Jewish troops, ambivalent about serving in Saudi Arabia, quietly keep the faith

December 13, 1990|By Boston Globe

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Her commanding officer had advised against it, first citing fire safety regulations, then Arab sensitivity.

"I insisted I had a right to practice my faith no matter what Saudi law says," said the 22-year-old Navy corpswoman assigned to a mobile military hospital.

"As a Jew, I've already got some ambivalence about serving here. OK, I'm in Saudi Arabia, and I am willing to do the job the Navy pays me to do," she said. "But I'm not going to deny my religion."

Military regulations forbid open flames in tents. Saudi law strictly forbids the practice of any religion except Islam. But stubborn faith won this round.

In the tent she shares with seven other medics, the corpswoman, who requested anonymity, planned to celebrate the first day of Hanukkah Tuesday night by lighting a candle on the small menorah sent by her mother in Baltimore.

"I'm not a troublemaker, and I don't want to offend Moslems or anyone else," she said. "It just seems wrong to me that Americans who have come to defend the Arabs should be asked to sacrifice our traditions and beliefs."

Except for classified operational information, no issue related to Operation Desert Shield is quite so touchy as religion.

At issue, for the most part, is the practice of Christianity, if for no other reason than that there are relatively few Jews in the American military: 7,700, or less than 1 percent of total armed forces members. Only a few hundred are believed to be in Saudi Arabia, an avowed enemy of Israel and a nation that normally refuses entry to Jews of any nationality.

It is uncertain whether any Jewish chaplains have been assigned to units in Saudi Arabia. Christian chaplains say they are unaware of a single rabbi but stress that every military chaplain is obliged to minister to all faiths.

In arguing her case to celebrate Hanukkah, for instance, the Jewish paramedic sought, and received, support from a Protestant chaplain. "He actually knew quite a bit about Judaism," she said.

Jewish servicemen and women interviewed in recent days expressed their feelings reluctantly and declined to be quoted by name. They cited personal shyness, not military orders, as the reason for their reticence.

"I'm an American, not an Israeli, so I've got no attitude when it comes to serving here," said an Army lieutenant from Chicago. "Besides, my notion is that the Saudis mostly just give lip service to anti-Israel. The Arab officers I've met seem like decent people, and the subject of my Jewishness doesn't come up. If one asked, I'd tell him. If he didn't like it, I'd say hell with him."

An Army sergeant in a forward-based combat unit who described himself as "fairly" religious said he had no particular plans to celebrate Hanukkah. He said a Protestant chaplain had offered to provide him candles, "but I told him it was too damn windy. Anyway, in my family, Rosh Hashana, Passover, were the real holy times. And I hope to observe them in some fashion."

The sergeant said he had read news reports that officers had instructed Jewish soldiers to change their dog tags to "non-denominational" before being deployed to Saudi Arabia to avoid giving offense to Arabs.

"It certainly never came up in my battalion, and my tags say exactly what I am: 'J' for Jew," he said.

As for possibly putting his life on the line for Saudi Arabia: "As a Jew, I've got some problems. As a soldier, I've got my orders. As a thinking individual, it is pretty clear to me that Iraq is a far, far more dangerous threat to Israel than the Saudis. So I guess I'd say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. At least for this operation."

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