The videotaped execution of an American Jewish civilian contractor in Iraq shook members of the Jewish community, but not their commitment to the war on terrorism.
A video that surfaced on the Internet on Tuesday showed the decapitation by masked Iraqis of Nicholas Berg, 26, of West Chester, Pa. The grisly scene echoed the 2002 murder in Pakistan of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was forced to admit his Jewishness on tape just before his captors cut off his head.
It wasn’t clear whether Berg was targeted because of his religion. In the video, posted on a Web site linked to Al- Qaida, Berg is seen saying, “My name is Nick Berg, my father’s name is Michael, my mother’s name is Susan . . . I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah.”
Several Jewish leaders and military families said the incident shouldn’t dissuade Jewish soldiers and civilians from serving in Iraq.
“Should people think twice or should we continue this?” asked Judy Ledger, whose son and daughter — and their spouses — all served with the U.S. military in Iraq. “You do have to realize there’s a danger, but the danger is no more if you’re in the military than if there is a hate crime” in the United States.
Several sources said Berg’s murder — as well as Tuesday’s videotaped killing of six Israeli soldiers by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip — should deepen the commitment of Jews and other Americans to the war on terrorism.
“This is an evil force that has no moral compunction at all,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Referring to the video showing an Iraqi holding Berg’s severed head aloft and shouting, “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great” — and footage of Palestinian militants proudly displaying an Israeli soldier’s head and other body parts — Hoenlein said the two cases point to the same enemy.
“Their barbarism could not be more clear after today. On both fronts it’s the same menace,” he said.
Joseph Kashnow agrees. An Army Cavalry scout stationed in Baghdad, Kashnow’s right leg was nearly blown off by a homemade land mine last September. He has spent months undergoing operations and therapy — yet he says he’s as sure as ever that the war is just.
As an American Jewish soldier in Baghdad, Kashnow knew better than to pursue one particular conversation with a local man.
“He said, ‘Saddam wasn’t so bad, at least he wasn’t Jewish,’ ” recalled Kashnow, 25. “Not a person I wanted to continue having a chat with.”
It’s not clear whether Berg’s Jewish background played a role in his fate. On the video, Berg’s captors said the killing was to avenge the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.
“It’s certainly possible there are people” in Iraq “who would feel it was a ‘two-mints-in-one’ to get an American and a Jew,” Kashnow said.
Regardless, Berg “was still an innocent civilian who was slaughtered, whether he was Jewish, black, or Asian,” Kashnow said. “He was fighting to rebuild the country and make it safe for freedom. It’s still a tragedy.”
Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said it makes sense that Jews would be targeted in Iraq.
“There are people in these countries who are looking to kill people who are members of certain groups,” Bryen said. “The two at the top of the list are Americans and Jews.”
The parents of Daniel Pearl, who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s from Israel, prepared a statement for the media after news of Berg’s killing circulated Tuesday.
“We have heard from the news about the videotape showing the tragic death of Nicholas Berg in Iraq. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this extremely difficult time,” the statement said.
“Our heart goes out to them. Kidnapping, torture, humiliation and murder must have no place in this world,” the statement went on. “We call on people of principle around the world to help stop the madness and take a stand for humanity.”
Ironically, Berg’s father, Michael, and his small business, Prometheus Methods Tower Service Inc., were listed as endorsers of a coalition called Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. The coalition opposed the Iraq war, though Nicholas Berg reportedly supported it.
Berg was in Iraq as a freelance contractor working to repair communications antennae, The Associated Press reported. His family members said they had known of their son’s death since the weekend but did not know of the video until it surfaced this week.
The family last heard from Berg on April 9, as he was preparing to return to the United States via Jordan. U.S. officials recovered Berg’s remains May 8.
Berg’s friends and neighbors were devastated to learn of his fate. Reached by phone, Berg’s parents declined to comment on their son’s death.
The circumstances of his capture are unknown.
“Nick was probably one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met,” said Aaron Spool, a friend of Berg’s since they were in the seventh grade. “He just touched everyone’s life. West Chester is going to be a much emptier place without him. He was good man, a good Jew. It’s tough. It’s very hard.”
Glenn Brown, a friend of the Spool family who occasional would have Shabbat meals with Berg in West Chester, recalled the young man as being “a sincere individual.”
He said, “It is a huge tragedy and loss. He seemed hard-working and industrious.”
Burt Siegel, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Philadelphia Jewish federation, said, “It is absolutely sickening that this man was singled out for being an American.”
“Obviously, you don’t have to be a Jew for these people to murder you.”