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Death Ends Slain American’s Religious Journey

Being Jewish may have cost Nicholas Berg his life, said the father of the 26-year-old American contractor who was decapitated by Islamic militants in Iraq.

The Forward has learned that the slain American had, during the past year, intensified his study and observance of Judaism, and taken to wearing tzitzit, or ritual fringes. His father, Michael Berg, mentioned that his son had a set of tzitzit with him in Iraq, in an interview with the Associated Press.

The Islamic militants who executed Berg claimed to be followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the one-legged Jordanian terror master with links to Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network. As reported in March by the Forward, terrorism analysts believe that Zarqawi places a higher value on Jewish and Israeli targets than does bin Laden and his other associates.

So far, however, the Islamic militants who killed Berg have made no reference to their victim’s religion.

While it remains unclear what role religion played in Berg’s death, his friends told the Forward that Judaism certainly had become a more important element in his life.

“In the past year or year-and-a-half,” Berg “was starting to wear tzitzit; he was starting to become more observant,” said Aaron Spool, a longtime friend of Berg’s. Spool, who has also become more religious, characterized Berg’s late-in-life turn to Jewish observance as “a quest for knowledge,” adding that once Berg started, “nothing got in his way.”

Berg, who had his own apartment in West Chester, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, regularly attended services at Congregation Kesher Israel, a local Conservative synagogue, and had undertaken an intense study of the Bible, Spool said.

The decision by Berg’s killers to film his execution and place the video on the Internet drew immediate comparisons to Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was killed in 2002 by militants in Pakistan. Seconds before Pearl was murdered, his captors forced him to declare on tape that he was Jewish. Pearl’s parents issued a statement Tuesday offering condolences to the Berg family.

In the moments before Berg’s death, he identified himself and his family but made no mention of being Jewish. “My name is Nick Berg,” he said. “My father’s name is Michael. My mother’s name is Susan … I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah.”

Berg’s father told the Jewish Exponent that he and his wife had wanted to keep their son’s Jewish identity out of the news for his own protection. The father told the AP that he did not think his son wore his tzitzit in public. Still, the father was quoted as saying, “There’s a better chance than not that they knew he was Jewish. If there was any doubt that they were going to kill him,” Michael Berg reportedly said, “that probably clinched it, I’m guessing.”

Berg, who formed the company Prometheus Methods Tower Service in 2002, was an engineer and entrepreneur who went to Iraq to develop cellular infrastructures.

The leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein and James Tisch, issued a May 11 statement arguing that “the brutal murder today of Nick Berg at the hands of terrorists in Iraq and the barbaric behavior of Islamic Jihad terrorists in Gaza, mutilating the bodies of the Israeli soldiers killed by a road side bomb, underscores the evil that we are fighting in the war on terrorism.”

Berg’s parents, meanwhile, were sounding a drastically different note, as they blamed the Bush administration for the death of their son. Michael Berg, who previously signed on to an advertisement organized by the anti-war group Answer, said that Berg might have left Iraq much earlier had he not been detained, first by Iraqi police and then by U.S. forces, starting March 24. American officials were reportedly attempting to determine whether Berg was a U.S. citizen and what he was doing in Iraq. According to Berg’s father, he was released April 6, one day after they filed a federal lawsuit claiming he was being held illegally.

U.S. officials are disputing the account of Berg’s father, saying that American forces never detained their son and played a key role in securing his release from Iraqi police.

The Bergs told reporters that they last heard from their son April 9, when he told them he was attempting to find a safe way to leave Iraq. His remains were discovered May 8.

Spool said Berg’s Iraq work was a product of his “humanitarian” nature, of a piece with previous ventures to Africa. There, Spool said, Berg “helped build a bridge one year” and “taught ceramics to different tribes.” One of Berg’s talents, he said, was that he was “able to teach a lot of different people how to improve their infrastructure.” Spool noted that Berg did volunteer work “while running his own business, while learning Torah.”

During a preliminary trip to the Middle East last year, according to Spool, Berg encountered many people who questioned Israel’s right to exist. “He heard a lot of anti-Israel sentiment in various parts of the Middle East,” Spool said. “He just said that they had different views than he had.”

Michael Berg, who opposed the war, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that his son had a more positive outlook on the U.S. presence in Iraq. Speaking of his slain son’s view of the invasion, Michael Berg reportedly said, “He looked at it as bringing democracy to a country that didn’t have it.”

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