MEGAN LEAVEY *Movie Review*

Kate Mara stars in Megan Leavey as the title character, a US Marine who serves heroically with her military service dog, Rex.  After Megan leaves the Marines, she begins petitioning to adopt Rex upon his own retirement from the Corps.  The film emphasizes themes of love, friendship and loyalty.

Megan Leavey also stars Tom Felton, Ramon Rodriguez, Common, Edie Falco, Bradley Whitford, Will Patton.  It was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

For more about the themes in Megan Leavey and what it has in common with Dirty Dancing and Grease, take a look below:


—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Former Marine held in Iran arrives home after swap

Former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, released by Iran in a prisoner swap last weekend, arrived home on Thursday after more than four years in jail in the Islamic Republic where he faced the death sentence at one point. 

Hekmati 32, touched down in a private jet at the airport in his hometown of Flint, Michigan and stepped on to a small red carpet on the tarmac.

“I am happy to finally be home. It’s been a very long road, a very long journey. Unfortunately, many people have traveled this road with me,” he told reporters.

Hekmati was arrested while visiting family in Iran in 2011 and accused of being a U.S. spy, a charge his relatives and the United States deny. He was sentenced to death the following year 

but that was commuted to a 10-year prison term.

He was one of five Americans released to coincide with the lifting last weekend of economic sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on Tehran's atomic program. The White House offered clemency to seven Iranians who were convicted or facing trial in the United States. 

Hekmati said on Thursday he was “healthy, tall and with my head held high.” The son ofIranian immigrants, Hekmati went to high school in Flint, a rust belt town now struggling with a water contamination crisis.

“It’s great to be back in Flint, my hometown. I love this city. I love its people. They have been so good to me and my family and we are very grateful,” Hekmati said.

Another former prisoner in Iran, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, 35, was set to arrive in Atlanta and then fly to Asheville, North Carolina on Thursday to be reunited with members of his family over the next several days, his wife told Reuters.

Abedini, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Iranian origin, 

will now spend time at a religious retreat in North Carolina 

associated with evangelist Billy Graham.

Abedini was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013 after being accused of harmingIran's national security by setting up home-based churches in Iran.

Probe of Chattanooga shooting suspect focuses on Mideast travel

U.S. authorities believe the suspect in the fatal shootings of four Marines in Tennessee visited Jordan last year and possibly Yemen as well, two U.S. government sources said on Friday, as investigators looked for any connection to Islamist militants.

Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, 24, who the FBI identified as the shooter, died on Thursday after he killed the Marines and wounded three other people in a rampage at two military facilities in Chattanooga.

Investigators believe Abdulazeez may have family in Jordan, making a visit to that country highly likely, one of the sources close to the probe said. He may have made several stops, and a visit to Yemen has not been ruled out.

A trip to Yemen, long viewed as a training ground for Islamic militants, would raise special concern. Two brothers of Algerian extraction who led an attack on the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January had visited Yemen in 2011.

U.S. investigators are probing the suspect's travel history as part of efforts to determine whether he had any contact with militants or militant groups, but they have no firm evidence so far that he did, one source close to the probe told Reuters.

Beyond direct contacts, law enforcement officials have said they are investigating whether Abdulazeez was inspired by Islamic State or similar militant groups. Islamic State had threatened to step up violence in the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which ends on Friday evening.

Islamic State claimed responsibility after a gunman killed 37 tourists in Tunisia in June, the same day as an attack in France and a suicide bombing in Kuwait.

Abdulazeez, who grew up in a Chattanooga suburb and studied engineering at a local university, is believed to have traveled to the Middle East, where his family has roots, between April and November 2014, according to one of the sources, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

The suspect, who was seen on Thursday driving an open-top Ford Mustang, sprayed gunfire at a joint military recruiting center in a strip mall, riddling the glass facade with bullet holes, then drove to a Naval Reserve Center about 6 miles (10 km) away, where he killed the Marines before he himself was killed.

Among the injured in the shooting, which comes at a time when U.S. military and law enforcement authorities are increasingly concerned about the threat 'lone wolves' pose to domestic targets, was a sailor who was critically wounded.

The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist groups, said Abdulazeez blogged on Monday “life is short and bitter” and that Muslims should not miss an opportunity to “submit to Allah.” Reuters could not independently verify the postings.

While there is no specific evidence about what might have prompted the suspect to carry out the shooting, they believe family or psychological issues may have contributed, according to the second source, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

His father, Youssuf Abdulazeez, who attended Texas A&M University and comes from Nablus, on the West Bank, according to his Facebook page, appears to be a high achiever. He worked since at least 2005 as a soil engineering specialist for Chattanooga city's public work's department, according to public records. A 2005 city resolution authorized the father as an unarmed policeman as part of his work.

The suspect appears to have been following in his father's footsteps, at least in terms of his occupational pursuits. According to a resume believed to have been posted online by Abdulazeez, he attended high school in a Chattanooga suburb and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2012 with an engineering degree. His work experience includes an internship with the Tennessee Valley Authority, a regional power utility.

Years ago, the father came under investigation by a Joint Terrorism Task Force for possible connections to a militant group, the second source said, but he was cleared of any association with terrorism or wrongdoing. It is possible but not certain that the probe resulted in the father's name being placed on a terrorist watch list, according to that source.

