Daniel Pearl’s parents turn their slain son’s famous last words into an inspiration for Jews everywhere.
When Judea Pearl and Akbar S. Ahmed met in Pittsburgh in November 2003 to lead a public dialogue about the divisions between Muslims and the West and between Jews and Muslims, it was supposed to be a onetime deal.
But the response to the event, attended by more than 400 people, was so overwhelming the two men decided to take their show on the road, around the country and abroad. A sixth meeting was scheduled for Feb. 28 at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Their appeal isn’t difficult to understand. Pearl is Jewish and the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002. Ahmed is Pakistani and the chair of Islamic Studies at American University.
“We are sitting on the stage – two grandfathers – and we are airing grievances, representing our community in an unofficial manner,” Pearl says. “And we are trying to display friendship and iron out points of discontent and show the community that even hot issues can be discussed with respect.”
The meetings have become a cornerstone of The Daniel Pearl Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed by the slain reporter’s family and friends to “defy his murderers and fight the hatred that took his life” using Daniel’s three main vocations – journalism, music and dialogue.
Judea is president of the foundation. His wife, Ruth, Daniel’s mother, is CFO and secretary. The Pearls will receive a Peacemaker Award from the National Conflict Resolution Center at the Mission Valley Marriott on March 9.
Judea is proud to participate in the Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding – as his talks with Ahmed are titled – but he is realistic about its impact.
“I don’t delude myself,” he says. “I cannot move armies. My main mission is to convince Muslims that we Jews are not the enemy. We have a common enemy that we should and can fight together, and we can be the best partner in that struggle.”
The Daniel Pearl Foundation has also organized three annual Daniel Pearl Music Days, a series of concerts held worldwide around the time of Daniel’s birthday in October, intended to promote tolerance and inspire respect for differences.
The foundation sponsors an annual lecture series in journalism and international relations at UCLA where Judea is a professor of computer science. It also sponsors a media internship program in the Middle East for Israeli and Palestinian young adults and a fellowship at a U.S. newspaper for mid-career journalists from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
The foundation’s newest project is PEARL World Youth News, which is essentially an international wire service for high school journalists. The project is the result of a partnership with the International Education and Resource Network, which links more than 20,000 secondary schools in more than 109 countries, according to iEARN’s website.
Judea and Ruth also edited the book “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” which was published a year ago. Daniel’s affirmation of his Jewish identity in the face of his murderers struck a chord with Jews worldwide, and the Pearls realized it was a chance to embolden and strengthen Jews everywhere.
Two years ago, they solicited essays from 300 people asking them to reflect upon and analyze their Jewish identities. Half responded, including Shimon Peres, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Joe Lieberman, Larry King, Amos Oz, Ehud Barak and Kirk Douglas.
“We took advantage of the opportunity that was given to us by history, and we actually gave our people a weapon,” Judea explains.
“The diversity in the book is that Jews think about their religion independently,” continues Ruth. “Everybody allows him or herself to decide what Judaism is and to practice it in their own way and to question. It’s not a static religion. Many, many of the people that responded look at religion not as a dogma coming from above, but it’s something they more or less tailor.”
“The thing which is common,” says Judea, “is a feeling of nationhood, of peoplehood, more than a religious unifying force.”
Expressing your identity is not as easy as it might sound. Even many of the contributors to “I Am Jewish” – great minds that they are – found the task more challenging than they initially thought it would be.
“Many contributors confessed to us that they thought it was going to be a matter of a couple hours,” says Judea, “and then it turned out to be a two-month project.”
Some Jewish communities have turned the book into a project for self-examination, organizing programs around it during the High Holidays and giving people the chance to discuss what being Jewish means to them. Some newspapers have even asked for submissions from readers of what it means to them to be Jewish, “a mini ‘I’m Jewish’ book for the community,” as the Pearls call it.
“It’s very comforting to us to know that members of our community draw strength, inspiration and pride from the words that Danny spoke,” Judea says. “That we are defying the killers in that way. They wanted to plant division and humiliation, and we turned it into a source of pride.”
Ruth & Judea Pearl
When: Monday, March 7, 7:30 p.m.
Where: David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre, Lawrence Family JCC, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla
Tickets $12 for JCC members, $14 for non-members. For more information, call (858) 362-1348.
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