February 25, 2020

Ruth and Judea Pearl on James Foley, Daniel Pearl and the pragmatic fight against evil

As the online video of an ISIS militant’s murder of American freelance journalist James Foley went viral on the Internet last week, the gruesome scene recalled another journalist’s murder more than 12 years ago. In 2002, al-Qaida member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed killed Daniel Pearl, an accomplished foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Pearl had thought he would be meeting an interview source in Karachi, Pakistan, but instead was targeted for being a Jew.

He did not die in vain. As soon as his parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, and sisters, Tamara and Michelle, learned about Danny’s murder, they turned their sorrow into an effort to promote peace and understanding by creating the Daniel Pearl Foundation. In addition to a global network of concerts on the theme of “Harmony for Humanity,” they support U.S. fellowships for Muslim journalists from the Middle East and South Asia, who come here to work in newsrooms in the United States, including spending a week at this Jewish newspaper.  

The Pearls spoke with the Journal at their Encino home about their continuing work with the foundation, the resonance for them of Foley’s murder, and their views and experiences of the Muslim world today.


Jewish Journal: What would you say to James Foley’s parents if you were to speak to them now?

Ruth Pearl: Find comfort in the beautiful memories you have of him, as a young man and as a committed journalist; no one can take those memories from you.

I miss Danny every day. But any time I think of him, as a child or an awe-inspiring, beautiful young man, or look at his pictures or talk to his old friends, it gives me warmth and comfort. 


JJ: You’ve thrown yourselves into creating a foundation that promotes peace and understanding, creating a new legacy in your son’s name. Would you suggest to the Foleys doing the same?

RP: Given the shock and outpouring of support from the public, it was impossible not to go for it. Danny was killed not only for being an American journalist, but also for his religion, and that presented us with the mission of promoting tolerance and East-West understanding. I can’t be sure if we are making a difference, but the fact that it’s keeping me so busy, evidently, is keeping me from feeling sorry for myself. I miss Danny every second; it doesn’t change. Observing our journalism fellows’ achievements, as they return to their home countries, is inspiring and rewarding. Our fellows come from a culture of seeking revenge and are deeply impressed by our inviting them to join us in tikkun olam, not revenge.  If the Foley family decides to take this path, they should be aware of the enormity of the task. 


JJ: When Danny traveled to places like Pakistan, did you ever say to him, “Don’t go”? As parents, did you ever try to stop him?

Judea Pearl: Constantly, we worried. And constantly, we would tell him, “Be careful.” And he was careful, and as a matter of fact, he wrote a protocol for safety for the Wall Street Journal. But as a journalist, this was his interest, and his commitment, so we trusted his judgment.

RP: I’ll tell you a story. One time, when Danny was about to go to Iraq, we were especially concerned, as I was born in Baghdad. So we thought, under the Saddam Hussein regime, he might be targeted. Danny agreed not to go but told us, “This is my job, so please don’t ask me again.”


JJ: When we spoke recently about the death of Foley, you said, “The only answer for democracy is journalism.” Why do you believe that? 

JP: As the family of Daniel Pearl, we found solace in journalists. They identified with Danny’s story, they identified with our mission, and we felt we had a listening ear within this community.

But who cares about democracy today? When [President George W.] Bush went into Iraq in the name of democracy, many laughed at him, and for a good reason. The recipient side is not interested in receiving it, and the giving side is ashamed of offering it. I still believe in it — that democracy is the solution, and that journalism is the vehicle through which we can achieve it. But it doesn’t sell anymore.

Listen to what ISIS is saying: “We don’t need your democracy.” And not only them, the Muslim Brotherhood has been saying it for the past 80 years.


JJ: When journalists take risks — like Danny or Foley did — their mission is often to tell the stories of the humanity on the other side, as well. 

JP: Journalists are our only means of communicating with the “other side.” Remember, normal journalistic channels are choked now, because many journalists’ guilds, even from Jordan and Egypt, forbid their members to report from Israel, or visit Israel, or even associate with Israeli journalists. Given this, Muslim readers have no channel to Israel, and yet Israel is the litmus test for Muslim moderation — so, in effect, they have no channel to moderation.


JJ: You came up with this notion for the foundation within a week of learning Danny had died?

JP: We were devastated, of course, but everybody said, “You have to start a foundation.” It was natural to do it. You have to capitalize on what you have. We had Danny’s legacy, and we felt pressure to leverage it and to fight the hatred that took his life. He could not just disappear from the world. So it was very natural; we didn’t think twice.

We also had a vision that, because Danny had so many friends in the Arab world, they would help to keep his legacy alive; they would be our friends, and they would help us share his vision among their peers. It was the wrong assumption. His friends in Al Jazeera abandoned us immediately. They were probably afraid. Because in their world, he became somewhat suspect. After all, maybe he was an agent for the CIA?

Listen to the BBC now, on the story of James Foley. It’s the same: The callers, British Muslims said, “We don’t even know if he was combatant, or not.” One said, “We don’t even know his political views.” This is the mentality among BBC listeners.

Ruth and Judea Pearl. Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

JJ: So do you still believe you’re fulfilling Danny’s legacy, as you’d hoped to?

