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Beating of Jewish Soldier at Fort Benning Turns Allies Into Foes

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Just over a year ago, Sgt. Brian Kresge of the website Jews in Green had nothing but praise for Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). Kresge even made a point of noting, in the introduction to an interview he had done with Weinstein, "He speaks in the easy manner of a seasoned grunt, and it's not affectation, it's genuine affection for the service members he seeks to serve now" and "If his statements come across as vituperative or pugilistic, one only has to look at what is at stake to understand why." Kresge also expressed his admiration for the generations of military service of Weinstein and his family, writing, "Weinstein's motivations are absolutely genuine. He's a man who clearly loves the Constitution and this country. His family has over 128 years of combined service in the armed forces. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy."

A few weeks ago, however, Sgt. Kresge did a complete about face, writing in an "Open Letter to Mikey Weinstein" on Jews in Green, "Stop adopting the patois of a grunt. In your interview here, Tikkun and any other time you can avail yourself as a media spectacle, you speak in the vernacular of a combat soldier. You were JAG. Your most hazardous duty came in the form of paper cuts. You insult those of us in combat arms professions if you presume this is the only language that either we or your perceived enemy understand."

What so drastically changed Sgt. Kresge's opinion of Weinstein? The recent beating of a Jewish soldier at Fort Benning -- more specifically, MRFF's reaction to the handling of the incident by the Army and a Jewish lay leader at Fort Benning, retired Navy captain Neil Block.

Before getting into the details of what happened at Fort Benning, and why two organizations with compatible missions have now become bitter adversaries, I want to address Sgt Kresge's ad hominem attack on Mikey Weinstein.

As MRFF's Senior Research Director, and someone who has at least ten conversations with Weinstein in an average day, I can attest that his gruff tone and vernacular are not the least bit put on. His language when talking to me is no different than the language he uses when speaking in public. In fact, his language is sometimes even a bit more colorful when he's talking to me. I was actually quite impressed a while back when, in telling me about a particularly egregious incident, he managed to work six of George Carlin's seven words you can't say on television into a single sentence.

As for Sgt. Kresge's assertion that having served as a JAG somehow makes Weinstein less a real member of the armed forces than those in the combat arms professions, this is an insult to the millions of service men and women, both past and present, who have chosen to serve in a multitude of professions in the military. Any member of our military enters the service knowing that, whatever their particular job, they may be put in harm's way. We all heard during the campaign that Joe Biden's son, Beau, is being deployed to Iraq. Beau Biden, of course, is a JAG, and joins countless other JAGs, public affairs personnel, and the many thousands of service members now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in other than combat arms professions. Weinstein's ten years in the Air Force just happen to have been served at a time when we weren't at war -- as were Sgt. Kresge's four years as a paratrooper.

Kresge's time with the 101st Airborne was prior to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so, while trained in a combat arms profession, he spent this time in Alaska, not in combat. In his current Army reserve unit, which is preparing to deploy, Kresge has reported on his own blog that he's been assigned to the rear detachment, which means he's not going. While I have no doubt that Sgt. Kresge would willingly put himself in harm's way if called upon to do so, I also have no doubt that Mikey Weinstein would have done so just as willingly during his years of service. And, by the way, Weinstein also earned his jump wings, having completed paratrooper training with 101st Airborne while a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Now, getting back to what caused this conflict between Jews in Green and MRFF...

On September 24, Pvt. Michael Handman, a Jewish soldier in basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, was severely beaten after being lured into a laundry room by other soldiers. Handman, who was knocked unconscious, was taken to the hospital, suffering from a concussion and other oral and facial injuries. The beating came just days after Handman was interviewed by commanders about letters he had written home in which he told his parents about the harassment he was facing because of his religion. In one letter to his mother, Pvt. Handman had written of his drill sergeants, "Not only do they humiliate me, they encourage my platoon to do the same thing." In the same letter, Handman wrote, "I have just never been so discriminated against / humilated about my religion," and "my battle buddy 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." The letter ended, "Maybe your dad was right...The Army is not the place for a Jew."

Pvt. Handman's parents, Randi and Jonathan Handman, understandably concerned for their son's safety after receiving letters like the one quoted above, contacted Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). Sen. Chambliss then contacted the Army, which led to an interview of Handman by the commanders and the reprimanding of his drill sergeants. Four days later, Handman was lured into the laundry room and beaten.

MRFF, along with a number of other organizations and individuals, believes the prior harassment of Pvt. Handman, the subsequent reprimanding of the drill sergeants, and the beating were related. Jews in Green is accepting the Army's determination that they were not related, and the Army's decision to treat the beating as a personnel matter rather than a crime, a move which not only minimizes the punishment, but keeps secret the details of the attack that would be made public in a criminal investigation. But, the disagreement over the Army's handling of this situation is just the beginning of the story, and would probably not, in itself, have led to Sgt. Kresge's all out personal attack on Mikey Weinstein.

At issue here is not just the inadequate response by the Army, but the gross mishandling of Pvt. Handman's beating by Fort Benning Jewish lay leader Neil Block. While Block should have been an advocate for Handman, he was anything but -- actually implying that Handman somehow brought the beating on himself, using phrases like playing the "Jew card," saying that "Any young Jew who uses his minority status to play the system is villainous," and writing in an email to Mikey Weinstein, "You give comfort and sanction to those who would really try to marginalize us and an excuse for those of us who don't or won't measure up and use our ethnicity as their excuse."