Abdulazeez, who was raised as a Muslim, was scheduled to appear in court on a charge of driving under the influence in July, according to media reports.

He was arrested in April after his car was seen weaving between lanes. The arrest report said Abdulazeez smelled of alcohol and marijuana and was unsteady on his feet.

Four Marines who were killed were identified as Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Sullivan, 40, of Springfield, Massachusetts, who earned a Purple Heart; Skip Wells, 21, of Marietta, Georgia; David Wyatt, of Chattanooga, and Sgt. Carson Holmquist, 27, of Jacksonville, North Carolina, according to media reports. The U.S. Defense Department has not yet released any of the names.

The Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, where the New York Times said the suspect and his family worshipped, canceled all activities to celebrate Eid, marking the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, according to its website.

“We condemn this act in the strongest possible terms as one of cowardice and hate,” Bassam Issa, the society's president, said in a statement.

A community gathering will take place at 5:30 p.m. (2230 GMT) on Friday at Olivet Baptist Church in Chattanooga. The Islamic Society said on its website that it was “vital, crucial and essential” that all Muslims in the area attend the event.

Senate affirms commitment to Israeli military’s qualitative edge

The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed bipartisan legislation that reaffirms U.S. security commitments to Israel.

More specifically, the measure says that the U.S. will provide Israel with the capabilities to preserve its military’s qualitative edge, expand military and civilian cooperation, and encourage Israel’s neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist as the state of the Jewish people.

The Senate passed the measure by unanimous consent last Friday. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) authored the legislation, which had 69 co-sponsors.

In a joint news release, the bill’s authors praised the bipartisanship of the Senate to expeditiously pass the legislation. Boxer said in the statement that the bill “reaffirms the important bond between the United States and Israel, and helps ensure that Israel has the necessary tools to defend itself in this time of dynamic change in the Middle East.”

Isakson added that the quick and unanimous passage of the bill demonstrates the “strong, unwavering commitment to Israel and its security and self-defense” by the United States.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed companion legislation that was sponsored by Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) by a bipartisan vote of 411-2.

The bill will now be reconciled by both houses of Congress in a conference committee before moving to President Obama for his signature.

“I am hopeful that this bill will pass the House with strong support and will be on the president’s desk for his signature very soon,” Isakson said in the news statement.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied for both pieces of legislation during its annual policy conference in March and praised the passage of the Senate bill.

“As the United States faces an increasingly dangerous environment in the Middle East—the mounting threat posed by Iran, instability in Syria and the strengthening of the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, whose reach stretches into the Western Hemisphere—now is the time to enhance our strategic cooperation with our stable, democratic ally Israel,” AIPAC said in a news statement on Friday.

Opinion: ‘Ask Her When She’s Sober’

Until Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach and her unborn child were murdered by Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean and buried in his backyard, her congressman, Mike Turner, had a ” target=”_hplink”>efforts to get Lauterbach’s murderer extradited from Mexico, where the dual national had fled, eventually brought him to do something that Boehner and Cantor despise. Before she was killed, Lauterbach had filed a claim at Camp Lejeune alleging that Laurean had raped her. That’s how Turner’s involvement with her murder — spurred by a request from her family — also became an education in the sexual violence plaguing the military, leading him to join with Massachusetts’ Democratic Rep. Nikki Tsongas to introduce ” target=”_hplink”>male veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma.

An invisible war is being waged against our troops. I call it that because “” target=”_hplink”>Ariana Klay, a Marine whose ” target=”_hplink”>lawsuit that she and seven other women filed, conveys what victims are up against.

But the problem is more than the culture. It’s built into the structure of the military justice system, where the process for prosecuting rapists is run by the same chain of command that includes and often protects the rapists. The victim remains stationed on the same base as her assailant. The people assessing her truthfulness are the same people who are in charge of her career, and whose own careers would get a black eye if it came to light that sexual predators were tolerated under their command. 

Without an independent judiciary, it’s no surprise that only 8 percent of sexual assault allegations in the military are prosecuted, compared to five times that figure in the civilian world. Fewer than 21 percent of those go to trial. Only 2 percent of reported assaults result in conviction. But a staggering 90 percent of those who report a sexual assault against them are involuntarily discharged, often with a suspect “personality disorder” diagnosis. They’re not only sluts, they’re nuts.

Instead of aggressive prosecution, the Pentagon’s strategy has been prevention. The campaign slogan adopted by the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office says it all: “Ask Her When She’s Sober.” It is, as a New York Times ” target=”_hplink”>announced more funds for training investigators and judge advocates to prosecute crimes, and more opportunities for victims to report crimes and request speedy transfers, as long as their reports aren’t confidential.  Stronger — because unlike Panetta and Turner-Tsongas, it deals with some of the structural problem of military justice — is the ” target=”_hplink”>introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and 120 co-sponsors that would take reporting, oversight, investigation and victim care out of the normal chain of command, and put jurisdiction in a newly created office made of civilian and military experts. 

So far, only one Republican has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Speier bill. If the GOP were smart, it would jump at the chance to stand up for women in the military. It shouldn’t have to take something like a constituent’s murder to get more Republicans to notice how unjustly and indecently some of the best and bravest Americans in uniform are being treated.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He can be reached at

In the ring, at the front, boxer Barney Ross packed a punch

“Barney Ross” by Douglas Century (Schocken and Nextbook, $19.95).