JP: Between him and us, there is perfect agreement. But whether it’s accomplishing more than just a drop in the bucket, I don’t know. 


JJ: But what about the saying in the Talmud: “Save one life, save the world”?

JP: Yes, and here’s another one: You don’t have the option of stopping what you’re supposed to do. You do your share and let others judge if it’s a drop in the bucket, or more.

What makes it even more complicated is that we keep being reminded that people need us. They tell us: “You give us the empowerment for optimism. Danny reminds us of the nobility of the profession. He makes our music sound better; you’re reminding us that there’s a purpose to society.” It doesn’t always translate into help, but it does translate into an emotional pressure to continue, because we owe it to them.


JJ: Most people these days criticize or put down journalism and the media. Fox News, for example.

JP: Let’s talk about Fox News. In the past week, I got more requests to be interviewed on Fox News than from the “enlightened media.”


JJ: Why is that?

JP: First of all, they want to speak out against terrorism, and they feel comfortable doing it. CNN doesn’t know how to do that. They are afraid of offending someone. 


JJ: I’ve known you for some years now, and despite everything, you still surprise me with your optimism, and also with your anger.

JP: I am not angry. I’m just pragmatic. I was trained as an engineer, and I want to be effective. So if I’m angry, I’m angry for missing an opportunity to do something effective that I could have done.

In this instance, I’m angry at Al Jazeera, because I think it’s the world’s largest recruitment camp for terrorists, and the world’s largest school of combustible, anti-Western anger. I’m angry at the journalist community for treating Al Jazeera like just another TV channel and not putting them in their place for featuring arch-terrorists like Samir Kuntar and Khaled Mashal as role models for Arab youth. 

Ruth said, “Everyone should write to CNN and tell them not to show James Foley in his orange outfit.” Show the executor, but show a separate picture of Foley as he was as a reporter. Do not put them side by side. Let the world see the difference, but at the same time, don’t show Foley that way. You do not show rape. It’s not right to show a person facing a barbaric execution. We fought against it when a photo from Danny’s video was displayed by the Boston Phoenix. We explained and explained that this is serving the cause of the perpetrators. We said, “It’s not for Danny or for us; it’s for your children.” The eye can scar the mind, and the mind will scar the soul.

Beheading projects weakness and defeat, and I don’t want your children to feel defeated. That’s what I told the editor of the Boston Phoenix, who was the first to display it. “Don’t let your children feel defeated, and they will. It’s a very primitive but effective technique.”

With Danny, they ran it in Saudi Arabia to get recruitment. We Westerners fail to understand that half of mankind today is aroused by cruelty.

I’ll tell you something: I almost canceled this conversation today because I could not think about Foley without thinking about Daniel Tragerman, the 4-year-old Israeli boy killed by a mortar attack from Gaza last week. I watched him on Israeli television — the way he danced, the way he smiled, he really got my heart.

I realized, it’s a triangle here — James Foley, Daniel Pearl and Daniel Tragerman — three torches of man’s inhumanity to man. Why is it that only when terrorists behead someone we notice that inhumanity? In Sderot, they have been showered with rocket attacks for years, which is a “war crime” by any legal standard. And yet, [United Nations Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon says, “We need to urge both sides.” “Both sides” connotes symmetry and indicates a failure of the United Nations and its leadership to distinguish a “crime” from a “side.”

Daniel Tragerman, a 4-year-old Israeli boy, was killed Aug. 22 by a mortar attack from Gaza in southern Israel.

JJ: So, in the triangle of Daniel Tragerman, Daniel Pearl and James Foley, what do you see?

JP: We have lost our moral compass. Danny’s story used to remind people that there is a crisp distinction between good and evil in the world. And now, so does Foley. But, unfortunately, Daniel Tragerman did not. We’re not supposed to say that Hamas is a terrorist organization. It might offend their supporters-bankers in Qatar. We need to put Daniel Tragerman in this triangle, because he is a victim of the same evil. And if I risk offending His Majesty, so be it.

Israel is the only society in the world that has managed, not to eradicate, but to curtail terrorism, and everybody is angry with her, because she reminds the world of its impotence.


JJ: Do you think what you’re doing with the Pearl journalist fellows has an effect?

JP: First of all, the fellows come to America and see what America is all about. Of course, when asked in their country, they’re not going to say, “America is all good.” But they are going to resist the tendency of their peers to put down America as the great Satan. They won’t accept the prevailing street norm that America is evil; that it’s against Muslims and that it has one intention in mind: to oppress Islam.

I think our fellows, when they go home, will offer more nuanced views to their readers. And that’s good enough. 


JJ: Have you seen results?

JP: We know of their achievements and publications. But we don’t know what goes on in the newsroom or at editorial meetings. We don’t know whether they moderate their peers or succumb to peer pressure. But it’s the best we can do. They seem to have a spine, and on that basis, the investment pays off now, and it will pay off over many years.


JJ: So, putting aside the immediacy of pragmatism for a moment, can you answer one last question, this time about the future? In light of what is happening in the Arab world now, are you frightened or hopeful?

RP: To see a beautiful human being shining and then slaughtered, it kills your hope. On the other hand, meeting our fellows gives you hope.