Judea Pearl: "History has given us both a tragedy and an opportunity"

September 19th, 2006

Tragedy and Opportunity
The parents of slain journalist Danny Pearl have devoted their lives to improving Muslim-Jewish relations.
By Matthew Philips

Sitting at their kitchen table on a recent summer afternoon, Ruth and Judea Pearl think back to another day four and a half years ago when an FBI agent sat across from them with tears in her eyes. It was Feb. 21, 2002, and their only son, journalist Daniel Pearl, had been missing for 28 days, abducted by Islamic extremists while on assignment for The Wall Street Journal in Pakistan. After weeks of uncertainty and false reports, there was now terrible confirmation: a video of Danny being beheaded. Among his last words was the statement, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

Those words marked the end of Daniel Pearl's life and the start of a new one for his parents. Through the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which they run mostly out of Danny's childhood bedroom in their home in Encino, Calif., the Pearls bring Muslim journalists from around the world to work as fellows in U.S. newsrooms and at Jewish papers. As a tribute to Danny's musical talents-he was an accomplished violinist-they coordinate and sponsor hundreds of concerts each year as part of their World Music Days celebration, and their World Youth News project trains high-school students to be future journalists. This is their new life's work. It is all they do anymore, and they say they'll do it until they die.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Judea, a UCLA computer-science professor, has made the jump from academic lecturer to social advocate. For the last two years, he has partnered with noted Muslim scholar and former Pakistani diplomat Akbar Ahmed for a series of dialogues where the two men address conflict in the Middle East and ways in which to span the chasm between two faiths that have never seemed farther apart-Islam and Judaism. The dialogue has landed them among the winners of the inaugural Purpose Prize, an award given by San Francisco-based think tank Civic Ventures to honor people over 60 who take on “society's biggest challenges.” Judea Pearl, 70, and Ahmed, 63, will split the $100,000 prize money. Judea Pearl's share will be funneled into the foundation's $500,000 annual budget.

NEWSWEEK's Matthew Philips sat down with the Pearls recently to talk about Danny's legacy, their personal struggle against religious extremism and their own religious beliefs. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Can you talk about how the foundation got started, the process of your grief and how you transformed that into resolve?

Judea Pearl: We simply could not cope with the idea that Danny was gone, that his spirit of friendship and of bridge-building had just disappeared and been terminated. So we had the idea of continuing that spirit and combining it with the idea of defiance. If his killers wanted to sow divisions among people, then we were going to defy them and spread friendship and humanity.

Do you think of what you're doing as a means of exacting revenge?

We have to defeat the hatred that took Danny's life. So in that sense, it's revenge. That hatred caused our pain, therefore we have to reduce it, eliminate it, lessen it.

Does coping with the loss of Danny ever get any easier?

Ruth Pearl: Truly not.

Are there moments when you walk around the house and something triggers a memory of him?

There's no moment there isn't such a trigger. I used to have a hard time walking into the backyard because he was there, as a child and an adult. The backyard is where we would have our quality time, where we would have breakfast together and just sit and have fun. His last visit here in June 2001, we had a brunch out on the patio for him and Mariane [Daniel's widow]. That was the last time he was here.

Is the work you do through the foundation therapeutic?

Judea: We don't do it for the sake of personal therapy, so no. Had I thought that I did all this work in the last five years for personal therapy, I would stop today. We do it because we think it's effective, because we have a unique opportunity to do what others cannot. I see that history has given us both a tragedy and an opportunity, and if I let the opportunity go, I'm left with a tragedy.

Aren't you angry?

Angry? I can't afford to be angry, it's diversionary. It's something I learned in the Israeli Army: when a soldier gets angry, he can't aim right. I'm a soldier, and I have to aim right.

A soldier of what?

Of decency, and I'm building an army, an empowered army to fight the war we all have in mind, Christians, Jews and Muslims. I don't call it a war against terrorism because then it becomes political. I call it a coalition of the decent, understanding that there is good and evil. This is axiom No. 1: there is absolute good and evil, and the decent is on the good side. Moral relativism is dead. It died in Karachi with my son in 2002. The illusive notion that there's always a justifiable motivation for one's action, and that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter is now dead. There comes a point where civilized society posts red lines that you do not cross. And he who boasts of killing an innocent journalist has crossed that line.

Along with Akbar Ahmed, you have just won $100,000 for your efforts. What effect does that recognition have?

What the recognition brings is visibility for our efforts, and [it] will inspire more people to engage in a positive and respectful dialogue. That will hopefully lead to a change of worldview on both sides of the East-West divide. Both sides need to change how they view the context of their conflict: Muslims must recognize that the West is not engaging in an anti-Muslim war, and the West must recognize the central role that religion plays in Muslim life.

How has this summer of heightened conflict in the Middle East impacted your mission?

It has made it more difficult, and thus, more urgent.

You're a secular Jew. Do you believe in God?


Do you believe in the afterlife?

No, but as Danny used to say, I sure hope Gabriel likes my music.

What about Danny? What were his religious beliefs?

Very much like mine. He appreciated the Judaic tradition. He celebrated Passover and the Seder. We have a video of him celebrating the Passover on the trans-Siberian train, surrounded by curious Mongolian peasants.

Judea, you grew up in Israel, in the small town of Bnei Brak. Your family emigrated there from Poland as part of the early Zionist movement. So how did you become secular?

I turned secular at the age of 11, by divine revelation. [Laughs.] I was standing on the roof of the house my father built, looking down on the street and suddenly it became very clear to me that there is no God.

And Ruth, you're also secular. You were born in Baghdad. What was it like being an Iraqi Jew?

Ruth: As a child, my friends were mostly from the Jewish community, but I played with Muslims, too. We had very good relations until 1942, when there was an attempted takeover by a pro-Nazi government. There was looting. Over 100 Jews were killed. After that, we moved from the center of Baghdad to the suburbs. Then in 1948, the Iraqi Army returned in defeat from the war with Israel. After that, people became belligerent. It became illegal to teach Hebrew. They started arresting people. We were part of the underground, those who kept the Jewish traditions. I remember going to school and having to walk under the dead bodies of communists, Christians and Jews they had hanged to scare those communities.

Judea, don't you feel that your secularism discredits you in your efforts to reach out to religious extremists?

Judea: On the contrary, I think it is my secularism that makes me credible. A true believer is compelled to bend to divine preferences. Only a secular person can be equally respectful of all religions, because only a secular person understands that religions do not deal with absolute truth, but with poetic visions of the truth.

But isn't this secular view itself some sort of religion?

No, it's not. Because you're not scared that God will watch over your shoulder and punish you if you think forbidden thoughts. In this secular view, people's belief in God is a metaphor expressing their commitment to live by principles that help our society survive, principles that supercede everything else, including God. The principles of civilized society.

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