Letters to The Editor
Remembrance, Vigilance, and Beyond Because three generations of my family were scarred by hate-based murder, my revenge is to fight for hatred’s eradication
On this solemn day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust, I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight the memory of my grandparents, who perished in Auschwitz in 1942, and that of my son, Daniel Pearl, who was murdered 60 years later, in Karachi, Pakistan.
Situated thousands of miles apart, and executed under totally different circumstances, by people of a different faith, language, and purpose, the two murders nevertheless illuminate each other as well as the topic under discussion.
Four years ago, almost to the day, in a desolate dungeon in Karachi, Pakistan, my son Danny was looking in the eye of evil, and proclaiming his identity.
Forced to appear before his captor’s video camera, he said with pride:
“My name is Daniel Pearl,”
“I am a Jewish American from Encino, California.”…
“My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
I doubt whether my grandparents were ever asked to state their Jewishness–the Nazis did not need such confirmation. Yet Danny, I am sure, had a special message to convey in those words.
know that when Danny said “I am Jewish,” what he was trying to tell his captors was: “I respect Islam precisely because I am Jewish, and I expect you to respect me and my faith precisely because you are, or claim to be good Muslims.”
“In other words, I come from a place where one’s heritage is the source of one’s strength, and strength is measured by one’s capacity to accommodate diversity, because it is only through diversity that ‘ we recognize our common humanity.”
“I am Jewish” was his way of saying: “I understand suffering, because the suffering of my ancestors is etched on my consciousness, and I understand Muslims’ suffering as well, for I have seen your people in Kosovo, I have worked with your carpet weavers in Iran, and I have sung with your pearl divers in Qatar.”
Indeed, he was a journalist who gave voice to millions of voiceless Muslims, from Iran to Yemen, from Sudan to Pakistan, and gave Western readers a glimpse of the human faces behind the news.
He walked, laughed, and cried with those he met–at home in the world.
So I believe that when Danny uttered his final words, “I am Jewish,” he was telling the world: “I am reminding you of the challenge of understanding others.”
“I am Jewish” means I proclaim my right to be who I am and I remind you, as did my ancestors for three millennia, of the shining dignity of being different.
“I am Jewish” means I am the litmus test of your faith and the fire test of your strength. Let’s come to our senses!
And as he stood there, demanding sanity in the face of madness, that dark dungeon in Karachi turned into a localized micro-cosmos that both personified and magnified the age-old struggle between inclusiveness and exclusiveness, humanity and savagery, between his great-grandparents and their Nazi executioners, civilization and barbarity, between Abel and Cain.
The goodness of Danny’s smile, the principles by which he lived, and the sound of his last words then became an icon that personally awakened millions of people around the world who realized that the hatred that took his life threatens the very fabric of civilized society, and that, political correctness aside, we are in the midst of a profound clash of societies, cultures, if not civilizations–a clash not along conventional East-West divides, nor along national or religious boundaries, but between those who pride themselves on killing innocents to transmit political messages, and those who are appalled by such acts.
Danny’s last words, “I am Jewish,” thus assume a universal dimension and have come to symbolize the freedom of every individual to assert his faith, heritage, and identity.
Like the diary of Anne Frank in the 1950s, these three simple words have inspired young people of all denominations to re-study the anatomy of anti-Semitism, to take pride in their heritage, to reflect on the consequences of fanaticism, and to stand up for tolerance and humanity everywhere.
These words ring today as a majestic poem to the freedom of the human spirit and its amazing capacity to weave together the dignity of being different with the sanctity of being ONE.
I was invited to speak in this forum because it is generally recognized that the forces that killed Danny are of the same species as those that killed my grandparents in the Holocaust.
Both are products of the same disease–the de-humanization of “the other.” And both were fueled by unabated incitement, thriving on the silence of the enlightened world.
Danny’s tragedy reminds us that these forces did not die in 1945; they are dangerously active today, and must be fought by education, dialogue, vigilance and timely response.
To this end, The Daniel Pearl Foundation was created to promote cross-cultural understanding using Danny’s three major vocations: journalism, music, and dialogue.
