The Price of Being Jewish: An Interview with Judea Pearl

February, 01 2013

The downward slant of Judea Pearl’s eyes lends a perpetually sorrowful expression to his bearded face. Yet, he is rarely somber during our talk; in fact, even his serious reflections have a way of meandering to wry observations that prompt his ready smile and easy laughter.

The 70-year-old Pearl has just come from accepting a posthumous humanitarian award on behalf of his son, slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. In his thick Israeli accent, Pearl tells me about the speech he’s just given in which he repeated some of Danny’s final words: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

Daniel Pearl, the Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, was abducted on January 23, 2002. Lured by the promise of an interview with an Al Qaeda leader in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, the 38-year-old reporter was taken hostage by a radical Islamic group that accused him of being an agent of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. In exchange for his release, the militants demanded, among other conditions, the release of prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The kidnapping received extraordinary global media attention. “Killing Danny will achieve nothing for you,” wrote Paul Steiger, the Journal’s managing editor in an open letter to Daniel’s captors. “His murder would be condemned by the entire world.” But worldwide appeals—including those from Pakistan—went unheeded. On February 21, 2002, Judea and his wife, Ruth, learned that their only son had been beheaded in a Karachi dungeon.

Nearly five years later, Judea and Ruth Pearl are the driving forces behind the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established to further the ideals of tolerance and humanity. The foundation brings Muslim journalists into American newsrooms to directly experience the culture of a free press. It also organizes concerts around the globe for Daniel Pearl World Music Days. And Judea Pearl—along with his Muslim counterpart, Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat—holds town hall meetings attended predominantly by Jews and Muslims in an effort to foster communication and understanding. In order to create an atmosphere of civility, the two men stress their common experience as grandfathers and share the stage with a smiling photograph of Daniel Pearl, which oversees the proceedings.

A man of small stature and big ideas, Judea Pearl grew up in Israel in an Orthodox home but the UCLA computer science professor gave up on the idea of a traditional God when he was 11. He met Ruth, who was born in Iraq, while studying at the Technion Institute in Haifa. In 1960 the couple came to the United States so that he could attend graduate school. They later settled in Los Angeles where they raised Danny and his two sisters. The close father and son relationship included their shared love of music.

Pearl often refers to his son’s brutal murder as “the tragedy.” But in tragedy, it is clear, Judea Pearl has found hope. He speaks of life, and death, and what it means to be Jewish in today’s world.

What does it mean to you to be Jewish?
To identify with the past and future of a collective of individuals who call themselves Jews. In other words, to take the history of the Jewish people and make it relevant to me and my children, with its fountain of role models, metaphors and other building blocks of identity.

Are you more or less religious than you were before Danny was killed?
Previously, I didn’t try to articulate it formally. After the death of Danny, I had to talk about it. So whatever was simmering in intuition became formalized in words. But the feelings are the same.

Do you believe in God?
I believe in God only if you take my interpretation—my computer model. God is a collection of principles and ideals, by which we would like to bring up our children. He has been encoded in the form of an old wise man, preferably resembling our father. (He laughs.)

Did you pray for Danny’s safe return?
No, I don’t believe in a God [that] would listen to me. But I do pray every morning. I lay tefillin. I started a year ago.

But aren’t you a secular Jew?
I’ll give you the same answer I gave 10 Muslims who joined me for dinner one Friday night. I said, “Oh, it’s Friday night. I have to do Kiddush.”
They said “You told us you were secular.”
“But it’s Friday night,” I said. “It’s Friday night.”
So, the reason I lay tefillin is to improve myself, to gain harmony with my principles. It reminds me that my father and grandfather prayed in the same way and that they were concerned about the continuity of Jewish tradition. This ritual reminds me of them and puts me in a certain frame of mind for five minutes, and then I go back to eat breakfast.

Has Judaism helped you cope with Danny’s death?
Yes. It allowed me to embed this tragedy in a historical context. And this embedding is empowering. With it comes responsibility and a feeling of continuity.

Did Danny believe in God?
I don’t think so. When a friend asked Danny, “Do you believe in afterlife?” he said, “I have more questions than answers, but I sure hope Gabriel likes my music.” Which is exactly the answer that a secular Jew should give: I know it’s a myth, but it’s helpful.

Has being a secular Jew made life harder for you?
On the contrary. Only a secular Jew can be equally respectful of all religions. Religion doesn’t tell us as much about truth as it does about the poetic vision. So don’t take it seriously. Don’t kill people.