To many sports fans, Shawn Green remains the only recognizable Jewish professional athlete. Green follows a relatively short but impressive line of Jewish baseball stars, one every generation so it seems, kind of like the Jewish seat on the Supreme Court in the pre-Clinton era. For every Louis Brandeis, there was a Hank Greenberg. For every Felix Frankfurter, there was an Al Rosen.

But boxing, that most primal of all sports, was once rife with Jews. In “Barney Ross,” a biography of the eponymous 1930s boxing champion, author Douglas Century cites a stunning statistic — in the 1920s and 1930s, one-third of all professional fighters were Jewish. Given that Jews accounted then for roughly 3 percent of the nation’s population, that figure seems almost incomprehensible.

Yet it is true. What African Americans are to present-day basketball, Jews were to boxing in the period between the two World Wars.

Century, whose two previous books dealt with New York’s criminal underworld, is also Jewish. The 41-year-old, Canadian-born author said over the phone from New York that he grew up with “a pride in being Jewish” and heard stories from his uncles about the great Jewish boxers of the Depression era.

When Century was about 12, he said, he got his first pair of boxing gloves. He flailed them about as he watched Muhammad Ali’s classic fights with Leon Spinks in Ali’s waning days as heavyweight champion.

In “Barney Ross,” the third book in Schocken and Nextbook’s new Jewish Encounters Series — after Robert Pinsky’s “The Life of David” and Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland’s “Maimonides” — Century writes about classic fights from a much earlier era, the famous bouts pitting Ross against Tony Canzoneri and Jimmy McLarnin. Century devotes parts two and three of his slim, highly readable book to the legendary matches involving this troika of fighters, each representing his own immigrant community: one Jewish, one Italian and one Irish.

Century explained that he chose to write about Ross rather than, say, Benny Leonard, who is considered by most boxing scholars as the greatest Jewish fighter of all time, because Ross transcended boxing and Jewishness.

Ross was not only a boxing champion. He was a Marine war hero at Guadalcanal, volunteering for the service at the relatively advanced age of 33 and winning a Silver Star for holding off a platoon of Japanese soldiers, while his fellow Marines lay dying or incapacitated. He ran guns to Israel and tried to set up a Jewish-American brigade to fight in the Middle East at the time of Israel’s War of Independence. He went public with a morphine addiction resulting from his war wounds and later, after overcoming his habit, became the poster boy for recovery from addiction. In short, he was both the most overtly Zionist and the most American of all Jewish athletes of that time.

Century has plumbed library archives and combed the Warren Commission report for fascinating testimony from Ross on the subject of childhood mate, Jack Ruby, who, before becoming infamous for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, grew up with Ross in the Maxwell Street ghetto in Chicago, where they both ran errands for the mob. Century also spent much time interviewing Ross’ late brother, George, another prizefighter, who only recently died.

It is clear that Century loves his subject. That fact came through over the phone when he referred to the boxer almost intimately as “Barney,” as if the late fighter were a relative or long-lost friend. It also comes through in the text itself, which contains wonderfully lyrical passages.

When discussing Ross’ rope-jumping talents, Century writes that Ross was “doing skipping routines so intricate that the jump rope appeared to become a kind of hissing viper.”

He refers to Ross’ decision to join the Marines as “some jagged riddle resting in that smoke-filled interregnum between his championship reign and the return to America as a decorated war hero.”

Though the book features such lapidary strokes, it also seems to have been rushed to print. A good copy editor should have noticed a number of bad misspellings, including the last names of Clifford Odets and Martin Scorsese. Similarly, a good fact checker should have corrected such errors as Mushy Callahan, the junior welterweight champion, being referred to as a welterweight, or Jackie Fields, the welterweight champion, being hailed as champion of the lightweight division.

These mistakes aside, the book will restore the pride of many Jewish boys, who doubtless have no idea that Jews once presided over the lower weight classes of the sweet science.

On the phone, Century suggested that this might be a Zeitgeist moment for bringing back the Jewish fighters. He said this partly because of all the tough Israeli boxers coming to America. As part of his research for the book, Century trained with several Sephardic Israelis running a boxing gym in Hell’s Kitchen. The author, who said he has “delicate hands like a pianist,” could not throw a left hook. “They called me an uncoordinated Ashkenaz goof.”

In addition to the welcome infusion of Israeli immigrants, Century is comforted knowing that the Marines recently inducted Ross into their sports Hall of Fame and that there is talk of another movie based on Ross’ life (the first one, “Monkey on My Back,” was released in 1957). Even two recent books written about the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights examine the prevalence of Jews as fighters, fight fans and fight managers in the Depression.

Jews may never again dominate a sport like they dominated boxing in this country in the 1920s and 1930s. However, it is important to note that that was the second great era of Jewish fighters, as Century nicely points out in his book. The first occurred in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when Daniel Mendoza reigned. And before that, of course, there was Bar Kochba, Judah Maccabee, Samson and the greatest warrior of all, King David.

When it comes to fighting prowess, Jews may have a greater lineage than many of us ever realized.