The foundation brings Muslim journalists on fellowships to work at U.S. newspapers; it trains hundreds of high-school students in the art of balanced and objective international reporting; it brings together hundreds of musical concerts worldwide to promote inter-cultural respect, and it sponsors public dialogues between Jews and Muslims to explore common-grounds and air grievances.
Our power lies not in resources but in a symbol, a face of a person who earned respect on both sides of the East-West divide, a face that is instantly recognized the world over as an icon of peace. And what makes such a humble symbol so powerful is that, unfortunately, the world is in dire need of such icons.
It is a symbol that reminds Jews of the rise of post-modern anti-Semitism. It is a symbol that reminds Muslims of their own struggle against terrorism and fanaticism; a symbol that reminds Jews of their heritage, pride, and identity; a symbol that reminds Americans and Westerners of their traditional values, and to journalists of their commitment to truth and fairness.
Danny speaks to all of us; he is a symbol that reminds people all over the world of their common humanity.
The foundation’s activities are inspired by this symbol. However, are these activities enough? Can these concerts, projects, and dialogues prevent another murder, another atrocity, or another genocide?
As I stand here before you, I represent three generations scarred by hate-based murders.
My grandparents perished in a genocide that WAS. I narrowly escaped a genocide that was MEANT TO BE (and failed in 1948), and Danny, my son, fell victim to the murderous terrorism the world faces today, which targets people for what they represent, not what they are.
Remembrance is a call for vigilance. But remembrance in silence, even a vigilant one, betrays those who we remember.
Silence permits genocidal forces to advance and strengthen their position to launch another, yet deadlier assault.
Remembrance is a safeguard only if accompanied by vigilance and timely action.
For example, today the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is both building a nuclear arsenal and proclaiming he wants to wipe Israel off the map. Many around the world treat his words as much more than the wild statements of a politician, but as a very real threat of a new genocide, aspired to by masses of people whom Ahmadinejad attempts to court.
Here, the United Nations has a crucial role to play, by addressing the root cause of these genocidal aspirations.
It might come as a surprise to some of you, but after a century of bloodshed, several peace agreements, many negotiations and interfaith dialogues, and countless U.N.-funded cultural programs, the majority of Muslims today still reject the idea that Jews deserve a state in some part of Palestine. Instead, Muslims perceive Israel to be a temporary outpost of Western colonialism, hastily created out of guilt or greed.
Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, no Arab leader has ever acknowledged that the biblical landscape is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, hence, that Israelis and Palestinians both have legitimate claims over this landscape.
This rejectionist ideology, which I have dubbed “Zionophobia” (to mirror the popular term “Islamophobia”), has crippled the peace camps in Israel and Palestine, and has provided the fuel and intellectual basis for a constant stream of violence and genocidal designs such as that expressed by Ahmadinejad.
Current U.N. educational programs, aiming to combat intolerance, religious prejudice, bigotry, and anti-Semitism must include specific efforts to address the evils of Zionophobia, an ideology that condemns five and a half million human beings to eternal statelessness, if not genocide.
Sadly, current outreach programs deal exclusively with the right of an individual to live as an equal member of society, but neglect the right of a society (in this case, the State of Israel) to live as an equal member in the family of nations.
If the U.N. is to lend its moral weight and educational resources to the prevention of genocide, it must devote serious efforts toward reversing the Zionophobic culture that is rampant in the Muslim world–just as it must do more to curb all forms of racism including Xenophobia and Islamophobia.
The theme of our DPI-NGO briefing is “promoting tolerance and cross-cultural communication to help prevent future acts of genocide.” Yet, the very descendants and relatives of the victims of the Holocaust we honor here at the U.N. today, are now being threatened with genocide. They deserve protection of a special kind–tolerance and respect for their ties to the birth-place of their history, the same tolerance and respect we should extend to the Palestinians.
The U.N. should lead the way toward providing this protection. The memory of six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, abandoned by the international community and denied this protection, cries out to us to take this lead.
And the murder of one man, my son, by the same forces of intolerance demonstrates the challenges we face as we strive for a society based on mutual-respect and love of all peoples.