Will Danny’s son, your grandson Adam, be raised Jewish?
Mariane, Danny’s wife [who is a Buddhist], wants him non-committed, universal, a citizen of the world.

What does it mean to be Jewish in today’s world?
If everybody in this crazy world hates us, there must be something good about us. I get an extreme sense of superiority. (He laughs.) When I first met an anti-Semite, I came home elated. I told Ruth, “I found one. They exist.” Why shouldn’t we get a sense of superiority when we find someone infected with a disease we don’t have?
I’m telling you only in the mindset of an Israeli growing up when I did. We looked at anti-Semitic people as diseased; they should be pitied and cured. (He chuckles.) They should be examined under a microscope, not feared.

Will there ever be an end to anti-Semitism?
The perception I got growing up in Israel was that the creation of the state would put an end to anti-Semitism. We were no longer weak. We had a state, we had pride. But here it is, anti-Semitism, here to stay.

How did you feel knowing that Danny was killed because he was a Jew?
The first emotion was he doesn’t deserve it, because he was so universal, so open-minded. The second thought was that this was the story of Abraham and Isaac. This is a part of the risk we take for being Jews and moral animals.

Is the price of being Jewish in today’s world too high?
Do we have a choice? It’s like asking, is the price of being moral too high in this world?

If you had been in Danny’s place, what would you have said to your captors?
The same thing. He didn’t try to be contrarian or make a point or be defiant. He just stated the facts as he had throughout his life: “I’m Jewish.” If you have a problem with it, it’s your problem.

What if Danny had died some other way? How would these past five years have been different?
I sometimes wonder if Danny had been killed by a car accident, whether it would have been easier or harder—just in terms of the things I deal with day to day. Sometimes I think harder, because it wouldn’t bring with it opportunity. But sometimes I think easier. There wouldn’t be all this constant media interest—anxieties of what to say, what not to say. We were very worried everything we would say would affect the trial. Worried we would play into the defense. Or that we might change public sympathy.

What would you like to say to the murderers?
I don’t care about them. I care about their children and the generation of their children.

What can we do about the generation of their children?
We have to empower the moderates to raise their voices in order to eradicate the extremists. By extremists, I mean not only the perpetrators of this crime, but also those who glorify them and those who passively approve of the aims of terrorists. For instance, Al Jazeera, which is the greatest recruiter for terrorists—not explicitly, but implicitly—tells viewers, “Your anger is justified.” We have to marginalize the ideologists of terror.

Will this happen soon?
To be realistic, we’re going to have terrible conflict, religious war. All over, including in this country. If you look at the Muslims in this country, they are playing a very dangerous game. They are telling their youngsters, “Your anger is justified. Just don’t resort to violence.” This is a very dangerous mixed message. You cannot pour fuel in the streets knowing that there are lunatics running around with lit matches and hope that there won’t be an explosion. I just hope that decency is as contagious as anger and insanity; decency has proved itself to be so throughout history.

Why aren’t Muslim leaders speaking out?
They say, “We have. We have condemned terrorism.” And indeed some have. They even issued a fatwa to exonerate themselves. But basically they engage in fueling anger among youngsters.

How do you deal with the horror of the way Danny was murdered?
We take revenge. We feel an obligation to defy [his murderers] by fighting the hatred and empowering others to fight the hatred.

What are you doing to prevent other Jews from meeting the same fate?
One of the things I am doing is to foster Muslim-Jewish understanding through dialogue, holding town hall meetings with [a] Muslim partner, Akbar Ahmed. Issues come up and I tell the audience, which tends to be around one-third Muslim, you are playing a dangerous game. No one else tells them that.

Would you say that Danny’s death has become a symbol?
Yes. It’s a symbol of our era. It’s a symbol of the historical clash between good and evil. It’s a symbol of the best in America and the nature of contemporary Jews.
The icon that Danny represents is a unique conduit—a bridge to the Muslim world. There aren’t many icons for a Jewish person that convey bridge-building. Show me one! But every Muslim and every Westerner recognizes immediately—and they both agree—that, yes, he was a man of peace.

What are you hoping to achieve?
We are attempting to overcome the culture of terror with education—through journalism, music and dialogue. People think the culture of terror is a negligible minority. It is not. The culture of terror captivates millions and millions of people—not necessarily the action of terror but the idea that their grievances supersede all principles of civilized society.

Can you leave us with something hopeful?
Sanity is contagious. There are a lot of undercurrents of decency and sanity in the Muslim world. Eventually, I believe they’ll understand that following the path of progress will save them from another century of helplessness. And now comes the punchline: Even if America can get some of the credit.

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