There was a recent news story out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division, concerning overt discrimination against the installation’s Jewish community. The volunteer lay leaders of the Fort Campbell Jewish community were suddenly terminated without cause by the Garrison. This followed closely on the heels of the garrison forcing the abrupt cancellation of the scheduled Passover services, also without justification. Unfortunately, this story is part of a highly disturbing trend of growing anti-Semitism in the military.
Establishing a Chaplain’s Corps for each service to provide religious support passes Constitutional and other scrutiny for several reasons. The chaplains must provide support to personnel of all faiths regardless of the faith of the individual chaplains. It is often not possible to have a chaplain of every faith on every installation, especially so in a deployed environment. Therefore, the official chaplain education program involves training in all faiths so that every chaplain can at least provide basic support to every service member. Chaplains are also required to provide more general counseling and services to further legally justify the official expenditure on religion.
Jews make up approximately only two percent of the U.S. population and less than one percent of the U.S. military. Consequently, there are not nearly enough rabbis serving as military chaplains to cover all the installations at home and abroad. The situation for Jewish military personnel is more difficult because the communities surrounding most military installations do not have synagogues. Understandably, Christian service members have a much easier time finding churches in the nearby communities and religious services on the installation.
The military has invested in building large, multi-functional churches on most installations. The larger the installation, the more chapels they have, but every installation has several. In theory, the chapels are shared among all faiths, although they are built as churches. Even where the multiple faiths can arrange to share space, there is not always a chaplain of each faith assigned to the installation. The Garrison Chaplain’s office relies on volunteer lay leaders to conduct services, study groups, etc., for those faiths without an assigned chaplain. They are required to provide logistical support to all.
In recent years, conservative and evangelical Christian chaplains have refused to provide support to personnel of other faiths, claiming doing so is a violation of their own faith. They have the support of their leadership in the Pentagon who agree that chaplains need not perform any functions or services that they believe violate the tenets of their own faith. However, while this may sound reasonable to some people, there are three significant problems. First, that directly contravenes the role and responsibility of military chaplains. Second, the result is a lack of chaplain and religious support for personnel of certain faiths, especially in austere or deployed environments where they truly rely upon the chaplains. Third, how to assess the legitimacy of these claims where providing basic support to personnel of other faiths somehow violates their own faith. Was that really the message of God or Jesus – Love thy neighbor, but only if they are the same as you? Chaplains who serve in the military must be willing to accept the critical responsibility and duty to support all personnel. If they cannot do so and if they truly believe they violate their faith by supporting personnel of other faiths, they need to find another career to perform their ministry. Under no circumstances should service members be denied proper religious support from the chaplains.
Unfortunately, Jewish personnel face insensitivity towards the requirements of their faith if not outright denial of religious support. The Fort Campbell incident is not an isolated problem. All services have had similar challenges in this regard. For example, the Air Force has had problems stemming from evangelical proselytizing in the academy. Here are several examples from my own experience.
One installation commander, a man of conservative Christian faith, resented the fact that Jewish personnel wanted to observe the two most important, solemn Jewish holidays – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – each holiday requiring them to miss a day of work/training to spend in prayer, personal reflection, and other appropriate commemorative activity. Ostensibly in conjunction with the Garrison Chaplain’s Office, he issued a policy that Jewish personnel wishing to observe, would get on a bus early in the morning, attend services all day long at a designated Orthodox synagogue, and be driven back at the end of the day. It was as if he believed those wishing to miss work to observe could not be trusted and wanted to punish them for practicing a different faith. Many Jews on active duty are not Orthodox and would endure hardship and lack of meaning from attending Orthodox services. They should have been allowed to worship in accordance with their beliefs or at least have services conducted on the installation. Additionally, the commander scheduled a key all-day session for the primary staff on Yom Kippur. Staff choosing to miss the session would suffer his enduring scorn, even to observe a key holiday. And if they did, they would also be at a great professional disadvantage for missing the information and benefit of the session.
At another installation that had many chapels, Jewish personnel had been sharing a chapel with at least one other group and had the ability to conduct weekly and holiday services as well as a study group. Although there was ample chapel space, they were abruptly told they could no longer use their chapel and were given different space. The Jewish community was relegated to a substandard temporary building. There were structural problems with the building including electric and plumbing issues. The building was often “forgotten” by the custodial crew and trash was rarely collected.
There are stark examples in the deployed environment as well. When Baghdad fell, we set up our headquarters. With at least some stability, the chaplains began religious operations. Both assigned chaplains were Protestant and would only conduct services for Protestant personnel. Even Catholic Soldiers had no support at this time. When another unit arrived in the same area, they had a Catholic priest, so then there were weekly services for Protestant and Catholic Soldiers. I asked about support for Jews and was told there was nothing. I became lay leader and as such should have had full support from the chaplains. They proved unwilling to assist us. They claimed they had arranged space for us to use for a weekly service, but there was no such space. After assuring me they would help me to conduct a Passover Seder, when the day came, they had not made any effort to get us any of the materials for the service.
There is individual anti-Semitism as well. There are individuals who believed it was their solemn duty as Christians to “save” all non-Christians. Whether or not sincere, such efforts violated the freedom of non-Christians to practice their own faith or no faith at all. They had the right to be respected without individuals saying they were condemned to burn in hell for not accepting Jesus Christ as savior. As a small minority, Jewish personnel certainly had to be accommodating. It would be unreasonable to expect to have every single holiday off. Some Christians work on Christmas and Easter. The Israeli military does not shut down on Jewish holidays. There are also military members who simply grew up in ignorance, perhaps even with hate, and find themselves unable or unwilling to adjust to the standards of equality required in the military. In any case, Jewish military personnel deserve the same dignity and respect afforded to all service members and at least basic religious support.