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Jewish Citizen

Beirut 1983: An Indelible Memory

San Diego Jewish Times, Aug 24, 2005

Subjects: Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego)

By Donald H. Harrison

Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff’s view of the American military’s attitudes toward religious pluralism was seared into his consciousness on Sunday morning, Oct. 23, 1983, after truck bombers murdered 241 U.S. Marines who were sleeping in the next barracks building in Beirut.

The rabbi, who is a former Navy chaplain, recalled the attack of more than two decades ago during his Aug. 17 speech to the Jewish War Veterans’ national convention at the Mission Valley Hilton.  His dramatic recollection was a prelude to explaining why he is optimistic, as the recently appointed special assistant for values and ethics to the Secretary of the Air Force, about the military’s ability to counteract any discrimination that may exist in that branch of the service.

Resnicoff told of running from his living quarters to the rubble of the nearby Marine barracks, where he and others tried to help the wounded as best as they could.  He told of tearing off parts of his uniform to make ersatz bandages, and even pulling the kippah from his head to wipe the blood from a wounded Marine’s face.

Working nearby, a Roman Catholic chaplain, Father George Pucciarelli, ripped a circular piece of cloth from his own camouflage uniform and insisted that Rabbi Resnicoff use it to replace the kippah. Pucciarelli explained that it would be good for the Lebanese people to see that American clergymen of different faiths don’t hate each other, but instead are comrades and colleagues in the service of God.

Resnicoff suggested that one problem in the Middle East is that people of different religions always seem to fight against each other, instead of with each other.  “If there were more inter-religious foxholes in the world, maybe we wouldn’t need so many foxholes,” he declared, winning applause from the Jewish War Veterans.

Aug. 17, 2005-Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff addresses Jewish War Veterans convention.

He said that prior to the Beirut bombing, most U.S. military service chiefs had opposed permitting uniformed service people to wear articles of religious clothing like a kippah, out of fear that it would detract from the Armed Forces’ sense of common purpose.  However, he said, as knowledge of Father Pucciarelli’s gesture became widespread, the sentiment that America is a place that values religious differences caught on. Soon thereafter, the Congress adopted a law permitting service personnel to wear customary religious articles with their uniforms.

Furthermore, he said, the military now has kosher meal rations for those who request them, and even permits religiously observant Jewish personnel to refrain from shaving during 30-day mourning periods.

Resnicoff, who more recently had served as director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, was appointed this year as a special assistant for values and vision to both the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff. 

The appointment followed the surfacing of concerns at the Air Force Academy in Colorado that key personnel had been proselytizing for Christianity. There were reports that athletic team coaches urged cadets to win for “Team Jesus Christ” and that one coach even had a sign made proclaiming “I’m a Christian, first, last and forever.” 

In another instance, he said, a brigadier general, Johnny Weida, had flashed the Christian sign of the “J”—for Jesus—in a speech to a general meeting of cadets.

The rabbi said that Weida subsequently acknowledged that such sectarianism is inappropriate non-religious military settings. Resnicoff added that he, for one, believes Weida has learned his lesson and should not be stopped from advancing in the military.  He suggested that people who learn from such experiences often will incorporate such education into their very outlook on life.

Many Jews assume that whenever instances of religious discrimination are uncovered that such instances are merely tips of the iceberg, Resnicoff said.  However, he added, he believes the Air Force Academy has divulged the full iceberg and is ready to make changes to guarantee religious pluralism.

For example, he said, it used to be that cadets could routinely attend Sunday (Christian) services, but had to get permission from their superior officer to attend Friday night (Jewish) services.  Now, he said, the Academy’s master schedule will be made out so that cadets will have guaranteed access to whichever religious services they indicate they wish to attend.  Furthermore, he said, military exercises will not be scheduled over religious holidays, such as happened during a recent Passover.

The rabbi said his responsibility is to make recommendations for improvements throughout the Air Force, not only at the Academy.  He said he had flown from an inspection trip in Iraq to San Diego in order to attend the Jewish War Veterans’ convention.  His recommendations concerning values and vision will deal not only with questions of religious practices, but also will address how the Air Force should be respectful of all personnel.

U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), who is the second highest-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also addressed the Jewish War Veterans. The congressman said that veterans were shortchanged by between $2 billion and $3 billion in the current federal budget, money that he said is needed to their health care.

Aug. 17, 2005-Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) is surrounded by well-wishers 
following his speech to the Jewish War Veterans convention in San Diego

Filner said that  in San Diego alone, there are 1,000 people who have been waiting for a year or more for their first medical appointment at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.  He said the situation is similar throughout the country.

The congressman said the United States made a contract with the men and women who risked their lives for the country’s welfare, but it is not honoring it.  A former Civil Rights “Freedom Rider” of the 1960s and a fellow Jew, Filner suggested to the JWV conventioneers that a ”million veteran march on Washington” may be necessary.”

Perhaps, he also said, sit-ins are necessary at the local offices of members of Congress who give speeches in favor of veterans but refuse to vote in favor of  the funds necessary to meet the veterans’ needs.  That suggestion won cheers.