Thursday, June 29, 2006

Washington Jewish Week Article

'We can't afford to fight each other'Rabbi reflects on year helping Air Force grapple with religious issues

by Eric Fingerhut Staff Writer

Following several incidents of religious intolerance at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff spent part of the past year helping to create religious guidelines for the service. But he believes it was his additional work creating a "values-based vision" for Air Force personnel that may be the key in preventing such problems from recurring.

As special assistant for values and vision to the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force, the District resident said he was building a framework of respect and responsibility that goes beyond simply telling airmen and airwomen to be "good people."

The "values-based vision" teaches that once an airman or airwoman takes an oath to the Constitution, the "shared organizational values" of the Air Force take precedence over one's personal values because "the nation depends on us" and "lives are at stake."

For example, "we're not only respecting each other's religion because it's a good thing to do," the rabbi says, but because it is the best way to "accomplish the mission" and achieve "unit cohesion."

"We can't afford to fight each other" when "we're shoulder to shoulder fighting the real enemies," he said.

Those who have been watching the Air Force's attempts to grapple with the religion issue praised Resnicoff's course.

"I think he had his finger on an important principle," said Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee legislative director and counsel. "These issues can't be dealt with in a vacuum," but put "in the context of a broader vision of the nation and the armed forces."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State had released a report last year outlining a number of incidents at the academy that it believed violated the First Amendment.

While the organization's assistant communications director, Rob Boston, called a "values-based vision" a "very positive approach" and a sincere effort to address the problem, he said his group worried that positive steps by Air Force officials might be "stymied by the religious right and their influence in Congress."

Resnicoff does not believe that outside pressure will bear on the situation. "So far, based on my personal experience, I have never seen one instance where [the Air Force] made a decision based on pressure instead of what's right," he said, noting that the Air Force has been lobbied strongly by those on both sides of the issue.

Resnicoff, who grew up in the Washington area and graduated from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, spent 25 years as a Navy chaplain. Based on that experience, Air Force officials asked him to look into the charges of religious insensitivity when they first arose in December 2004.

After a few days of investigation, he told Air Force leaders that the religious problems were "fixable," but that they should be looking at the problem more broadly.

He pointed out that when the Air Force previously had problems with sexual assault and the treatment of women, it implemented a number of new programs to respond to that issue. Reacting to each new challenge as it comes, he told them, creates something like a "patchwork quilt," because "the fix for the first problem doesn't help that [new] problem."

What the Air Force needed, he believed, was to "connect the dots" and create a "values-based vision" that would be able to tackle every kind of problem. It would link the core values of the force ‹ integrity, service before self and excellence to the oath new airmen and women make when beginning their service.

The Air Force seemed to like the idea, hiring Resnicoff to lead the effort six months later. The job has meant visiting with Air Force personnel worldwide on one day, he had a breakfast meeting in Turkey, lunch in Italy and then spent the evening in Germany.

Part of his goal was to "try to take abstract concepts and express them." The core value of integrity, Resnicoff said, should mean that one has "just as much responsibility to disobey an illegal order as to obey a moral and legal one."

Loyalty doesn't necessarily just mean "keeping your mouth shut," he said, but should be seen as a concept in the vein of "friends don't let friends drive drunk."

While his one-year appointment ended last week, Resnicoff said he believes the Air Force will continue his mission ‹ the values "portfolio" has been added to the jobs of top officials on both the civilian and military sides of the service.

Air Force officials praised Resnicoff's work in statements provided to WJW, but an Air Force official was not made available for an interview before press time.

Resnicoff, 59, spent much of the first few months of his year with the Air Force formulating the controversial religious guidelines.

He saw a number of the problems in Colorado Springs resulting more from lack of knowledge than malice.

For instance, while it is standard practice for a Christian cadet to get time off on Sunday to go to church, Jews wanting to attend Shabbat services on Friday evening "would have to ask permission."

While in some rare cases they were told they couldn't go, he said that much more frequently "they'd decide not to ask" because they "didn't want the hassle."

