The world may never know for sure if Nicholas Berg’s religion played a role in his grisly execution 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 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 Qaeda, 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 one 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 Qaeda-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.
"Berg was fighting to rebuild the country and make it safe for freedom," he said. "It’s still a tragedy."
Kashnow is not alone.
"Should people think twice or should we continue this?" said 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.
But Ledger said in an earlier interview that as a mother, her children’s Jewishness always was in the back of her mind.
Ledger recalled how when her son, Matt, first went to the Iraq war theater before the conflict began, she urged him to remove the word "Jewish" from his military dog tags. But he refused, saying, "I don’t want a priest praying over me if I get killed."
Some Jewish organizational officials echoed Kashnow’s view that Berg’s murder, combined with 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 terrorists 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.
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.
The Bush administration and others voiced outrage at Berg’s killing and vowed to pursue his killers. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said Berg’s killers "will not prevail."
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.
He had planned to return home at the end of March, but his parents told reporters he didn’t come home as scheduled and that the FBI had told them their son was in jail in Iraq.
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.
A funeral service was reportedly set for Friday at Kesher Israel, which said members "mourn with the family."
Glenn Brown, a friend of the Spool family who occasionally 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."
JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas, JTA staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington and the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent contributed to this report.