A clash of two birthdays


Last month, in my column titled, “Al-Jazeera and the Glorification of Barbarity“, I described Al-Jazeera’s royal celebration of the birthday of Samir

Kuntar, the unrepentant child-killer psychopath and called on the network to “publicly apologize to its viewers in the Arab world for attempting to turn their children into the likes of Kuntar; to the journalism community, for robbing the profession of its nobleness, and, most urgently, to us, citizens of this planet, for re-legitimizing barbarity in the public square.”

Those who expected Al-Jazeera to apologize should recall that apology in Al-Jazeera’s worldview is tantamount to humiliating surrender. Surprising, a letter signed by Al-Jazeera’s general director, Khanfar Wadah, was received by the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, a copy of which I have obtained, saying: “Elements of the programme violated Al-Jazeera’s code of ethics” (Ha’aretz, Aug. 6).

This letter prompted Ha’aretz editors to issue a cheerful headline: “Al-Jazeera apologizes for ‘unethical’ coverage of Kuntar release.” Two days after the letter was sent, however, Ahmad Jaballah, the station’s deputy editor-in-chief, denied that the channel had ever apologized or sent any letter to Israel.

On Aug. 8, in an interview with the Lebanese daily, Al-Akhbar, Jaballah called the report on the letter “utter nonsense and totally groundless” (MEMRI translation). It is, indeed, utterly impossible for Al-Jazeera to apologize for echoing its viewers’ deepest passions.

The most frequent question I received from readers of my column was: “Did you get any response from Arab or Western readers?”

I will summarize these responses below, together with responses to another, totally different birthday commemoration, one that contrasts the surrealism of Kuntar’s carnival with the spirit of our local community and illuminates what many characterize as a “clash of civilizations.”

The responses to my August column fell into four major categories, as encapsulated in the following quotes:

  • “They apologized, didn’t they? So, why rub it in?”
  • “I am ashamed of being an Arab; Al-Jazeera does not speak for me.”
  • “What do you expect of those Arabs, they are fed this hatred with their mother’s milk.”
  • “What about the millions of Iraqi children killed by Americans and the crimes of Israel against the Palestinians?”

I expected these four types of responses, but what struck me as odd was that the fourth group came not only from anti-American fanatics and jihadi Web sites but also from well-meaning American intellectuals, among them respected journalists and political analysts. It seems that two very simple ideas, so obvious to ordinary folks, have not been able to penetrate the skulls of some of our intellectuals.

The first is that, irrespective of body counts and political agendas, those who take pride in targeting the innocent or who aim at maximizing civilian casualties are not on the same side of heaven as those who struggle to prevent such acts and minimize civilian casualties.

Most people are under the impression that U.N. diplomats, coerced by a certain block of terror-sympathetic countries, are the only thinking humanoids who are incapable of formulating a commonsensical definition of the evil of terror. This is no longer true; evidently, the body-count argument now blinds the best of us.

The second idea concerns the fundamental distinction between individual behavior and societal norms. When an American or Israeli soldier targets civilians, he/she is court-martialed, not glorified as a hero for youngsters to emulate.

Al-Jazeera’s celebration of Kuntar’s birthday party was unmistakably designed and choreographed to position child-killer Kuntar as a role model for Arab society, and it undoubtedly succeeded, given the admiration that Kuntar commands these days in the Middle East, including his recent meeting with Mahmoud Abbas. Some Western intellectuals are not willing to sit down and calculate the number of years it would take for human civilization to clean up the moral warpage that Al-Jazeera is spouting in the young minds of its 50 million viewers.

In sharp contrast to the birthday of Kuntar, next month will witness another birthday celebration closer to my heart: the birthday of our late son, Daniel Pearl, who would have turned 45 on Oct. 10. Unlike the former, this birthday will not be celebrated on satellite TV with butcher knives, Hezbollah fatigues and “Heil Hitler” salutes. Instead, it will be celebrated by grass-root communities, including Danny’s musician friends, to commemorate and perpetuate his passionate use of music to connect people of diverse background.

Danny’s birthday represents the soul of a different society, one whose role models are truth-seeking journalists and bridge-building musicians not child killers; a society that celebrates life not death; one that commemorates birthdays with music and interfaith gatherings not butcher knives, assassination threats and vows to “meet the enemy very soon.”

As some readers probably know, every year since 2002, the Daniel Pearl World Music Days have taken place worldwide during the month of October. Music Days involve hundreds of musical happenings and concerts that include dedications to the ideals for which Danny stood, as well as declarations against the culture of terror and hate that took his life. In 2007, more than 500 concerts were dedicated in 42 countries, uniting and empowering many thousands of people in a stand for a more humane world.

Here in Los Angeles, this year’s World Music Days will prelude in Royce Hall on Sept. 21 with the American Youth Symphony dedication of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, joining the Angeles Chorale with “Alle Menchen Verden Bruder” (All men will be brothers). This will be followed by the Yuval Ron Ensemble on Sept. 25; the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Oct. 4-5; the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Oct. 12; Kadima String Quartet, Oct. 22; the Victory Orchestra, Oct. 26; and many more concerts, festivals and performances dedicated to the ideal of a hate-free world.

