Debate rages over attack on Jewish soldier at Ft. Benning
NEW YORK (JTA)—All sides agree that a beating last month left a Jewish U.S. Army trainee, Pvt. Michael Handman, with facial wounds, severe oral injuries and a concussion. What’s in dispute is whether the assault—at the base in Fort Benning, Ga.—was carried out by multiple attackers, and if it was the product of an anti-Semitic campaign waged by Handman’s superiors.
The military has charged just one person, a fellow trainee, and insists that he was not motivated by anti-Semitism. Handman’s supporters, on the other hand, believe multiple attackers were involved and feel the incident was connected to anti-Jewish slurs dished out to Handman by two company drill sergeants.
Military officials declined to make Handman available for comment, and separate efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. His mother, Randi Handman, told JTA that her son only remembers being called into the laundry room to retrieve clothing, was struck and spun on his back while sorting through a pile, then covering his head to shield it from blows before drifting into the blackness of a concussion. He says several recruits were in the room before the beating commenced, his mother added.
Just days before the Sept. 24 assault, the two drill sergeants were issued letters of reprimand, in which they were accused by the military of addressing Handman with anti-Jewish slurs, including “Juden.” In the base’s mess hall, one of the drill sergeants also demanded that he remove his yarmulke, which he had begun to wear in the few weeks following his induction.
Though army regulation allows for individuals to wear a yarmulke, praying while on guard duty—which Handman was rebuked for—is against regulation, because soldiers must limit their focus to guarding weapons. According to his mother, Handman says that he was not praying, but merely reading Jewish canon—three feet from where another guard had been reading the New Testament undisturbed.
She also said that prior to the assault, she received a foreboding letter from her son, warning her that he would be attacked.
“I have just never been so discriminated against/humiliated about my religion,” he wrote, adding: “I just feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder. Like my battle buddy heard some of the guys in my platoon talking about how they wanted to beat the shit out of me tonight when I’m sleeping. It just sucks. And the only justification they have is [because] I’m Jewish. Maybe your dad was right…The Army is not the place for a Jew.”
The case has attracted the attention of Mikey Weinstein, leader of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an outfit that fights alleged religious bias in the U.S. military. Weinstein, whose foundation has launched its own investigation of the beating, says that the drill sergeants referred to Handman as “fucking Jew” and kike. According to Weinstein, platoon members attempted to dispirit Handman by ejaculating in his pillow.
Handman’s father, Jonathan, contacted U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in the hopes that he would take an interest in the investigation, and urge the military to switch his son to a less hostile company. In response to the senator’s inquiries, Fort Benning’s Deputy Chief of Staff Samuel Selby Rollinson wrote that he does not condone the actions of the non-commissioned officers in slurring Handman, and denying him the right to wear a yarmulke or attend Jewish prayer services. But, Rollinson added, their actions were “not meant to be malicious, and were done out of ignorance for regulations and cultural awareness.”
Military police have concluded that Handman was attacked by a lone assailant, a fellow trainee that they refuse to identify, citing army regulations. The suspect has been charged by military police with assault, and is subject to yet-to-be determined penalties, including 45 days of restricted movement, extra duty, reduction in grade and forfeiture of pay. Military officials denied JTA requests to speak with the private who was charged in the assault.
Handman has been moved out of his original platoon to a rehabilitation platoon to recuperate from his injuries, and is now in a different battalion.
When asked through what method of investigation it was determined that the non-commissioned officers “inadvertently” violated the private’s religious rights, a spokeswoman for Rollinson, Monica Manganaro, said that they acted “out of character,” are experienced drill sergeants and had a superb record of performance up until this incident.
Weinstein said that the military frequently attempts to portray such incidents as one-time occurrences. He criticized the army’s choice of Lt. Dan Kim to lead the investigation of the motives behind the assault, saying that he would ultimately be the one accountable for prevalent misconduct.
According to army officials, Kim spent days gathering 100 sworn testimonies from every member of Handman’s company, all of whom denied that religious prejudice was pervasive, or that it provoked the beating.
Fort Benning’s spokeswoman was unaware of the “battle buddy” who Handman said had warned him of a pending assault fueled by anti-Semitism. According to the spokeswoman, Kim and military police officials say they have uncovered another motive during the investigation, but military privacy regulations prohibit her from sharing that information.
Weinstein argued that the sworn testimony of the privates is unreliable, since it was solicited by a lieutenant who ranks above them.
Claims that a conflict of interest exists were dismissed by an army spokeswoman, who pointed out that Kim answers to his superior, the battalion commander, and is obligated to render a truthful investigation.
Weinstein criticized the penalty, saying it was an outrage that the assailant was not even given the lowest form of a court martial. Handman’s father called the punishment “cute” and merely a slap on the wrist.