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Church-State Gadfly Roils Military, Rips Jewish Brass

In the face of mounting Republican opposition, a fiery Air Force veteran-turned-gadfly is stepping up his fight to stop Christian proselytizing in the military, and criticizing Jewish groups for not doing more to help his cause.

U.S. Air Force Academy alumnus and church-state activist Mikey Weinstein is leading the charge against an amendment to the defense authorization bill that gives a military chaplain “the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of” his or her “own conscience,” except in cases of “military necessity.” The measure — introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Californian Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee — states that whenever such military necessity is cited, limits should “be imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible.”

Critics of the amendment, including Weinstein, say it would be used to justify sectarian prayers at public events, such as graduations or training exercises.

In addition to opposing the GOP amendment, Weinstein recently triggered a media firestorm by disclosing a political fund-raising e-mail sent out by a two-star Air Force general to 200 fellow academy alumni. The e-mail stated that “we are certainly in need of Christian men with integrity and military experience in Congress.”

Weinstein spurred an investigation of the Air Force Academy last year after his sons reported experiencing anti-Jewish slurs and coercion while they were students there. Now, he is poised to take on an even higher profile, with an upcoming release of his memoir and a documentary that is expected to chronicle some of his family’s troubles with the Air Force.

During a telephone interview from his home in Albuquerque, N.M., Weinstein compared himself to a tarantula on a wedding cake, the Lone Ranger and napalm, and said that some Jewish leaders had advised him to tone down his aggressiveness.

“I’ve been told by people, ‘Stop it, Mikey, you’re going to make them mad,’” said Weinstein, who is currently suing the federal government over the alleged abuses suffered by his sons. “Their view is: ‘You’re so combative. You’re so militant. You’re waging war.’”

Last spring, with Weinstein’s prodding, a Washington-based advocacy group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, issued a report outlining a host of alleged church-state violations at the Air Force Academy, including Christian proselytizing by professors during class time; the denial of religious dispensations to Jews and to other Saturday Sabbath observers, and a banner, hung in the locker room by the football coach, that read, “I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.”

Since then, Weinstein has turned his campaign into a nonprofit organization, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and so far has spent “well into the six figures” assembling a professional team that includes David Rosen, finance director for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate run, as well as the Washington public relations firm Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications. Half a dozen fund-raising events are planned in the coming months for cities around the country, including one in Washington on June 5 that will feature Bush administration nemesis and former ambassador Joseph Wilson, as well as Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who has led the fight to get Congress to intervene in the Air Force Academy controversy.

Weinstein, a lawyer who worked for the Reagan White House and once served as Ross Perot’s general counsel, said that “thousands” of people have contacted his new organization since its Web site launched in February, and that he plans to increasingly focus on religious coercion in all branches of the military.

Several Jewish defense organizations have weighed in on the situation at the Air Force Academy, but they have not agreed on a common message or strategy. When interim guidelines on religious speech at the academy were released by the Air Force in February, the Anti-Defamation League and Weinstein criticized them as being watered down in response to complaints from religious conservatives. In contrast, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism endorsed them.

Weinstein expressed frustration with the ADL and the other Jewish organizations, comparing them to Neville Chamberlain — the British prime minister who, on the eve of World War II, unsuccessfully attempted to appease Hitler by accepting German control over Czechoslovakia. The Air Force veteran said he was particularly disappointed that the ADL has so far declined to join his lawsuit or to file a friend-of-the-court brief, and complained about what he characterized as the group’s tepid response to the GOP-backed amendment.

In an interview with the Forward, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman praised Weinstein as “courageous” and credited him with drawing attention to the church-state issues in the military. But he also questioned Weinstein’s decision to launch a new advocacy group.

“I’m just not sure that the American Jewish community needs an organization to raise money and specifically address the issue of church-state in the military,” Foxman said. “Had he asked us or somebody else, I don’t think we would have said ‘Set yourself up’; we would have said: ‘Join our forces. Join [the American Jewish] Committee. Join [the] American Jewish Congress.’ But it’s his choice.”

“He’s a one-issue person, who became an organization, okay, raising money in the community, and nobody asked him to do it,” Foxman said. “So now, for him to say he doesn’t get enough support — I could say in reverse, ‘Why isn’t he supporting us?’”

In July, St. Martin’s Press will publish Weinstein’s memoir, “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military.” A documentary about Christian-Jewish relations, based on James Carroll’s best-selling book “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews — a History” and presented by Oscar-nominated director Oren Jacoby, is slated for a release late this year and features interviews with Weinstein and his family.

Weinstein said that what he really would like is to see more cooperation from Jewish organizations.

“I want them to join the fight,” he said. “I’m sitting here as your fellow Jew with the gun smoke on my face, saying, ‘Wake the f—k up. Wake up. Wake up.’”

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