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Religious intolerance in the military?

NEW YORK, Dec. 16 (JTA) — The Vietnam War was raging and Jack Zimmermann was stationed in the dangerous demilitarized zone along the north-south border when the High Holidays arrived in the fall of 1965. When combat with the Vietcong quieted, Zimmermann, who commanded an artillery battery, got approval to attend High Holiday services in a rear position in Da Nang, along with a few other Jewish Marines. The request was not unreasonable: The military requires its branches to meet the religious needs of troops unless doing so harms individual or unit readiness, morale, discipline or safety. “The army is very, very cognizant of the obligations of Jewish service personnel for Yom Kippur” and other religious observances, Zimmerman says. So when Zimmerman — a decorated combat officer, ex-Marine prosecutor and trial judge who now is a Houston attorney — heard about a recent case of alleged anti-Semitism in the military, he quickly got involved. Refael and Margaret Chaiken of Houston say they were discharged from the military this fall because they attended Yom Kippur services. The army denies the charge, insisting that it tried to accommodate the Chaikens’ religious needs but that they disobeyed orders anyway. “The command was really involved and very active in working with them, but at the same time they had a military mission they needed to meet,” Tanja Linton, media relations officer for Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where the Chaikens were stationed, told JTA. The fight began last October when the couple disobeyed orders not to attend daylong Yom Kippur services at the military base, where they were training to become interrogators in the war on terrorism. “I have never seen anything like it,” said Zimmermann, 62, who is serving as the Chaikens’ spokesman and has advised them not to talk with the media further about their case. Last week the conflict escalated, when the Anti-Defamation League and two members of Congress appealed to the army to review the couple’s case. In a Dec. 12 letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said that if the couple’s story proves true, their civil rights may have been violated. “It is our understanding that the Army customarily accommodates the religious beliefs of its personnel,” Foxman wrote. “We believe these accusations to be uncharacteristic of the military.” The couple was participating in a “human intelligence collector” course at the base. Refael, 27, an Orthodox Jew and a former resident of the West Bank city of Hebron who holds dual citizenship and is an Israel Defense Forces veteran, speaks Hebrew and Arabic. Margaret, 26, a graduate of the Sorbonne, speaks French and Hebrew. Zimmermann said the couple, both privates, got permission from class supervisors to attend daylong Yom Kippur services at the military base on Oct. 6. But the base battalion commander, Lt. Col. Dennis Perkins, warned the couple two days before the holiday that if they missed a full day’s class, they would have to start the entire four-month course again, Zimmermann says. Margaret, who was two weeks away from completing the course, agreed, as did Refael, who was two months into the course, according to Zimmerman. Perkins determined that “military necessity required that they attend training,” Linton said. Instead, Perkins said the couple could skip a class formation the evening before Yom Kippur and did not have to attend the formation at the end of Yom Kippur so that they could attend services later in the day after class, Linton said. The couple also was allowed to forego wearing leather army boots on Yom Kippur, Refael was allowed to abstain from shaving and both were allowed to skip a physical-fitness session because they would be fasting, Linton said. The army also took other steps to accommodate the couple religiously, Linton said. For Rosh Hashanah, they were driven to an Orthodox synagogue in Tucson, though intelligence trainees typically are banned from straying far from the base. The army also arranged a phone call with an Orthodox chaplain to discuss observing Jewish law in the military, and they were put in touch with a local Orthodox layperson, she said. The couple attended early-morning formation on Yom Kippur but could not be found the rest of the day, Linton said. Zimmermann insisted that the couple believed they had the approval of class supervisors to attend services all day. “They had what they thought was appropriate military approval to attend what they believe is a religious obligation,” Zimmerman said. Other details remain unclear. Zimmermann maintains that base officials could easily have found the couple at services, though Linton said they were “unaccounted for.” In the days that followed, the couple filed a discrimination complaint with the Army’s Equal Opportunity Department. On Nov. 14, the couple was given general discharge papers alleging what Linton called “a pattern of misconduct.” In addition to defying orders, the Chaikens violated a rule against fraternizing with superiors by attending a “non-religious event” one week after the high holiday, Linton said. Zimmermann countered that the couple simply accepted the invitation of the wife of a local Jewish officer stationed in Iraq to attend a Yom Kippur break-fast meal. Now the Chaikens are considering their options, Zimmermann said. Meanwhile, Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Chris Bell (D-Texas) wrote Dec. 9 to the undersecretary of the Army, Les Brownlee, asking him to look into changing the Chaikens’ discharge from dishonorable to honorable, which would help their civilian job prospects. “We certainly understand the importance of maintaining order within the military. We do, however, question why, absent any apparent necessity, the Chaikens were denied the opportunity to attend services,” Bell and Wexler wrote. Zimmermann said the couple should fight back. “In my opinion, an injustice has occurred,” he said.

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