While the Senate expressed its approval Monday of a Bush administration plan to deploy the Natinoal Guard along the American-Mexican border, a Jewish member of the Pennsylvania force is publicly refusing to accept such an order.
Brian Kresge, a seven-year veteran of the armed forces, first articulated his position on his personal blog last week. “I cannot point a gun at folks crossing a border when I am a scion of the same thing,” he wrote. “Life was hard in the Pale of Settlement, and though today’s illegals aren’t necessarily fleeing pogroms, they likely have the same fears.”
In a conversation with the Forward, Kresge elaborated on his initial statement. “The president’s speech [last week on immigration] got me thinking about my own ancestry,” he explained. “My family came to this country in the bottom of a ship — without papers, without records.”
“I can’t conscience being a hypocrite,” he added, reflecting on the difficulties faced by his great-great-grandfather Louis Feldser, who achieved American citizenship for himself and his wife by falsely claiming that the documents they needed had been lost in a fire.
Under the plan first proposed by President Bush during his prime-time May 17 speech, up to 6,000 National Guard troops would be sent to the southern United States to support ongoing Border Patrol operations. By an 83-10 vote this week, senators approved a measure to position the Guard along the border, while setting parameters on the limits of its involvement.
Rabbi David Lapp, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, is not convinced by Kresge’s arguments. “Once he joins any military force, he swears to do what the commander in chief orders,” he told the Forward when informed of Kresge’s stance. “If everyone in his own mind were to judge where to serve and where not to serve, we would not have an Army.”
Both sides in the nascent debate cite lessons from the Jewish theological canon, albeit with far different implications. “What would the Torah do? When you live in that country and they ask you to serve, you have to serve,” Lapp said.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia countered by pointing to the “thirty-some times the Torah says that you shall treat the foreigner with respect and equality.”
“Remember that at one time,” Waskow continued, “the Jewish community in the Lower East Side of New York was looked upon with great contempt and disgust by most of the country.”
Rabbi Philip Bentley, honorary president of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, suggested that his organization would be willing to help Kresge should he encounter future legal trouble. “That is what we exist to do,” Bentley said, adding that “for Jews, the closing of borders has a very powerful resonance.”
“In 1924,” he said, “they shut the borders of the U.S. for European Jews — this current measure should be something that disturbs us greatly.”
Kresge said that he is not keen to make his initial statement into a larger issue, especially considering the recent comments of Pennsylvania’s Jewish governor, Ed Rendell, who expressed opposition to a long deployment of the state’s National Guardsmen to the border. The guardsman insisted that he was very eager to serve his country.
“Refuseniks can get painted as malcontents and people who don’t want to serve, but that’s not the case here,” Kresge said. “I’m a proud soldier — but I have to answer to my faith, as well.”