Kids Page

Back to the Beach

Just because we’re back in school doesn’t mean we can’t think about the beach. If you want to go into the new Jewish year with another mitzvah under our belt, here is a fun opportunity:

Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 17

Help clean the Coastal Park area at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, as well as the Point Fermin Marine Life Refuge, from 9 a.m. to noon. After the cleanup, stay for refreshments during an open house at the Salinas de San Pedro salt marsh (noon-2 p.m.). Learn more about this unique habitat by using binoculars and microscopes to observe live animals. This is a free activity.

Groups please call the education staff at (310) 548-7562 ext. 217 to reserve and arrange for parking.



All talk of Jewish neocons aside, there’s nothing innately Jewish about the invasion of Iraq. Among Jews, opinions vary regarding the war, to say the least. But like all U.S. citizens, American Jews have much invested in the enterprise’s ultimate success. And those Jews involved “in country” face particular danger if captured by insurgents, because of anti-Semitism and hostility towards Israel.In this package of articles, readers will meet six Jews who’ve been inside post-invasion Iraq. The central story is that of a Marine from Southern California who supports the war effort, but found his faith challenged. There also are anti-war perspectives from a former soldier and a college professor. Other narratives come from a military chaplain, a civilian attorney and a military attorney.If there is a consistent theme, it may be that no one can enter a war zone without being changed or without confronting the sacrifice, trauma and tragedy of armed conflict. And perhaps that anyone expecting easy or consistent answers won’t find them in Iraq.These are American stories with a Jewish twist — indeed, all the persons profiled see their understanding of Judaism expressed in their experience of and reaction to the war.It’s not a complete picture, but a mosaic, whose pieces are still falling into place.

War and Faith: Iraq Tests Jewish Marine

by David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Sgt. Kayitz Finley with local Iraqi citizens.

When a Marine finds himself in a ditch or an abandoned house, suddenly under fire, having to decide where to shoot and who to kill, it may not much matter if the Marine is Jewish. It was before and after the firefights in Iraq that Marine Corps Sgt. Kayitz Finley remembered and confronted his belief.

The war in Iraq cost Finley his faith for awhile. It also took away 11 buddies — including a close friend — men on whom he’d depended to get home in one piece. Still, for Finley, the conflict was never the wrong war, the wrong place or the wrong time. For him, the Iraq War was as advertised — a war of liberation, a war keeping faith with the American principle of bringing freedom to those lacking it.

“Every Marine out there was for the cause,” said Finley, who served two combat tours in Iraq. “I believe in the cause, and I wanted to continue what I was doing.”

About 1.5 percent of the U.S. Marine Corps is Jewish, roughly corresponding to a 2 percent Jewish presence in the entire U.S. military. Finley signed on after graduating in 2000 from Grant High School in Van Nuys. He just wasn’t ready for more classes. His ex-Marine father, Rabbi Mordechai Finley of the independent Westside congregation, Ohr Ha Torah, encouraged his son’s military interest.

Kayitz Finley’s enlistment test scores qualified him for a post in intelligence or logistics, but he preferred infantry, side by side with the grunts, including hillbillies from Appalachia and gangbangers — people who had never met one Jew before arriving for basic training at Camp Pendleton in north San Diego County.

“I was the only Jew there,” said Finley, who spoke with The Journal at his mother’s home in Conejo Valley. “People from other parts of the country — Indiana, Alabama — never even had met a Jew before. They said, ‘Really, you’re Jewish?’ and started poking me.”

Yes, poking — as in taking an index finger and poking at Finley’s chest. “Sometimes it was serious. It was a trip, all those white guys,” he said. “For the first year, I sensed a lot of animosity from other Marines — maybe about half of them. They’d always make jokes.”

There were occasional scuffles, too, part of the corps’ off-duty roughhouse culture. On occasion, Finley would hear rednecks say things about Jews that they’d never get away with saying about other minorities.

In late 2001, Finley saddled up for the invasion of Afghanistan. His unit never deployed and instead, he spent seven and a half months waiting offshore on an aircraft carrier.

Without seeing action, Finley returned to Camp Pendleton, from where he regularly zoomed up to Los Angeles to visit his folks. A few months later, he got his orders to Iraq.

Finley was in an invasion column, walking on the land of his traditional ancestor, Abraham, on that March day two years ago, when President Bush told the American people: “At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”

He remembers the first time he fired his weapon for real, near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, in a blur of a firefight.

“It was early, early in the morning, around 5 a.m.,” Finley said. “We had stopped the convoy to get a quick stretch, a smoke break and to glance down at our maps just to make sure everything was set before crossing into the city.”

“I remember standing and talking with a buddy of mine, and from the north, we heard a very faint ‘crack’ sound,” he continued. “We saw a little black dot getting larger and larger toward us, and within seconds, we noticed it was a projectile. It was an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] — and it was flying so closely above our heads that we could actually see the engravings on it. It soared right over us and landed about 200 meters behind us in some field.”

“Everybody just stopped what they were doing for a second … and wondered, ‘Did we just get fired at?'” Finley said. “And just like this, like the flick of a switch, we went into combat mode — jumped into our vehicles, got off the main road, sent platoons forward from all sides.”

“It was a rush,” he said. “When you go in, of course, you’re scared at first. You got bullets flying by your head, and you don’t know what to do for a second. But you just re-group, and you breathe in, take a deep breath. You just wipe the sweat off your brow, and you just go for it. You’ll be all right. Use all the training that you’ve learned. Keep calm.”

