Was Berg targeted as a Jew

new york | The world may never know for sure if Nicholas Berg’s religion played a role in his grisly beheading at the hand of terrorists in Iraq.

But many, including his family, are speculating that it was a factor in the terrorists’ decision to kill the American Jewish civilian who had gone to the war-torn country in search of business.

A video that surfaced on the Internet on Tuesday, May 11, showed the decapitation by masked Iraqis of Berg, 26, of West Chester, Pa.

The 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.

The killing raises questions about whether a Jewish person — civilian or military — is in any graver danger than anyone else in such a volatile region.

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.”

Though Berg’s religion wasn’t mentioned on the video, posted on a Web site linked to al-Qaida, Berg cites his family members, similar to the way Pearl did.

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.”

His father, Michael, inundated by reporters Tuesday as his family was still grieving, said his son’s religion may have made him a target.

“There’s a better chance than not that they knew he was Jewish,” his father was quoted saying. “If there was any doubt that they were going to kill him, that probably clinched it, I’m guessing.”

His father also told reporters that his son routinely wore a tzitzit, or traditional fringed undergarment, although he didn’t wear it in public.

Joseph Kashnow, an Army cavalry scout from Baltimore who has returned from Baghdad, felt strains of anti-Semitism before coming home after a severe injury.

Kashnow, an Orthodox Jew who wore a kippah but usually hid it under his helmet, said that while most of the time his religion wasn’t an issue, he did encounter problems.

As an American Jewish soldier in Baghdad, Kashnow said he learned 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 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.

But not everyone agrees.

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, an Orthodox rabbi and senior Jewish chaplain for Operation Iraqi Freedom, just returned to his native Maryland from Iraq after nearly a year there. Despite the killing of a Jewish civilian, he said he believed American soldiers remained the prime target for Iraqis insurgents.

While in Iraq, Ackerson never told Jewish soldiers to hide their identities, but neither did he counsel them to “flaunt” their Judaism.

“I’m not sure what happened with Berg, but my gut inclination is he was not killed because he was Jewish. Instead, it was, ‘We captured an American, we’re going to prove we’re the tough guys and we’re going to kill him.'”

Ackerson said that if Berg’s murder was religiously motivated, his captors or the al-Qaida-linked group that claimed responsibility “would’ve highlighted it,” just as they did with Pearl.

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.

He says Berg’s murder should only deepen American and Jewish faith in the war on terrorism. “Berg was fighting to rebuild the country and make it safe for freedom. It’s still a tragedy,” he said.

Some Jewish organizational officials echoed Cashew’s view that Berg’s murder, combined with the videotaped killing of 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 Henley, 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, “Allah 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.

On the video, Berg’s captors said the killing was to avenge the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.

Pearl’s parents, who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s from Israel, prepared a statement for the media after news of Berg’s killing circulated May 11.

“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.

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.

In West Chester, meanwhile, his family and friends were mourning the loss of someone universally praised as a caring soul.

“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.”

In the last years of his life, Berg became increasingly religious. Spool said Berg began attending the Conservative Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester two years ago and studied the Torah and Books of the Prophets. He even traveled to Israel to study Arabic and Hebrew for the first time just before going to Iraq.

Still, “he wasn’t foolish — he wouldn’t have bandied about the fact he was Jewish” in Iraq, Spool added.

JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas, JTA staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington and the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent contributed to this report.