Being Jewish adds risk for soldiers, journalists in Iraq

NEW YORK — It's now well known that just before Daniel Pearl's captors in Pakistan slit his throat last year, they forced The Wall Street Journal reporter to admit his Jewish blood.

Less known is that the faith of the American pilots captured by Iraq during the first Gulf War reportedly also animated their torturers.

"What is your religion?" a beaten, bloodied and blindfolded Marine Capt. Michael Craig Berryman was asked, according to testimony from Jan. 28, 1991.

"Baptist," he replied.

"No, you are a Jew!" they screamed.

The beatings grew more savage, says Berryman: "They just went crazy."

Neither the pilots nor Pearl, according to those familiar with his case, were captured because of their real or perceived Jewishness.

Nevertheless, for the countless journalists and soldiers now in Iraq who are Jews, recent history indicates that their faith carries added risk in case of capture or imprisonment.

There are crucial distinctions between soldiers and journalists in hot spots. Soldiers are obeying orders, going where they are sent, while journalists are there willingly. And soldiers are combatants, whereas journalists are not.

Earlier this month, the British Ministry of Defense agreed to allow Jewish soldiers to erase religion from their dog tags, out of concern in the British Jewish community that they may be singled out for harsher treatment.

In the first Gulf War, U.S. Jewish soldiers deployed to the Gulf were encouraged to shield their identity and classify themselves on their dog tags as "Protestant B," an internal code to let military chaplains know the person was Jewish.

The military has made no concessions this time around, Maj. Tim Blair, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

"We're not looking at this from the perspective of any specific religion, but from international law regarding prisoners of war," Blair said.

"We now have 4,000 or so enemy Iraqi prisoners, and we're giving them proper treatment according to the Geneva Conventions, if not better. And we expect the same humane treatment from the Iraqis who have our POWs."

The Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1949, states that "members of armed forces who have laid down their arms" shall "in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, color, religion or faith."

It is this passage, among others, that lawyers for 17 American POWs — and 37 of their family members — contend the Iraqis violated in the first Gulf War.

In their $610 million lawsuit against the Republic of Iraq, which co-counsel John Norton Moore says will soon come before the District of Columbia's Federal District Court, several POWs describe how they were not only accused of concealing their religion, but had their pants yanked down and genitals inspected.

"The Iraqis were apparently unaware that many American males are circumcised, regardless of their religious beliefs," Moore said.

"It was also reasonably clear to those subjected to this offensive treatment that if they'd been Jewish, they would have been subjected to greater danger and greater torture."

"If we are to deter such outrageous behavior in the future, we have to bring it to the world's attention and ensure that this sort of action is punished."

How to protect Jewish soldiers is a tricky situation because no one wants the U.S. military to also treat its soldiers differently based on religion, says David Scheffer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues from 1997 to 2001.

"There has to be a careful balance, because you want to preserve the security of your forces," Scheffer said.

"You may want to suggest they not wear a religious object, whether it be a cross or Star of David — not insisting on it but recommending it. It might be a matter of common sense and security, that religion not be broadcast through jewelry."

The greater risk for Jewish soldiers is no secret to their families.

"It's a big concern," said Allan Rubin, whose son, Daniel, 21, is a Marine currently in Iraq. "We talked to him and said he has to be extremely careful about it."

Their son, though, is full of youthful bravado, even sporting a Star of David tattoo on one of his muscular shoulders.

Said his father: "He kept telling us not to worry, that the Iraqis better watch out because he's 6-feet-two-inches and could kick their butts."

Judy Ledger is likewise concerned for her son, Matthew Boyer, who is also a Marine in Iraq. The 24-year-old's dog tag clearly states his religion as Judaism.

Says Ledger: "When it comes to POWs, I just think Daniel Pearl — that's all I can think about."

Despite Pearl's death, the Journal maintains a long-standing editorial policy of being blind to religion, said Brigitte Trafford, spokeswoman for Dow Jones, the Journal's parent company.

"We assign our reporters on the basis of their talent and the need for the assignment — not on the basis of their race, religion or ethnicity," Trafford said.

"As with all assignments, if there's some perceived element of risk, the reporters have to volunteer for the task."

It's a policy most editors and journalists say they agree with: Let the journalist decide if his or her Jewishness makes it too risky.

Otherwise, they say, it may lead to a slippery slope of discrimination.

Knight Ridder, which publishes 31 newspapers nationwide, including The Miami Herald and The Philadelphia Inquirer, has 47 reporters and photographers currently in Iraq, said John Walcott, who heads up Knight Ridder's war coverage and is its Washington bureau chief.

Walcott said he is unaware who among his staffers in Iraq is Jewish, though he acknowledges they may face rougher treatment should they be captured.

He cited the case of another Wall Street Journal reporter, Jerry Seib, who was held hostage in 1987 while reporting from Iran. Seib was accused of being a spy and a Jew, Walcott said, although he is Roman Catholic.

But in Iraq today, Walcott said, "I honestly believe that with the U.S. gunning for Saddam, those distinctions are rapidly shrinking. A Jewish, Baptist or even a Muslim soldier is likely to be treated equally badly by this Iraqi regime.

"They are likely to lump together all Americans and Brits together as 'Jews and Crusaders' in much the same way that Osama bin Laden has."

Even beyond Iraq, one prominent Jewish journalist says that given the current climate in the Arab world, he would reconsider reporting from certain locales.

"After the Daniel Pearl murder, I think journalists who are Jewish have to be very careful about putting themselves in a place where their lives will be at risk," said Pulitzer Prize-winner Joshua Friedman, who began reporting from the Arab world 40 years ago.

"I probably wouldn't go alone to some of these places that I once went to," said Friedman, former chairman and current board member of the watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists.

"We're vulnerable because we're Jewish, and I'd never felt that before. There's a fever of anti-Semitism today in Muslim countries and we have to face it, right? It's true."

Still, not too many journalists would be dissuaded, Friedman conceded.

War reporters, like soldiers, share a mind-set of invincibility, rationalizing that it won't be you but someone else who is arrested, gets shot or steps on a land mine.

"Most good journalists have an adolescent view of their immunity to danger," said Friedman, who won his Pulitzer for Newsday in 1985 for his coverage of Ethiopia's famine.

One Jewish Army reservist, anticipating a call-up, says he's well aware of what happened to the American POWs in 1991 and to Daniel Pearl.

He admits to trying to suppress thoughts of worst-case scenarios.

"I don't know any soldier who thinks that you're going to be the one who gets captured or killed," says a New England resident who requested anonymity.

"As far as being a Jew, that's just something extra. If the Iraqis find out I'm Jewish and they torture me worse than the other POWs, I'd probably find it unbearable.''