Two days the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue, a Jewish cadet at the Air Force Academy had to listen to upperclass cadets—who outranked him—disparage the victims for their faith, saying, "The 11 Jews murdered would now be burning in hell forever because none of them had accepted Jesus as their savior prior to being shot and killed." This according to his parents, who are considering withdrawing him from the Academy.
“These upperclass cadets were ‘loud and proud about saying it’ as our son told us. We are all in tears here,” they said in a letter to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. “We had heard about the Air Force Academy’s long history of religious intolerance before our son applied and accepted his appointment. We had been assured that those days were over. As a result of what has just happened to our son we were obviously wrong.”
“The Air Force Academy is not a problem, issue or challenge, it's a constitutional—or unconstitutional—train wreck, and it's been this way, basically since February 2004, which is when we started this fight,” MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein told Crooks and Liars. In fact, Weinstein had a similar experience of open anti-Semitic prejudice as a freshman cadet in 1973.
“Please let people know about this so that other families do not have to go through what we are now going through,” the parents said in their letter. “We have Holocaust survivors in our family and if they knew of what our son had to hear from his upperclass cadets about the Pittsburgh massacre it would be a tragedy,” they said. “But not the worst tragedy. The worst would be the Air Force Academy doing nothing about the hateful atmosphere that exists there. Our son and our family do not deserve this. Nobody does.”
It’s not just important for the individuals involved, but for the military as a whole. Retired Brig. Gen. Martin France—a recently retired instructor at the Academy who’s now on MRFF's advisory board—put the incident in context. With everything else going in the world, it might seem minor incident, but trust is vital for any military organization, he said. “When you bring religion and politics into the workplace, that are just by their very nature partisan – then you end up essentially bringing your private tribes into the military arena, and that's not good for unity, it's not good for trust among comrades in arms. And that's why there are rules about what you can and cannot say on duty, or can and can't say as a commander” France said. “It goes as far as Article 6 of the Constitution saying you can't have any religious test for someone is holding a position of responsibility when offices in government.” The incident occurred at the noon meal, where attendance is mandatory for freshmen cadets, making it a duty station, where they are outranked by upperclassmen, with no standing to respond to them.
The story was first reported by Pam Zubeck at the Colorado Springs Independent, who sought comment from the Academy for two days, before the public affairs office issued a statement “saying the episode couldn't be substantiated and that the Academy ‘therefore [was] unable to provide a specific response.’"
“Nobody there said anything to stop this,” the cadet’s parents wrote. The only help came from another freshman cadet at the same table. “He too, although not Jewish, was outraged,” they said. He called his parents, who in turn suggested that the cadet call the MRFF. He spoke with his parents, who in turn took the initiative.
Weinstein was similarly unable to get a response. “We brought this to the Academy's attention, I spoke at length to the Vice Superintendent, because the Superintendent (Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria) they said was away on leave,” Weinstein said. “I spoke to people in the Commandant's shop at the Academy, I spoke to people in the diversity area. Nobody, nobody did a damn thing about any of this.”
Instead, out of the blue, a statement was put out by the on-leave Lt. Gen. Silveria. “As I reflect on the mass shootings in houses of worship in Charleston, SC, Sutherland Springs, TX, Nashville, TN and now in Pittsburgh, PA, I am outraged by the senseless loss of life and tragic impact to the families and loved ones of those lost. These senseless acts are about hatred and intolerance,” Silveria said. “The individuals who lost their lives in these horrific events were denied the very rights we have chosen to support and defend.”
Yet, he made no mention at all of the incident in his own ranks, much less how it should have been handled, and why. “This could have been a really good teachable moment for the Academy,” Weinstein said.
The message was good, General France said, but it was missed opportunity that he would have handled differently. “I would've indicated that I sent out the message because it was precipitated by some improper comments made in the workplace by senior cadets and would've been upfront about why he was putting out that message,” he said. “It didn't go far enough because many people were saying, ‘Wait, what precipitated this message? Especially since it didn't come out within 24 hours of the tragedy in Pittsburgh. It came out five days later.”
Rather than leaving people wondering, “I think he should've been upfront and told everyone,” France said. “I don't think that would've detracted from his message, and he didn't even have to give specifics. You could've said, ‘Hey, I've got unconfirmed reports that some people are making improper statements and comments and bringing religion into the workplace. This statement, I hope, addresses those concerns, and I hope if you do have this problem, I’d like to encourage you to use your chain of command to report it.”
The situation is quite different at other academies, Weinstein noted. “Almost at the same time we had an issue at West Point,” Weinstein said. The response was swift. “They were all over themselves,” he said. The issue was resolved within 24 hours. “There's a reason West Point hasn’t been in the media negatively from us alone, for over the last five years.” It’s not that there aren’t problems elsewhere. MRFF gets complaints all the time. But their focus is on getting complaints handled and resolved—being partners with command staff that takes their constitutional duties seriously. But that’s not how things work at the Air Force Academy.
"We fear serious repercussions against our son and our family if our names were ever to be known," the cadet’s parents said in their letter to MRFF. But that’s all the more reason for the story to be known. As they said, “Our son and our family do not deserve this. Nobody does.”