Among the religious slurs used by the drill sergeants to refer to Pvt. Handman were "Juden," "kike" and "fucking Jew." The only one of these names being mentioned by those wishing to play down the harassment of this Jewish soldier, however, is "Juden," and they've come up with a great excuse for this one. According to Block, "One of the drill sergeants spent time in Germany. Juden is the German word for Jew. To some Jews it may have a pejorative impact. But it's a legitimate word in German." Apparently, unable to come up with any foreign language or possible context in which "kike" and "fucking Jew" are not pejorative terms, they're just leaving those out of the story. Also left out is the part of the story about Block inviting Pvt. Handman's mother to Fort Benning to visit her son on Yom Kippur, two weeks after the beating occurred, only to separate Handman during this visit from his mother and a cousin who had accompanied her and publicly humiliate him.

The missions of MRFF and Jews in Green, while obviously different, should certainly not be incompatible. Jews in Green, which provides informational resources for Jews in the military, also clearly has the goal of encouraging more Jews to join the military. MRFF, on the other hand, exists to protect the rights of the Jews, as well as those of all other religions or no religion, who are already in the military.

Neil Block, who, incidentally, contributes articles to Jews in Green and is listed on their "Contact Us" page, unquestionably shares this organization's goal of increasing the number of Jews in the military and making their presence more visible, apparently in an effort to invalidate what he sees as some sort of stigma that Jewish Americans aren't as patriotic as other Americans.

Back in 2001, in an Atlanta Jewish Times article about the construction of a Jewish chapel at the US. Naval Academy, Block was quoted as saying that this new chapel would correct "the general perception that we don't serve in the military. People think that all Jewish boys do everything they can to avoid going into the service."

In an article in the April 2008 issue of The Jewish Veteran titled "Jews in Today's Military," Block wrote, "We are here. We are represented. We are part of the woof and web of our American fabric. We are not invisible. We have not shirked our national duty and responsibility." In the same article, referring to the often raised complaint about all religious services for soldiers in basic training being held on Sunday mornings, regardless of the the fact that the traditional day of worship for soldiers of faiths other than Christianity is not Sunday, Block again indicated that he is more concerned with making Jewish soldiers visible than advocating for their right to uphold the traditions of their faith, writing:

"We might be able to do some arranging to schedule a Friday night or Saturday morning service, but then we would be invisible. That is, we would not be formed up and marched in as an identifiable group to chapel as are the other faith groups. ... Nobody would see our strength of numbers, our presence in a clear and unequivocal military formation marching proudly to the chapel, putting on kippot and talleisim and praying together with a visible arc and Torah for all to see."


But now this same Jewish lay leader who wants to parade the Jews around so that everyone knows who they are claims to have advised Pvt. Handman that there would be consequences to acting too Jewish. Regarding an incident in which Pvt. Handman was harassed for wearing a keepah, or yarmulke, while eating, Block said, "When he told me that he was going to wear a keepah I said God bless you, but be prepared, there's a consequence to it and you're going to be challenged." Although Block was well aware that Army regulations allow the wearing of a yarmulke while in uniform, and in his position as Jewish lay leader could have attempted to head off a problem by making sure the drill sergeants knew this, he didn't.

Making matters worse, Block later made excuses for the drill sergeant who confronted Pvt. Handman over his wearing of a yarmulke, saying:

"He has a drill sergeant who has never seen a keepah 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. Should his drill sergeants have known better? Yeah. But they didn't. I was at a party where people talking about Jewing somebody down. It goes on. Does it make it right? No. But it's basic training. You can't control 100 or so soldiers. I mean everybody uses the 'n' word now and then to refer to African Americans."


With his "n" word comment, Block succeeded in offending blacks as well as Jews, leading the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP to get involved, issuing along with MRFF a joint letter to the Secretary of Defense demanding the immediate removal of Block and his co-Jewish lay leader, Richard Grifenhagen, who appears to support Block's statements, from their positions at Fort Benning.

Prior to contacting MRFF, Pvt. Handman's parents, upon hearing that their son had been beaten, had reached out to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for help. The ADL, however, showed no interest in the case until, as a result of MRFF's immediate involvement following the beating and continued advocacy for the Handmans throughout the month of October, the incident began to receive widespread media attention. Suddenly, at the end of October, the matter became so important to the ADL that the organization, without consulting either the Handmans or MRFF, held secret discussions at Fort Benning with Army officials to negotiate a resolution, issuing a news release on November 2 saying that the ADL had been working on Handman's case, which came as a surprise to Randi Handman, who said, "I question why we as Michael's parents were never contacted by the ADL through any of their meetings." Jonathan Handman said he believes the ADL did not contact him "because they knew I would not be happy with the bare minimum that they could do to look good in the press."

For more on the latest developments in this case, and the sudden involvement of the ADL, see http://pubrecord.org/component/content/497.html?task=view.

Just as I finished writing this piece, I received a copy of a letter from Maj. Gen. Douglas Carver, the Army Chief of Chaplains, in response to the joint letter sent by MRFF and the NAACP mentioned above. Maj. Gen. Carver was among the attendees at the ADL's secret meeting at Fort Benning. Here is the main paragraph from Maj. Gen. Carver's letter:

"I visited Fort Benning on 30-31 October 2008 and met with the chain of command, the senior Rabbi in the Army, the Fort Benning Garrison Chaplain and the Southeast Regional Director, Anti-Defamation League. During that meeting it was determined that Chaplain (Colonel) Jacob Goldstein would prepare an assessment of the recent issues with recommendations. This was completed and forwarded to the Fort Benning Staff Judge Advocate for legal review. The Fort Benning Garrison Commander, Colonel Macdonald, will consider Chaplain Goldstein's report, as well as any evidence produced by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and statements by Mr. Block and Mr. Grifenhagen, prior to making a decision about what action, if any, is required."

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