Making Daniel Pearl’s Legacy Universal and Jewish

By Brian Mono

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
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When Pakistani terrorists kidnapped and murdered Daniel Pearl two years ago, the Wall Street Journal reporter became one of the most famous victims of antisemitism since Anne Frank.

“Among other things, he came to symbolize the post-9/11 species of antisemitism,” his father, Dr. Judea Pearl, said during a recent interview. “It’s a strange fusion of religious fanaticism with a political agenda.”

Yet some Jewish cultural observers worried that Pearl’s universal appeal — his intrepid journalism, his interest in other cultures and his love of music — could distract the public from his specific final words, “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”

Now, a new book edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl, “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights Publications), appears to have alleviated some of these concerns. The book comprises short essays inspired by Pearl’s final words by a wide range of contributors from both inside and outside the Jewish establishment. There are Jewish leaders who promote Jewish identity, religion and philosophy such as President Moshe Katzav of Israel; Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Yeshiva University chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm. And there are Jewish celebrities who exude ethnic pride, such as actor Richard Dreyfuss and CNN talk-show host Larry King.

“Daniel Pearl’s death was memorialized as the death of an intrepid journalist, the death of an American, and last as a Jew,” said novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick, who contributed to the collection. “I think what happened and the way it happened was backward. First he was murdered as a Jew, then as an American and then as a journalist.”

In her controversial 1997 essay “Who Owns Anne Frank?,” Ozick criticized Otto Frank for editing Anne’s diary to emphasize his daughter’s universal appeal, downplaying her Jewishness and stressing her optimism, as epitomized by her famous quote “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Ozick said it was initially unclear to her and others as to whether the misleading reports about Pearl were a result of steps taken to protect him when he was kidnapped, the media’s coverage of his death or the family’s initial understanding of it.

“But with their commitment to this book,” said Ozick, the Pearls “have turned the hierarchy around and put it in the correct order.”

Judea Pearl insists that the motivation for using his son’s last words to strengthen Jewish identity took root the day the family learned Daniel had been murdered and that the means only came later, when he heard about the bat mitzvah project of a 12-year-old girl from Rockville Centre, N.Y., named Alana Frey. Alana collected essays from her parents and friends describing what it means to be Jewish and sent them to Daniel‘s son, Adam Pearl, who was born after Daniel’s death and is being raised by his mother, Mariane, a Buddhist. The Pearls’ decided to expand on Alana’s idea to create a book directed not only at their grandson, but at the next generation of Jewish youth.

“It’s an interesting and brave and noble gesture,” said Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist who has spoken publicly and privately with Judea Pearl about the limitations of the Anne Frank model. “A lot of people would have asked contributors to write essays about Danny and why he died, but the family chose not to do that and asked people instead to dedicate the book to the future.”

For his part, Pearl, who initially compared his son to Anne Frank last year at a yahrzeit service for Daniel at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, is reluctant to criticize Otto Frank’s actions.

“Maybe there is a difference here. There has been no book written specifically by the family about the Jewishness of Anne Frank,” he said. “Rather, her Jewishness was embedded in the universalistic appeal of her life. What we have done through the work of the [Daniel Pearl] Foundation is to work in parallel on both the universalistic and the Jewish aspects of Danny’s legacy.”

In addition to the newly released book, the Daniel Pearl Foundation has started a series of public dialogues between Judea Pearl and Dr. Akbar Ahmed, the author of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World” and a professor of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C. Two local chapters of the American Jewish Committee have co-sponsored the program in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and two more events are already scheduled at the College of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., and in London, England.

“One of the reasons I selected [Ahmed],” said Pearl, an Israeli native, “was that he stands for a two-state solution in the Middle East and, in his book, he described the besiegement that Jews in Israel felt, and he empathized with Israelis as human beings; these are features I haven’t seen in any other Muslim author.”

In Philadelphia, where more than 200 people gathered to hear the dialogue, Judea Pearl suggested that he would consider the program a success if the program helped start six new interfaith dialogue groups in the Greater Philadelphia area.

Which raises an interesting point. In the end, Daniel Pearl’s memory will not be established by one person any more than Anne Frank’s legacy was. Already the Anti-Defamation League has named an award after Daniel Pearl to recognize individuals who promote a positive image of Jews and Judaism in the Muslim world. Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, N.J., has renamed its religious school after the slain journalist.

Meanwhile, Daniel’s widow, Mariane, who is a co-chair of the foundation, recently sold the movie rights to her memoir “A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of my Husband Danny Pearl,” to actors Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. How will these two Hollywood stars shape our memory of Daniel Pearl?

“I have an ambivalent feeling about seeing Danny played by an actor,” said Judea Pearl, who hopes to be consulted on the project, “but at the same time, I think it is important for the world to have a film made about the life work of a person that came to symbolize East-West bridge-building.”

Brian Mono is a writer living in Philadelphia.

On February 24, Judea Pearl will be joined by Mike Wallace, Daniel Schorr, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Leon Botstein, Francine Klagsbrun, Michael Steinhardt, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Thane Rosenbaum, Samuel G. Freedman, Debbie Freidman, Vidal Sassoon and Daniel Goldhagen at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan for “An Evening of Reflection Inspired by Daniel Pearl’s Last Words.”

Judea Pearl and Dr. Akbar Ahmed have a dialogue coming up at William and Mary College in Virginia on April 18 at 3 p.m. For additional information, please contact the Daniel Pearl Foundation at 1-877-9-MUSIC-9 or www.danielpearl.org.

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