The firefight was over in 15 minutes, Finley said. But it took more than an hour to check for wounded civilians or still-living insurgents. With practice, they got faster at replenishing ammunition, refilling gas tanks and sending out Marines to check combat zones for living Iraqis — enemy or friendly.

Finley does not talk about the first time — in a different battle — that he was certain he’d killed someone, someone who might otherwise have killed him.

On April 2, 2003, Finley became part of the Marines’ historic Tigris River crossing into Baghdad, cutting off the escape route of an Iraqi Republican Guard division.

Passover found him in Baghdad, but the young soldier knew of only two other Jews in his battalion landing team in the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit of the Marine Expeditionary Force, 1st Division.

Navy Cmdr. Irving Elson (See page 13), the only rabbi assigned to the entire Marine Corps, found Finley’s unit camped at an old headquarters building for Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party.

“It was the first day of Pesach, so we had a Passover seder, him and I and two other Marines in the lobby of the theater of the compound,” Elson said. “We didn’t have much, but I had matzahs. And we had horseradish, and we had grape juice. And the four of us had a wonderful time.”

After staying in Baghdad until late April 2003 — where Finley’s battalion occupied a building that was home to Iraq’s Sumer cigarette company, “equivalent to our Marlboro,” he said, the unit went to Al Hillah. In the sleepy city, 60 miles to the south, Finley’s unit found restaurants and homes that welcomed the Marines as liberators and called them honored guests. Finley made friends with an Iraqi policeman, Mohammed, and he told Mohammed that he was Jewish. Photos of Finley with Iraqis show Finley’s unloaded rifle resting nearby.

Finley and the other young Marines oversaw the creation of Al Hillah’s new fire department, plus the opening of Hussein-free public schools. He helped teach Iraqis the basics of police work: arrests, takedowns and how to handle prisoners humanely. Because Hebrew is linguistically close to Arabic, Finley quickly picked up Arabic phrases to help his squad communicate.

Finley was in Iraq from January to September 2003. He volunteered for a second stint that lasted from May to December of 2004. He went back, he said, because “all my buddies were still over there.”

All told, he endured a t least nine weeks of combat

It was on that second Iraq tour that his unit took the most casualties — Finley knew 11 Marines who lost their lives. August 2004 saw the peak fighting in Najaf between U.S. forces and insurgents.

“The whole month was a complete firefight,” Finley said. “The whole place was chaotic.”

The routine was two days on the frontline, then four or five days to recuperate, but “sometimes I was out for four days and came back for one, or just 12 hours.”

During house-to-house fighting, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded about five feet away from him.

“The whole area just shook for 15 minutes.” he recalled, “It was just nuts. You couldn’t see anything. You couldn’t do anything. Everything was dust, rocks — everywhere.”

His ear felt the explosive charge. His mouth tasted it. However, he escaped unharmed.

By now, there were no anti-Semites among his fellow Marines; Finley’s comrades included all races, religions and backgrounds. He formed an especially strong bond with Sgt. Moses Rocha, a Latino from East Los Angeles, who bunked beside Finley. They were both Lakers fans, and Rocha had a Jewish fiance back home.

Rocha, at 33, was the oldest of the young guys, and he looked after them. Rocha got his men good food, decent bedding and made sure that officers doled out guard duty fairly; sometimes Rocha would pull a shift to give his men more downtime.

On the Aug, 5, 2004, the unit was transporting supplies when snipers struck. The Marines returned fire. Rocha, the unit’s senior sergeant, headed up to the Humvee’s mounted machine gun. He paused to reload, instantly making himself vulnerable.

“He got shot, took a round to the chest from a sniper,” Finley said. “It’s like — it happens, just like that. He was a leader amongst leaders. He always stuck up for the guys. He always defended the guys no matter what.”

The Marines made a small patch of Najaf into a chapel — one without walls, bimah or seats, but not without Kaddish (a prayer for the dead).

“A few of us close buds were together, and we’re all kind of saying a few words, prayers,” Finley recalled. “And I said, ‘Listen guys, you know I’m Jewish and everything. I’m gonna say a quick prayer.’ And I said it real quick, and they listened, bowed their heads. And that was that.”

In the middle of all this bloody combat, Finley lost his longtime link to God: “I felt a little disconnected. It was tough. It hurt me. It was very tough for me.”

He turned to his father, Rabbi Finley. Through e-mail exchanges, Finley said his father advised: “Stay calm, be cool, have faith. It’ll come back to you. Don’t worry about it. It happens to a lot of people.”

A clogged 101 Freeway is Finley’s biggest danger these days. He’s doing a little construction work this spring, while preparing for a summer-long trip to Israel — his first. Next fall, he plans to attend a local community college, then transfer to a UC campus. He wants to become a physical therapist — or return to the Marines as a pilot.

The war medals are stashed in his bedroom along with his uniform. He’s got two Marine Corps bumper stickers on his black Toyota Corolla, and he’s still got his Marine physique.

He looks back on his service in Iraq as tikkun olam, his personal attempt to heal and free a country from a tyrant and his rape squads: “Forget about the weapons of mass destruction — we got rid of Saddam Hussein.”

Finley knows there’s another way to look at this war, but those questions are not for a Marine — not now at least, not at 23 with life, Israel, a girlfriend and college waiting for him.

“If I started to question,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of thoughts I’d come up with.”

