Operation Desert Synagogue: Jews in the land of Islam WAR IN THE GULF

March 24, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Before her husband left for the Persian Gulf last August, Debra Shomer begged him to change the "J" designation -- identifying a serviceman or woman as Jewish -- on his military dog tags.

She feared greater harm might come to him should he be captured by Iraqis and found to be a Jew.

"He wouldn't do it," says Mrs. Shomer of Annapolis, whose husband, Navy Petty Officer David Shomer, is accompanying the USS Comfort hospital ship back to Baltimore. "He said he wouldn't make believe he's somebody he's not. And he's not going to hide the fact that he's Jewish."

Navy airman Jeffrey Goldberg, however, not only removed the "J" on his dog tags, he changed his name to "Jeffrey Snyder" while taking a trip in the gulf region on a holiday leave. And Army Sgt. Michael Kanfer changed the religiousaffiliation on his ID to "P" for Protestant.

"To 'protest,' " explains the Jewish army reservist, now back home in Scotch Plains, N.J.

Because of long-standing hostilities in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab world, many American Jews who served in the gulf say they found themselves walking a tightrope there, trying to practice their religion in a land where their heritage is not recognized and serving alongside Saudi allies who were not necessarily allies of their faith.

"Right from the beginning we were given these messages to be careful," says Army Maj. Richard Andorsky of Fayetteville, N.C., a doctor who'd been with a combat support hospital in Saudi Arabia. "Even though the host nation was an ally to the U.S., they weren't allies to Israel. We didn't know how they'd react to American Jews."

While working in a Saudi hospital in Dhahran, he says, "I didn't personally reveal my Jewish identity. You didn't know who you were dealing with."

Some Jewish personnel said military officials advised them to leaveall religious articles at home and to put "no religious preference" on any identification papers. While Army spokesman Col. Ronald Wolfe says such suggestions may have been made informally by "well-meaning unit leaders," he adds that, "There's no official policy providing that guidance. That's a private matter. Soldiers have the option to put anything they want on their dog tags."

Leslie Freudenheim, curator of the Jewish War Veterans National Memorial Museum in Washington, estimates that about 5,000 Jews -- 1 percent of the American forces -- served in the Persian Gulf. To document the experiences of those troops, she mounted an exhibit of their photos, videos and letters home entitled, "American Patriots: Jewish Soldiers and Operation Desert Storm."

Many Jewish service members tell of meeting in locked rooms at Saudi air bases for weekly Sabbath services -- called "morale support services-J" (again, for Jewish) -- reading from the Torah, sipping grape juice and lighting candles, often while guards stood outside the door.

In order to get to one service, Army Maj. Amiram Cohen, a surgeon from Silver Spring, "had to hitchhike to the chaplain's office on the air base," he wrote in a letter home that is part of the exhibit. "I was then escorted in a shaded car to a secret location with armed guards where we had our service."

"It was all very hush-hush," says Sergeant Kanfer of the "morale" services he and eight others held in Riyadh, calling themselves "The Hebrews of the Arabian Desert." "The service was one of the few things I looked forward to."

Marine Staff Sgt. Alan Adler of Toms River, N.J., wrote to his rabbi last September from the gulf: "Religious practice here is very free and open -- if your religion is Islam. If not, you are out of luck."

While some of the intense security and secrecy surrounding any zTC expressions of Jewish faith relaxed slightly over time, say service members, religious services are still held discreetly and many participants wish to remain anonymous. For one thing, recalls Major Andorsky, there are constant reminders of the Saudi government's anti-Semitism: Saudi atlases had an outline for Israel, but no name, and newspapers refer to citizens of Israel as "Zionist enemies," he says.

But on a personal level, says Sergeant Kanfer, his religion never created tension or ill will when he was among allied Arab forces. "It never came up and we never looked to start anything," he says.

And in fact, in a photograph in the JWV exhibit, Sergeant Adler shakes hands with a Saudi soldier who'd become his friend. "This soldier's name is Khalid," Sergeant Adler's letter to his wife explains. "He told me that if I would convert to Muslim that he would let me marry his sister. . . . What do you think, Ruth? Should I?"

While religious publications and objects weren't allowed into Saudi Arabia at the start of the deployment, by winter, everything from Hanukkah menorahs to camouflage yarmulkes were being shipped over from families and Jewish organizations.

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