Winter 2009, Vol. 11, No. 3

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
How to Pray

The Mormon Proposition

No Saints Need Apply

Picturing Palin's Faith

Bishops at Bay

Downplaying Religion
in Mumbai

What is Lashkar?

The Beat Goes On

Riverside's Black-White Divide

Scandalous Days
in the OCA


New books

The Beat Goes On
by Amory C. Minot


On September 24, 20-year-old Army private Michael Handman was sent to the hospital and treated for a concussion, facial lacerations, and severe oral injuries. These were not battle wounds. They were inflicted in a Fort Benning laundry room, by one or more of his platoon mates.

Handman claimed he was beaten because he was Jewish, but the Army didn’t see it that way. On October 10, a Fort Benning spokeswoman told the AP that military police had concluded that the attack “wasn’t motivated by religious bigotry.”

Not that Handman hadn’t been subjected to anti-Semitic abuse earlier in his basic training. Just four days before the beating, two of his drill sergeants were reprimanded by the Department of Defense for making him remove his yarmulke during meals and calling him “kike” and “fucking Jew.”

“I have never been so discriminated against/humiliated about my religion,” Handman wrote in a letter to his parents. “[A]nd the only justification they have is I’m Jewish.” A friend, he said, “heard some of the guys in my platoon talking about how they wanted to beat the shit out of me tonight when I’m sleeping.”

Handman complained that he had been rebuked for reading a Jewish Bible even as a nearby solder reading the New Testament a few feet away was left unmolested. Concerned for his safety, his parents wrote to Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R.), who asked the Department of Defense to investigate.

On September 26, Fort Benning Deputy Chief of Staff Samuel Selby Rollinson informed Chambliss by letter that he did not “condone the actions of the non-commissioned officers in slurring Handman, and denying him the right to wear a yarmulke or attend Jewish prayer services.” But Rollinson claimed that the perpetrators’ actions were “not meant to be malicious, and were done out of ignorance for regulations and cultural awareness.”

According to a September 30 report in the online news magazine Public Record, which quoted Rollinson’s letter, the department’s detailed report included nothing about the beating.

Although Handman claimed that several men had been present, on October 10, the AP reported that just one member of his platoon would “face nonjudicial punishment rather than criminal charges…a move that keeps many details of the attack secret.” These details include the name of the trainee, which under the terms of the federal Privacy Act was not released.

In such a nonjudicial proceeding, Army regulations stipulate that the maximum penalty that can be imposed is 45 days’ confinement to barracks, 45 days’ extra duty, a reduction in grade, and a forfeiture of pay. But within a month, the Army announced that the soldier had been “punished under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and administratively separated for misconduct,” the Atlanta Jewish Times reported November 7.

While the punishment was commended by the southeast region of the Anti-Defamation League, Handman’s cause was not universally embraced in the Jewish community.

Captain Neil Block, a retired Navy captain charged with representing the interests of Jewish soldiers at Fort Benning, was critical of the private. Writing in Public Record October 13, Jason Leopold reported that Block “seemed to place blame for the brutal attack and the prior incidents of anti-Semitism on Pvt. Handman for naively believing that wearing a yarmulke would not invite ridicule by his fellow soldiers” and suggested that “Pvt. Handman used his ‘minority status’ as a Jew to play the ‘Jew card,’ in other words, a ‘victim.’”

“He has a drill sergeant who has never seen a [yarmulke] in his life and treated him less than mommy and daddy would and made some derogatory comments about his faith. This whole thing is an issue of overreaction,” Block said. “But it’s basic training. You can’t control 100 or so soldiers. I mean everybody uses the ‘n’ word now and then.”

Quick to come to Handman’s defense was Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). A Jewish graduate of the Air Force Academy, he made a name for himself during the 2004 controversy over proselytization and religious discrimination there.

“Mr. Block displays a truly alarming and willful reckless disregard for the truth of this tragic Army hate crime and subsequent cover-up,” Weinstein told Leopold.

On October 17, Jews in Green, an online organization devoted to supporting Jews in the military with which Block is associated, posted “An Open Letter to Mikey Weinstein” from Sgt. Brian Kresge accusing Weinstein of crossing the line from “aggressive pursuit of injustice” to being a “media whore.” MRFF, Kresge said, does not actually represent Jewish interests.

In a Huffington Post column a month later, Chris Rodda, MRFF’s Senior Research Director, criticized Jews in Green for letting their goal of increasing the number of Jewish military personnel trump concerns about anti-Semitism in the Armed Forces. As a result, the two organizations had become “bitter adversaries.”

For better or worse, Weinstein has become the central figure in a running series of disputes over religious prejudice in the military. Last June, when nine midshipmen at the Naval Academy filed a complaint against the practice of the ‘noon meal prayer,’ Weinstein was quoted in the New York Times as saying that “fear silenced” many others who were equally disturbed by such practices at the military academies.

Weinstein is also representing Army Spc. Dustin Chalker in a lawsuit filed in September against Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in which Chalker alleges that he was repeatedly subjected to fundamentalist Christian evangelizing practices during mandatory military events. According to Jason Leopold’s September 26 article in the Public Record, “Chalker, who said he is an atheist, asked his superiors for permission to leave the prayer sessions and on each occasion his request to be excused was denied.”

The suit, Weinstein told Leopold, “leveled a blow in Federal Court against the unlawful religious bigotry and persecution that is sadly systemic in today’s armed forces.”

Since the election, those who feel victimized by religious pressures in the military have begun to look to the newly elected president as well. On November 10, the Secular Coalition for America held a news conference in Washington asking for “new rules against proselytizing and more training for chaplains on how to handle nonreligious troops,” and calling on “the new White House to protect young military members from what they see as rampant religious discrimination in the services,” Leo Shane III reported in Stars and Stripes

Specifically, the coalition requested that the president-elect “develop a new directive for all chaplains and commanders that eliminates public prayers from any mandatory-attendance events for troops and ensures the Defense Department will not endorse any single religion, or even the idea of religion over nonreligion.”

Shane cited a Defense Department survey showing that roughly one-fifth of current service personnel say they have “no religious preference.” Disputing that figure, Jason Torpy, a retired soldier who is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said many do not identify themselves as non-believers “because they fear retribution,”

“We’re as dedicated to the military as our Christian counterparts,” Torpy said. “We just want to serve our country, too.”

The ongoing skirmishes over religion in the armed forces do not appear to be merely aftershocks of the Air Force Academy affair or the product of Mikey Weinstein’s hyper-vigilance. They are, rather, the consequence of the increased dominance of evangelicals in the military chaplaincy.

As Anne C. Loveland pointed out in these pages three years ago (“The God Squadron,” Fall 2005) “the evangelical mission to the military is not likely to disappear any time soon.” The question is: What are the rest of us going to do about it?


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