A few months at home have begun to restore his faith. “Just now, being out of the Marine Corps,” Finley said, “it’s finally coming back to me, which I’m very thankful for, because for awhile there it was missing.”

Soldier for Peace Haunted by War

by Stanley David, Contributing Writer

Alex Ryabov of Iraq Veterans Against The War. Photo by Jeff Patterson, Not In Our Name

Before deploying for the U.S. invasion of Iraq with his Marine artillery unit in 2003, Alex Ryabov was relatively untouched by religious observance. He’d been given a Star of David in his bar mitzvah year, but rarely wore it. And he had little use for prayer.

Iraq changed all that.

Today Ryabov, 22, holds closely to the small Jewish star that, he believes, kept him out of harm’s way. He prays before most meals and tries to observe Jewish dietary laws.

He also travels throughout the United States speaking against American policies on behalf of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group he co-founded.

“The war is a complete waste for both sides,” asserted the man who went there and came home changed. “There is absolutely no reason for Iraqis and Americans to be dying.”

Ryabov didn’t always feel so strongly. Back in Brooklyn, where he went to high school, in fact, he didn’t think much about anything at all; the main attraction of the military, he says, was that of a well-paying job.

“I saw most adults working at jobs they hated because they had to,” he recalled. “Here were all these benefits and a uniform. I figured: Cool — you get to blow things up and get paid for it.”

Two weeks after graduation he was in boot camp. And three years after that, he was in Iraq.

Ryabov’s unit — for which he served as ammunition chief — miraculously never got into major firefights. And, he added, it came home without casualties.

But along the way he saw things that disturbed him, such as obliterated vehicles with charred bodies inside.

“That made me feel very uneasy,” Ryabov said, given that any one of those bodies could be his. And once he came within six inches of being decapitated by the barrel of a big gun that came crashing through his truck’s windshield.

Wearing the once-forgotten Star of David close to his heart “definitely made me feel safer and more protected,” he said.

He believes that what may have saved him from that gun barrel was a silent prayer he’d sent up to God an hour earlier.

Mostly, he kept his head low.

“Our job was to kill Iraqis or they would kill us,” Ryabov said. “You don’t have time to stop and deal with things as they occur, so you end up blocking the stuff out and you just keep on going.”

Few things, however, can be blocked out forever.

When Ryabov returned stateside, he seemed OK for a while — then the nightmares began. He couldn’t sleep. He experienced anxiety, stress and flashes of uncontrolled anger. He felt depressed. The diagnosis: post traumatic stress disorder, for which he remains in therapy and on medication.

“I can pretty much function,” said the former soldier, who attends Brooklyn College with an undeclared major. “Some days are worse than others — it’s not predictable.”

His return to the religion of his parents has helped. “I definitely feel that God protected me,” Ryabov said.

What’s helped even more, though, is his activism.

Last year, Ryabov was among war veterans who staged protests at the Republican National Convention. In January, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inaugural procession, during which “a lot of us turned our backs on Bush and Cheney as they passed by.” And whenever he can, the anti-warrior said, he speaks to high school students, does local television shows and gives interviews.

Is any of this informed by his newfound Judaism? Ryabov said simply: “I’ve just realized how precious and important life is.”

Professor Sees Iraq War as ‘Disaster’

by David Finnigan, Contributing Writerr

Iraqi citizens Marching to anti-US and anti-Jewish chants, Baghdad, March 19, 2004.

The words, “utter disaster,” leave the lips of professor Mark Levine with all deliberate speed when discussing his absolute opposition to the war in Iraq, which he visited last year.

But during that visit, when a virulent anti-U.S./anti-Israel protest played out in front of him, his thoughts contracted to a foxhole mentality.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, how do I get out of here alive?'” said Levine, 38. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m here in the land where Abraham walked.’ I didn’t tell anybody I was Jewish. I’m not Jewish if anyone asks. I’m Buddhist if almost anyone asks.”

The friendly, long-haired, bespectacled Levine is associate professor of Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies at UC Irvine. The father of a preschool son and infant daughter, he also played guitar on Mick Jagger’s 1993 solo album, “Wandering Spirit.”

He toured Iraq in March 2004 with academics and journalists brought together by the anti-war Occupation Watch Information Center. Levine’s an advisory board member.

“I went to Iraq because I grew up reading the Prophets,” said Levine, who researched a book while there and met with religious leaders, officials from nongovernmental agencies and local Iraqis.

A concern for social justice runs in the family. His Conservative father worked to desegregate schools in Patterson, N.J.

At the tense street protest, U.S. soldiers were on hand to keep order.

“They were not happy to be there,” Levine recalled. “They were not happy I was there. They figured if I’m there, I’m there against them. And if I’m there, they have to worry about me.”

Levine compared the Iraqi lawlessness to what he saw five months earlier in the West Bank town of Nablus.

“I was struck by how some major Palestinian towns have been descending into this kind of level of chaos,” Levine said. “Young people running around with guns … ordering people around. And then in Iraq, it was like Nablus on steroids.”

“People are doing these car bombings, because they think they’re achieving some kind of strategic goal with it,” he said.

He thinks the best course for the United States in Iraq is to “first of all, apologize for invading; second, agree to pay reparations for the damage done by the invasion and occupation; third, help organize a U.N.-administered international peace-building force to replace U.S. forces; and fourth, leave.”

