NEW YORK (Dec. 12)
It was the first night of Chanukah, and on the USS Saratoga, somewhere in the Red Sea near the western coast of Saudi Arabia, four Jewish sailors took part in the lighting of a menorah.
Led by Lt. M.S. Kaprow, the Jewish chaplain assigned for the night to the aircraft carrier and its company of smaller ships, the sailors celebrated the Maccabean victory of 2,150 years ago, then opened gifts and took out dreidels.
Chaplains have been ministering to Jewish soldiers in the U.S. armed forces since the Civil War. But they face unique challenges in Operation Desert Shield, which has sent almost 300,000 U.S. troops so far to Saudi Arabia in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The ultraconservative Saudi regime bans all but Islamic religious practices throughout the kingdom, making the observance of such holidays as Chanukah a bit tricky to negotiate.
Although a photograph depicting the scene on the Saratoga was released through U.S. military information, photos of similar Chanukah scenes taking place within Saudi Arabia will probably not be available to the press.
Military officials are worried the Iraqis could use such pictures to claim the Saudis are defiling Islam’s holy spots of Mecca and Medina, of which the oil-rich kingdom is the protector. That might damage the fragile Arab coalition against Iraq and its Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
As a result, holidays such as Chanukah, Christmas and even Thanksgiving are celebrated “more discreetly,” said a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, based in Florida.
“We don’t have them outdoors, and we don’t have decorations up, but all religious services are being held there,” he said.
RESTRICTIONS ON TROOPS PROTESTED
The Pentagon has taken various steps to avoid religious conflicts in Saudi Arabia, including advising people here not to sent large quantities of Bibles or other religious objects to soldiers in the Persian Gulf.
A Defense Department spokeswoman said the Saudi government was restricting shipments of large quantities of non-Islamic religious objects to U.S. and other troops. She said the Pentagon had set no policy but was recommending that people adhere to these restrictions.
Earlier this fall, the U.S. Central Command distributed a troop information pamphlet that set out a list of sensitive subjects soldiers should avoid discussing. This included any mention of U.S.-Israeli cooperation or of what it called the “Jewish lobby.”
Such restrictions have drawn protest from some Jewish and liberal groups, who are saying the United States is not only protecting a repressive country, but has ended up repressing its own freedoms in the process.
“The American military is entitled to the full protection of their rights even, and especially, as our troops are sent to foreign soil to defend American values,” Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a telegram sent last Friday to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center is Los Angeles, said the situation for Jewish soldiers in the Gulf ### not just a Jewish issue, but one affecting all non-Moslem soldiers who, after decades of free religious practice in whatever theater the U.S. military was based, must now almost hide their religion.
“It’s not that we’re opening shuls in downtown Riyadh, or putting a Christmas tree in Mecca,” said Cooper. “Should we be feeding and catering to this kind of mentality?”
‘MORALE LEADERS,’ NOT CHAPLAINS
Yet, the director of the organization supervising Jewish chaplains in the Gulf said the steps taken by the military were understandable, given Saudi mores and the danger of Iraq using information to destabilize the Arab coalition against Saddam Hussein.
Until now, “a Jew that went into Saudi Arabia would never get out; he’d stay there forever,” said Rabbi David Lapp, director of the JWB Chaplains Council.
The council, a division of the Jewish Community Centers of North America, sent 500 Chanukah menorahs, 500 boxes of dreidels and 1,000 donated gifts for the estimated 1,000 Jewish soldiers serving in the Persian Gulf.
Lapp said Jewish troops would soon be served by a total of six chaplains, in addition to lay leaders.
Chaplains, however, are now being called “morale leaders,” according to military officials, and they have been asked not to wear their crosses or Stars of David when leaving the area of operation, in order to avoid offending their Saudi hosts.