From The Tablet, an international Catholic Newspaper based in London
July 3, 2004

A very different ‘revenge’
By Emma Klein

 

The father of an American journalist murdered by al-Qaida was visited London last week to promote his campaign for dialogue between Jews and Muslims

 

“IF YOUNG Pakistanis could look at a picture of Daniel and say, ‘That’s the sort of guy I’d like to be’, that would be the best revenge.” Professor Judea Pearl, whose son, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was murdered by al-Qaida activists in Pakistan in February 2002, has campaigned for tolerance and understanding ever since. He was in London last week to promote his dream for dialogue among people of different faiths – a desire which, given the tragedy that has befallen his family, moved all those he met.

 

Daniel, his father reminded us, was constantly striving to give voice to the concerns and perspective of the Muslims he had worked among for many years, although he was clearly proud of his heritage, as testified by his last words, “I am an American Jew, my father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish …”

 

Dr Pearl’s motive is, however, a complex one. In the wake of the tragedy, “revenge” has constantly been his objective. But “revenge” in his terms is retaliation against the internecine hatred that led to Daniel’s murder. In partnership with Dr Akbar Ahmed, a distinguished scholar of contemporary Islam, Dr Pearl has set up the Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding. At encounters in various cities across the United States, the two men have sought to address the hatred that often exists between Muslims and Jews and to raise awareness of the healing nature of dialogue.

 

They are not afraid of disagreement. Differences, difficulties and grievances are as integral to the dialogue as common values and histories. Their backgrounds – they are both academics in America – can be seen to exemplify these differences. Dr Ahmed is Pakistani while Dr Pearl is an Israeli. Rather than seeking to convince each other of the rightness of their individual positions, dissent is met with silent respect on either side.

 

Indeed it was in the course of his discussions with Dr Ahmed that Dr Pearl came to understand that his hope of Daniel becoming an icon or role model for Pakistani youth was unrealistic.  Rather than a foreign-born Jew, Dr Pearl now attempts to elevate before Muslim children the example of moderate and compassionate Islam that numerous leaders throughout history have stood for. In his eyes, Dr Ahmed is a prime example.

 

Daniel Pearl was also a skilled musician and used his talents and passion for music to form friendships across cultural divides where words would have proved inadequate. In this spirit, the Daniel Pearl Music Day was inaugurated on October 10 2002 as an annual event in which concerts in Daniel’s memory will take place in countries throughout the world. This year concerts are scheduled between 8 and 17 October.

 

Last week’s official London opening of the Daniel Pearl dialogue project took place at the House of Lords and was followed by a public forum at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The meeting on Saturday was organised by John Levy, director of the Academic Study Group on Israel and the Middle East. In the course of their visit, Dr Pearl and Dr Ahmed also addressed pupils at Muslim and Jewish schools. Dr Pearl was clearly impressed by the ethos of tolerance and pluralism he encountered at the Islamia school founded by Yusuf Islam, the former singer Cat Stevens.

 

Dr Pearl’s determination to create something constructive out of the devastation his family has suffered was an inspiration to his audience. Various Muslim organisations, he said, had contributed to his project, as well as individual Christians. His endeavours are reminiscent of the actions of families in Northern Ireland who have made efforts to build bridges across the divide after losing loved ones to sectarian violence. In the Middle East, too, an organisation of Israeli and Palestinian parents of victims of the intifada has been established with the same goal in mind.

 

Common to all these undertakings is the acknowledgement that right and wrong are found on both sides, something that is frequently lacking in impassioned debates on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. For this reason, this seemingly intractable issue has often proved a stumbling block to Muslim-Jewish dialogue. “It’s time we took a look at ourselves”, a Jewish member of the audience stated at Saturday’s meeting, a sentiment that resonated with many of his listeners.

 

A similar inkling may have inspired the Israeli Minister of Justice, Yosef Lapid, to voice his outspoken condemnation of the demolition of Palestinian homes in the Rafiah refugee camp. These actions, he said, were “inhuman, not Jewish and a blot on Israel’s reputation in the world”. Rabbi David Rosen, a member of the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights and a key negotiator in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican, has long been unafraid to assert the moral basis that needs to underpin the Jewish people’s right to their land. Last week, after a moving religious ceremony, with the biblical Judaean hills in the background, he expressed his opposition to Jewish settlements but was optimistic about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan, which he saw as a harbinger of a new era.

 

Dr Pearl’s quest lies more in shifting individual perceptions than in effecting political change. A moving affirmation of his mission can be found in the words of the Arab poet Tarek, who has also eulogised victims of Palestinian suicide bombers:

 

If they have killed you because you are a Jew
Then I am a Jew from now on …
Your blood is my blood, your soul is my soul …
O Daniel …

 

Emma Klein is The Tablet ‘s Jewish Affairs correspondent.