Levine, who’s unaffiliated but raising his children as Jews, does not keep company with the far-left, pro-North Korea/anti-Israel group, International ANSWER, which he said does more harm than good to the anti-war movement. The ANSWER group makes it easy for the Bush administration to ridicule the antiwar movement, Levine implied.

“How can someone sitting in America or the U.K. call for divestment from Israel, when the occupation of Iraq has killed far more Iraqis and done far more damage to that society in two years than Israel has done to Palestinian society in more than a century? Or China: How horrific the occupation and the genocide of Tibet has been. Sudan? Hello!

The radical anti-Israel, anti-war groups “can’t look holistically, so they blame everything on Israel and the U.S. And you’re just handing the U.S. or mainstream society a gift, because they don’t have to take you seriously.”

Luxury, Fear Mix in Posting to Baghdad

by Paula Amann, Washington Jewish Week

District lawyer Linda Lourie, left, in a military vehicle in Iraq, with an unidentified member of the U.S. Armed Forces. Photo courtesy of Linda Lourie/Washington Jewish Week

Linda Lourie had a palace of an office, yet slept in a trailer at night. She had access to a gym, a swimming pool and a half-dozen restaurants, but could not travel safely outside her neighborhood.

The daily soundtrack of mortars reminded her that she lived in the middle of war.

Lourie, a Washington, D.C., attorney in her late 30s, spent several months last year living in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where U.S. officials and their allies make their headquarters.

On detail to the Pentagon from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Lourie was part of a team that revised Iraq’s legal code.

“A modern Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors is good for the world and certainly good for Israel — and I like adventure,” Lourie said.

Fronting the Tigris River in the heart of Baghdad, the four-mile-square compound where she lived comprises the Republican Palace, a convention center, ad hoc trailer parks and even a residential Iraqi neighborhood, all secured by 15-foot concrete walls, barbed wire and checkpoints at entrances.

Lourie, an intellectual property specialist, resided in a trailer. Her workplace, an office of some 15 people, was inside a Saddam Hussein palace, a gaudy hodgepodge of Italian marble in red, gray and black.

“He had more money than taste,” said Lourie, citing chandeliers with plastic crystals and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. “Everything has the appearance of luxury, but in fact, it’s all a fake.”

Lourie took part in a Friday-night minyan of 12 to 20 people in the former palace of a dictator known for his persecution of Jews, among other ethnic and religious groups. When Lourie attended Friday night services, she said, she would peer nervously over her shoulder to make sure nobody was watching.

Her pride in her heritage notwithstanding, Lourie went to great lengths to hide her Judaism from most people. She said she feared becoming a kidnapping target or worse. That’s why she never told her Iraqi translator she was Jewish, although, she said, “I trusted him with my life.”

Keeping kosher in Baghdad was another challenge, Lourie said.

“Nobody has ever seen vegetarians before,” she said, noting that her diet consisted of salad, tuna and military-issue MREs (meal ready to eat).

During her stay, Lourie had the satisfaction of removing legal language requiring compliance with the Arab economic boycott of Israel.

“In order to apply for a patent, you had to sign an affidavit that you were respecting the boycott against Israel” under the old regime, she said.

Lourie said she has profound respect for the Iraqi lawyers who have served as translators.

“They are risking not only their lives, but the lives of their families in coming to work for us, and we couldn’t do it without them,” Lourie said.

Asked about polls suggesting that most Iraqis want the United States to leave their country, she attributes the hostility to “a nationalistic interest in having complete control of their country.”

She knows Americans who organized sports activities and obtained textbooks for universities, but she fears the average Iraqi knows little of these efforts.

“There are thousands of stories about people doing really good things for Iraqis, but they don’t get into the newspapers,” Lourie lamented.

Despite her New York University master’s degree in medieval Islamic art, she didn’t see much art, with travel so dangerous.

Meanwhile, places of Jewish interest, like Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, and Nineveh, noted in the biblical book of Jonah, also were off limits, as U.S. forces coped with the continuing insurgency.

The “biggest frustration” is that she wasn’t able to see “the biblical and archeological sites in the country,” Lourie said.

Reprinted from Washington Jewish Week. Additional reporting by Journal senior writer Marc Ballon.

Rabbi Feels Most Useful in Combat

by David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Navy Comdr. Irving Elson holding services for troops in Iraq.

Navy Cmdr. Irving Elson is the only Mexican American rabbi in the U.S. armed forces. That background came in handy when he hunched his shoulders, bent his head and walked low across a runway to meet an arriving medevac aircraft bringing home a wounded Marine from Iraq.

It was in early March at San Diego’s Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, not long after the rabbi’s own service in Iraq. The wounded soldier was Venezuelan American and Jewish. His parents spoke little English, but he really wanted them to know he was OK.

Shouting over the loud whine of the jet engines, the Mexico City-born-and-reared chaplain said: “Son, this is your lucky day.”

Elson spent eight months in Iraq with the Marines during and after the U.S.-led invasion. He was a ship’s chaplain in the first Gulf War and also ministered to Marines in Bosnia.

In Iraq, “for the first couple of months that I was out there, I was the only rabbi in country,” said Elson, whose service included a three-week stretch during which he was under fire almost constantly.

“You’re always hungry,” said Elson, 44. “You’re always tired.”