The Los Angeles Jewish community has played a special role in World Music Days in the past seven years. Synagogues, Jewish schools and community centers have turned their October gatherings into a powerful opportunity to inspire members with unity and purpose, as well as reach out to neighboring, non-Jewish communities and catalyze lasting alliances through the shared values that World Music Days symbolize.

The Weizmann Day School in Pasadena, for example, has for the past seven years invited the children of both a Muslim school and an Episcopalian school to come to their campus and sing songs of peace in tribute to Daniel’s memory. These concerts have developed into lasting relationships and joint programming throughout the year.

Major synagogues, such as Valley Beth Shalom, Sinai Temple, Temple Israel of Hollywood and University Synagogue in Irvine have dedicated musical portions of the High Holy Days or Kabbalat Shabbat services to Daniel’s last words — “I am Jewish” — and thus transformed routine liturgical texts into a powerful poetry of pride and resilience, cogently relevant to our troubled century.

Two clashing birthdays, two cultures and two outlooks for the 21st century.

Our rabbis, cantors, school principals and community leaders understand that a birthday celebration is a profound statement of identity, not a propaganda gimmick. It is a mirror of society, its principles, norms and aspirations, not an impulsive vent of one’s hatred.

They understand that those who celebrate Kuntar’s birthday with butcher knives and Hezbollah’s fatigues are committing their children to another century of helplessness, while those who celebrate the birthday of a friendship-building journalist-musician-humanist elevate their children to a balcony of hope.

The former are nourishing a generation of Kuntars, the latter rear a generation that reveres life and can look itself in the mirror without shame.

For a full and growing list of World Music Days events visit ” target=”_blank”>www.danielpearl.org) named after his son. With his wife, Ruth, he co-edited the anthology, “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Light, 2004).



Shooting Stars
(To Daniel Pearl)

It seems unfair, a waste,
To journey like a shooting star,
One thousand cosmic years through space.
To smile one time, just once,
Emit your brightest ever light and swing
In daring curvature to nowhere,
Like that actor on the stage
Who ends the play to no applause,
And bows to empty seats, yet glows.

Unfair! a waste!

But a child may chance to stare
And see that daring curvature, remember?
Which may bewitch this child to motion,
Remind him of those cosmic years, of freedom,
Jolt his mind to point up north
Yond the curtain of prediction,
Dare to shed the bonds of earth
And bend the course of expectation.

Unfair? A waste?

My eyes to shooting stars, to motion.
My heart to one that just passed by,
Softly traveled, bright, secured,
Like a wandering minstrel,
Measuring the path of your world, oh God,
With kisses.



Al-Jazeera and the glorification of barbarity


I have often wondered why some of the best thinkers of our time refuse to believe in human progress. After all, there was a time when tens of
thousands of ordinary citizens flocked to the gates of the Roman Coliseum to enjoy the sight of wild beasts tearing human beings to pieces. Today, such a sight would evoke revulsion and disbelief.

Of course, inhumanity still exists, but it is no longer laudable or fashionable in the public sphere. With the exception of exhibition killings by jihadist recruiters, cruelty is no longer a catalyst of mass arousal. Even the Nazis tried to hide their deeds from the eyes of history. Be it for fear or shame, the trend is clear: The norms of civilized society are moving forward, and it is those norms, not their exceptions, that shape the minds of our youngsters and invigorate our hopes for a better world.

All this was true until about four weeks ago, when the royal procession of Samir Kuntar brought barbarism back to the public square. Kuntar is the killer who smashed the head of a 4-year-old girl with his rifle butt in 1979 after killing her father before her eyes. The mother, hiding in a crawl space, accidentally suffocated her 2-year-old child while trying to keep her from giving away their hiding place.

Kuntar was tried, convicted and sentenced to 542 years in prison and never expressed any remorse. He was released by Israel on July 26 in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2006.

As anticipated, Hezbollah’s mass celebration in Beirut in the presence of its leader, Hassan Nassralla, evoked a chivalrous scene from a fairy tale gone awry. One by one, the whole Lebanese leadership stepped up to “brother Kuntar” to shake the hand and kiss the cheeks of that archsymbol of barbarity. There was Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, President Michel Sulayman, even the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt — a whole nation bowed down to a moral deformity in a Hezbollah’s fatigue and a “Heil Hitler” salute.

The focus of my attention naturally turned to Al-Jazeera because, with its outreach of 50 million viewers from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, this pan-Arab satellite channel is considered the conscience and future of the Arab world.

“What would they tell their children?” I thought. “How would they present a Lebanon — once the crown jewel of the Arab world — kneeling before a child-killing psychopath?”

A chill went down my spine when British-accented announcers introduced Al-Jazeera’s English channel correspondent Rula Amin in Abeih, Kuntar’s home village, and translated the wisdom of Kuntar’s words from the original Arabic. Imagine a voice cast in an impeccable Oxford accent articulating in obvious empathy: “He has returned to a hero’s welcome…. After 29 years in [an] Israeli prison, Samir Kuntar spent his first day of freedom vowing to continue to fight against Israel. He says he hopes to see the enemy again very soon.”