Right of Reply: Daniel Pearl's last words

It is only reasonable that the last "freely spoken" words be the ones to define a person's legacy.

daniel pearl 88 298 (photo credit: )
daniel pearl 88 298
(photo credit: )
A May 7 Jerusalem Post column by Larry Derfner ("Daniel Pearl's last words, uncensored"), questions the public legacy that has revolved around our son's last words: "I am Jewish." Danny's monologue, as recorded in the video tape of his brutal murder, consists of two parts: first, an account of his background and heritage and, second, anti-American propaganda material. There is no question, of course, that Danny did not believe a word of the propaganda part; he was a proud American, and he abhorred of extremist ideologies. Moreover, there are several indications that he tried to signal his contempt for the text he was reading. First, he purposely mispronounced certain words (e.g., "Amrika," instead of America) to let us know that he was reading from a printed, misspelled text, and that these were not his words. Second, his whole demeanor in this scene, to those familiar with his mannerisms and humor, is one of "tongue in cheek," as if mocking the authors of the text and inviting viewers to witness the grotesqueness of its diatribes. Danny's family and friends have always wondered what gave him the strength to maintain his calm and matter-of-fact posture in those dreadful moments. All indications point to one explanation: He had been promised he would be released as soon as the propaganda film was done. This explanation was corroborated by two people present at the murder scene, now in Pakistani custody, who were interrogated by Pakistani police. They further told interrogators that, during the entire week of captivity, their understanding, too, was that Danny would be set free as soon as some "arrangements" were made. THINGS WERE different in the first part of the monologue, where Danny relates his faith, background and national identity. We are convinced that, in this part, he was choosing his own words, and his own stories. We base this conclusion on the following sentences: "My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish, I am Jewish. Back in the town of Bnei Brak , there is a street named after my great grandfather, Chaim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town." The facts revealed in the last sentence were not known outside our immediate family and, therefore, could not possibly have been extracted from Danny by force. More likely, it was used as a code to his family that he was doing well and speaking freely in his own words. This theory is further corroborated by the fact that the first part of the monologue was clearly cut and pasted from a longer footage, for it was taken from several angles. It appears that he was given the freedom to relate his background in his own words, and the murderers later cut and pasted only those parts which, to them, constituted a justification of their deed. Was the sentence proclaiming his Jewishness said under duress? Not likely. There was no point in hiding a fact that he never attempted to conceal throughout his travels in the Middle East; a fact that he proudly asserted at a meeting in Karachi a few weeks before the abduction, in response to anti-Semitic remarks by Khalid Khawaja, an al-Qaida sympathizer; a fact that was known to his abductors, by their own admission in court. WAS IT said defiantly? Absolutely not. A man who is promised freedom if he plays by the rules would not risk that freedom just to score a point. In the introduction to our anthology I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, we wrote: "He did not say it under coercion, nor did he say it in defiance or with gallantry. He said it in his usual matter-of-fact way, slightly irritated, as if saying: 'How many times do I have to repeat myself? Two plus two equals four, and I am Jewish!' It was an assertive affirmation of identity, not a confrontation, nor a forced confession." Given this understanding of the circumstances it is clear why the legacy of Daniel Pearl is, and should be anchored to the words "I am Jewish" and not the propaganda material that followed it. It is only reasonable that the last "freely spoken," not "physically spoken" words of a person be the ones to define that person's legacy. Still, we know of no attempt to "censor," "abridge" or "fix up" the propaganda part of the monologue as implied in Mr. Derfner's article; it is available in full view on many Web sites, though we find it totally irrelevant to the message that Danny's life and tragedy transmit to our generation. This brings us to the central question raised by Mr. Derfner's article: Is Daniel Pearl a martyr or a hero? In other words: Is the Jewish community justified viewing him as a role model for inspiring Jewish identity? Our family has been meticulously careful not to describe him as a fearless super-hero who, defiantly "spat in the eye of his captors." Quite the contrary, concerted efforts have been made to emphasize Danny's life, not his death. If Daniel Pearl grew to become a legend, it is not through the heroism of his death but through the principles by which he lived as they shine in his writings and thousands of testimonials, his honesty, care and humor, the respect that he earned on both sides of the East-West divide and, finally, through the natural, non-heroic yet unyielding pride in his Jewish identity. His death merely illuminated his life. And, yes, in some subtle way Daniel Pearl did spit in the eye of his captors; not by an outburst of defiance, but by practicing tikkun olam every day of his life and finally asserting, calmly: I am Jewish! This is what you have to accept! The writers are co-founders of the Daniel Pearl Foundation named after their son. www.danielpearl.org