“You’re scared,” he added, “but in a strange sort of way it’s wonderful, because you’re really doing what you’re trained to do as a chaplain, and you’re there when people are asking the hard questions of life. You’re there when people are ready to interact with their faith. It’s the time that I felt the most useful.”

Elson said one of the big existential questions that Marines asked him was, “Why did my buddy die?”

His part in the actual fighting was to, “get my head down and stay the hell out of the way.” Beside Elson during the firefights was an armed naval chaplain’s aide charged with protecting him, a young man from Northern California described by Elson as, “a very, very devout evangelical Christian and a strong supporter of Israel.”

His service at home at Miramar was perhaps more difficult than his ministry under fire. Elson was tasked with visiting several families, including one in Orange County, with a Marine Corps casualty assistance officer — telling parents that their son or daughter had been killed in combat.

“Combat is a little more predictable,” he said. “As far as how civilians react, you never know how people are going to react.”

In June, Elson finishes his Marine Corps tour and becomes deputy command chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He’ll be on hand for the September opening of the privately funded, $12 million Uriah P. Levy Center, the Naval Academy’s first dedicated Jewish chapel for midshipmen.

“We were the last service academy not to have a dedicated Jewish chapel,” Elson said.

The Navy chaplain extols the Marines he knew for being “willing to put himself or herself in harm’s way for some esoteric concept like freedom.”

“If you give people a little taste of freedom,” he added, “that taste stays with them. It’s really a matter of justice: feeding the hungry and liberating the oppressed. What can be more Jewish than that?”

“My only regret is that people are continuing to die. Little by little, I’m waiting for the Iraqi people to start stepping up to the plate.”

Palace Event Brings War Zone Revelation

by Stanley David, Contributing Writer

Elan Carr lighting a Chanukiah in Saddam Hussain’s palace in Baghdad.

lan S. Carr experienced a revelation while observing Chanukah in 2003.

The place was Baghdad, where 1st Lt. Carr, 37, an Army reservist, was assigned to anticipate and frustrate terrorist attacks, as well as to prosecute those who carried them out.

In a former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein, Carr was leading a holiday candle-lighting ceremony, what he describes as the “the first Jewish event ever to take place in that place.”

The revelation: That, as an American Jew, he was exactly where he needed to be.

“This was the very building in which unspeakable terror was perpetrated on the people of Iraq,” the officer recently explained. “We felt that to express ourselves Jewishly in a place like that — a place that had been so unspeakably evil — was profoundly moving, and none of us will ever forget it.”

There’s a lot about Iraq that Carr won’t forget.

Born to an Iraqi Jewish family that had immigrated to the United States in the pre-Saddam era, the Hebrew-speaking Carr is fluent in the Iraqi dialect of Arabic that is the language of that country’s court and street. A commercial litigator by profession, he was sent to Iraq initially as part of an anti-terrorism assessment team assigned to travel throughout the country to prevent terrorist attacks. Later, as a military judge advocate, his job was to prosecute insurgents and other “unlawful combatants” in their own language before the Iraqi court.

“I was awed even to be there,” Carr said of his time in the ancestral homeland that once had a thriving Jewish community. “I very deeply believe in what we are doing in Iraq.”

“I believe we are changing the Middle East by helping Iraqis create a free, democratic, pluralistic, tolerant, Arab polity in the heart of the Middle East,” he continued. “And that will change the world, I have no doubt.”

What he will remember most, though, are the people — children on the corner and policeman on the beat — Iraqis, he said, ranging from powerful administrators to the humblest street cleaners.

“These are people who’ve been broken by oppression and subjected to decades of the most virulent anti-Western and anti-Semitic propaganda we can imagine,” he said. “It’s going to take some time before they shed the baggage of the Saddam and pre-Saddam eras.”

Most didn’t know Carr’s faith — a secret that for security reasons he kept from all but his closest friends and co-workers. When, by chance, the subject of Israel came up, Carr said, many ordinary Iraqis expressed the surprising view that “this hatred of Israel has got to go.” And when, as sometimes happened, they discovered he was Jewish, some took pains to reassure him that, though they’d never met one before, they’d been told that “Jews are the nicest people.”

Never having met a Jew is hardly unusual in a city with a Jewish population of 27. That number has dwindled through emigration to about 13.

Carr came to view his service in Iraq as an elemental expression of his Judaism, saying, “I believe in what we’re doing there in large part, because of Jewish teachings about the human soul and human nature. Those views — which form the Jewish world view — lead me to believe that all people are capable of wondrous goodness.”

And so his mind drifted back to that Chanukah — a celebration of freedom and light — in Saddam’s former palace, which once epitomized darkness and oppression. By the time he left Iraq, Carr said, he and other Jews in uniform were celebrating Shabbat and Pesach there as well — a practice, he’s told, that continues.

“It’s all about the battle between good and evil, the nature of the human soul and the proper role of a citizen in a society that works,” he said from his Los Angeles home. “So much of the story of the Exodus involves creating a society. It’s not just about liberation, but about nation building.”

While it’s one thing to read Exodus or celebrate the Passover story, it’s quite another to do such work in the present, with the outcome in doubt and lives always at risk.

“The seder I attended a year ago was in the presidential palace, where we sat around talking about wonders and miracles,” the Jewish soldier recalled.

One day, Carr believes, the story of Iraq, too, will be told with reverence.