and offer air strikes against selected Serbian targets.
Mrs. Bentley is adamantly opposed to such measures.
"I think there are too many guns over there now," she said of the calls for increasing Bosnian and Croatian military strength in a recent interview. "And I am fighting to make sure American boys do not get involved in a war that involves disputes going back 600 years."
Skeptics contend that Mrs. Bentley takes that position only because the Serbs are winning; that if it were the Serbian capital of Belgrade being turned to rubble on the news every night instead of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, she would be calling for increased international intervention.
"I have cried for Sarajevo," she said, noting that she has used her contacts to help refugees from all ethnic groups. "I can't believe what we are doing to each other. I desperately want peace. Everything I do is to try to bring peace. But I don't know what to do any more."
Mrs. Bentley said she has tried in vain to get Serbian president Slobodan Milosovic, an ardent nationalist blamed for much of Serbia's aggression, to resign.
Plenty of blame
Again and again, though, she returns to the same theme -- that the Serbs are not the only ones to blame, that there is plenty of fault on all sides, that Serbs have suffered at the hands of the Croats and Bosnians as well, but their story is not being told.
Numerous times she has entered journalists' accounts of alleged Croatian and Muslim atrocities against Serbs into the Congressional Record. She has made lengthy speeches denouncing the current Croatian government.
And in August, on a Cable News Network talk show, she said, "I don't think you can point your finger at any one group as being any worse than any other."
"Have there been atrocities committed by the Croats?" Dr. Cohen asked. "Of course there have. But I'd say it's on a scale of about 1,000 Serbian acts to every one by the Croats."
"There have been atrocities on the Croatian side," said Charles Brown, a researcher at the Washington think tank Freedom House. "But nothing like the well-planned and executed operations the Serbians have carried out in the name of ethnic cleansing."
Mrs. Bentley also appears before various congressional committees that deal with Yugoslavian matters, though she serves on no relevant committees. She explained that she comes at the request of the committee chairs, that the State Department and others in the administration often seek her advice as a recognized expert.
"She's so wrong"
"I think if you do a word association on Capitol Hill with Helen Bentley, most people would reply Serbia," said Stephen Silberfarb, who works on the staff of a House Foreign Relations Committee member.
"She's really considered a joke because of this," he said of Capitol Hill opinion. "She's so wrong about it that people don't take her as seriously on other issues that are relevant to her district or her committee work."
Mrs. Bentley pointed to her record of service for the 2nd District and her long hours on the job. She estimated she spends three or four hours a week on Serbian matters.
"If, after a 15- or 16-hour day, I think I'm entitled to take 15 or 20 minutes for matters like these," she told a candidates' forum.
Mr. Hickey has made much of a paid political advertisement in Srobobran, the Serbian-American newspaper, touting a fund-raiser for Mrs. Bentley held in Detroit in September, which said, "Mrs. Bentley has only two Serbs in her district yet she spends a majority of her time helping Serbs."
She has explained that that resulted from a misunderstanding with the author of the ad, that what she meant was that she spends the majority of her time spent on foreign policy on Serbian matters, but only about 2 percent of her time is spent on foreign matters.
Mr. Hickey has charged that two members of her staff work full time on Serbian affairs. She denies that, but letters she has sent to Serbian-Americans across the country contain names and numbers of her staff members to call for assistance. At least one letter was sent on congressional stationery, which she has acknowledged was a mistake.
What is clear is that Mrs. Bentley is something of a superstar in the nation's Serbian community. Virtually every issue of Srobobran features her exploits, championing her as the only Serbian-American in Congress and praising her efforts to
represent the Serbian side.
George Kenney, who headed the Yugoslavian desk in the State Department until he resigned in protest in August, said Mrs. Bentley has brought Serbian leaders traveling through Washington to the State Department to meet with Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.
Last year she was instrumental in forming SerbNet, a lobbying group on behalf of Serbia, and served as its first president. She says she left that position in June and remains only as honorary president.
The November election provides one powerful motivation for Mrs. Bentley's Serbian crusade: money. The $100,000 she has raised from Serbian-Americans includes $1,000 from Milan Panic, the California businessman who is the premier of Yugoslavia.
"It's not as if she has to compete with anyone for that money," Mr. Silberfarb pointed out. "There are not too many other people speaking for Serbia."
Mrs. Bentley compares her actions on behalf of her ethnic homeland to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' interest in Greek affairs or an Irish-American legislator's involvement in policy on Northern Ireland.
"I think Mike Hickey is of Irish descent," she said. "But if he belongs to the Hibernian Society that doesn't mean that he supports the IRA.
"I think what the Serbs are doing is bad enough. All I'm saying is, don't make us any worse than we are."