Now, Resnicoff said, "it's a level playing field," with commanders told that airmen and women are permitted to attend religious services on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Jewish holidays also will now be placed on the official calendar ‹ they were not previously marked.

The Air Force's interim religious guidelines were released to generally positive reviews by Jewish organizations last August, but some of those same groups viewed a revised and shortened version of the document issued in February as a step backward.

In an interview last week, Resnicoff reiterated that the changes were designed to make the document more "readable" and ensure it fit on one page.

The rabbi said the guidelines were all about the "not easy question" of balancing the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of a religion which many believe means that religion should never be mentioned in the military and the amendment's protection of one's free exercise of religion.

For some Christians, Resnicoff noted, sharing one's faith with others is an essential part of their religion.

The guidelines, as well as the training that Air Force personnel will receive, do not prohibit such free exercise, but advises against religious conversations between superiors and subordinates, said Resnicoff. (Voluntary conversations are permissible, he said, noting one would not want to prevent, for example, a Jewish junior officer asking a Jewish senior officer about what it is like to be Jewish in the Air Force.)

While Air Force personnel will be encouraged to work out problems on their own, the rabbi said that a "system is in place" for airmen and airwomen to file a complaint with the equal opportunity office, a chaplain or a more senior officer to "ensure there is no hostile work environment."

Another problem involved chaplains reciting sectarian prayers at public events. Resnicoff said the guildelines say that "we will not tell a chaplain how to pray," but that if a chaplain is uncomfortable with, for instance, not mentioning Jesus in his public prayer, that person is "just not going to give that prayer." He said such decisions will be made by the chief chaplain at the base.

Facing pressure from evangelicals, the House passed a measure last month that would mandate that chaplains should be able to pray "according to their own conscience." Resnicoff noted that the legislation has not been passed by the Senate, and said he personally hoped that Congress would allow military leaders to work out the problems on their own.

The guidelines did not satisfy Air Force Academy graduate and activist Mikey Weinstein, who recently started the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to monitor issues related to the separation of church and state in the military. He called Resnicoff an "unmitigated disaster" and the religious guidelines useless.

"He stood by while Rome was burning," said Weinstein, who argues that "we're in a war" against those who want to create a "theocracy in the American military."

Resnicoff said Weinstein "helped to raise some important issues" with the Air Force, but also represents just "one side of the issue," the nonestablishment side, whereas the Air Force was trying to "struggle with both sides."

Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman said seeing how that balance plays out now that the guidelines are being implemented is the key issue.

He acknowledges that the Jewish community "needs to be sensitive" to those who make witnessing a central part of their faith, but also said that perhaps a chaplain intent on proselytizing others shouldn't enlist in the military.

The ADL has been in discussions with the Air Force about using the group's diversity programs to train its personnel.

Both the Jewish community and the Air Force were lucky to have Resnicoff to work on the guidelines, Foxman said, noting that the rabbi's experience in both worlds the Jewish community and the military meant he could explain to each how the other side operates.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can we have equality in the military and Veteran's Affairs, when American soldiers think it is o.k. to injure eachother over religion?

This is a story directly from Iraq.
Quoted from the Pagan Headstone Campaign Yahoogroup
by Sgt Eric Cooper

Quote: I started Desert Moon Grove in 2004 in Balad, Iraq and had Wiccan Soldiers put in the hospital by fellow Soldiers while they were holding a Circle (a religious service), it hit the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

(NOTE: The story that was printed earlier said that soldiers were pelted by bottles thrown by OTHER American soldiers.)

Quote: We had an EqualOpportunity Rep here in Tal Afar tell one of our soldiers here she was a satanist and Wicca wasn't a recognized religion End Quote.

Right now we are just trying to get our religious symbol on our VA provided headstone. We have several soldiers who have died in Iraq that have been denied proper burial because they wont provide the headstone.

The Jewish people are not the only ones who suffer from religious discrimination, harassment and violence in the military. I hope that you can succeed in your quests, for they will help us all!

There will be a Religious Rights Rally held July 4th at Farragut Park in Washington DC. The key speaker will be Barry Lynn of Americans United. If you guys could make it, please do!


6:41 PM  

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