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Sunday, August 9, 2020

Inspiration and a Rallying Cry for Graduates

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The following is Judea Pearl’s speech at the fourth annual UCLA Jewish Graduation on June 16.

Dean [Maria] Blandizzi, friends, families, distinguished guests and especially you, the graduates.

I am deeply honored by the opportunity to address this graduating class, and to speak to you on topics that are so very dear to my heart.

I know that I am speaking today to a unique group of graduates. Unique, because all of you felt the need to add a distinctly Jewish color to one of the most memorable days of your life.

And the question you are probably asking is: What is the nature of this extra color we call Jewish? Is “being Jewish” some sort of a birthmark with which one is burdened or blessed for life? A genetic incident? How can one be proud of a genetic incident? Is it a religious belief? An ethnic loyalty? A commitment to a certain mode of behavior or perspective? An attitude? Is it just a collection of sweet childhood memories, decorated with mother’s cooking? Or a language to communicate with our ancestors and decode their wisdom and experience? Most importantly, could a coherent, meaningful answer ever emerge from a community whose members view the  question through such diverse prisms?

The question is not trivial, and it shook up the core of my soul 17 years ago, when our son Daniel was murdered in Karachi, Pakistan, and his last words, facing his abductors’ camera were: “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.”

These words have since become an identity banner to every Jewish soul, to every lover of Israel and to every scholar of peoplehood. But at the time, they raised more questions than answers: What did he mean? What does any of us mean when he or she says: “I am Jewish?”

So we asked 300 people, from all walks of life — journalists, comedians, rabbis, musicians, even kids in camps — what it means to them to be Jewish, and 150 of them responded and gave honest answers, compiled in this book. The answers were as diverse as Jews love to be — two Jews, three opinions — but they have a common denominator, which can be read clearly in the essays of Shimon Peres, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, and which happen to coincide with my own answer.

To me, being Jewish means to identify with the past, present, and future of a collective of individuals who happen to call themselves “Jews.”

This might sound a bit circular, but it is not. Many definitions in logic sound circular and still convey profound meanings.

We should not beg for safe space but create one, through assertiveness and self-awareness of our just cause.

As an act of choice, I select a certain thread of history and label it “mine,” that is, relevant to me. Similarly, I imagine the destiny of other members of the collective and label it “ours,” that is, relevant to our children. This is indeed what “people-hood” means: A collective bonded by common history and common destiny.

But who are we? And how did this historical bondage shape us?

I look down the history of ideas and I find our little subculture scoring an impressive list of accomplishments. I see Jews as the scouts of civilization — the ones who question conventional wisdom and constantly seek the exploration of new pathways. Abraham questioned the wisdom of idolatry; Moses questioned the wisdom of servitude and lawlessness; the prophets questioned institutional injustice; and so the chain goes on from the Maccabees, Jesus and Spinoza to Marx, Herzl and Freud, down to Einstein, Gershwin, the Zionist Chalutzim, who created the miracle of Israel, and down to the civil rights activists of the 1960s.

As individuals, we do not consciously choose this lonely role of scouts, border-challengers or idol-smashers. It has penetrated our veins, partly from the Bible and the Talmud through their persistent encouragement of curiosity, learning and debate, and partly from our free-spirited parents, uncles and historical role models. But mostly, this role has been imposed on us by the travesties of history. Conventional wisdoms were mighty unkind to us, so our sanity demanded that we challenge those conventions and, in due course, we have learned to challenge all conventions.

Thus, is my Jewishness a blessing or a burden? Do I prefer the trails of the scouts to the safety of the bandwagon? You bet I do. It is only from those trails that I can see where the voyage is heading, and it is only from there that I can discover greener pastures. I am Jewish, and I doubt I would be in my element elsewhere.

This combination of loneliness and creativity brings me to discuss the painful situation in which we, Zionist Jews, find ourselves on this campus vilified and demonized by BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] cronies, betrayed by our longtime progressive allies, and abandoned to exclusion and namelessness by those who should promote equity, diversity and inclusion on our campus.

As many of you know, you and I were recently labeled “white supremacists” by a top BDS ideologist who was a guest lecturer at the Department of Anthropology. I repeat: UCLA Department of Anthropology — let shame rest with those who earn it. As of today, that lecturer has not yet been asked to apologize to the literally thousands of students and faculty at UCLA who are devout Zionists, champions of human rights and social justice, whom she labeled “white supremacists.”

I feel obliged to share with you my rather optimistic assessment of this situation, since many of you will be facing a similar climate in graduate schools or in industry or the business environment.

I am optimistic because we have learned to pinpoint precisely what strategy will snap us out of this predicament and, fortunately, the strategy is not unrealizable.

It involves two elements. First, recognition of identity. Second, word power.

Let me elaborate. First, we should stop using the term anti-Semitism in our arguments and complaints, because it makes us easily dismissible by anyone who wishes to take cover under the slogan “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.” Why make it easy for them? Instead, we should demand explicit recognition as “Identity Zionists.” Since Jews are a history-bonded collective, and Israel is the culmination of Jewish history, elementary high school algebra dictates that Zionism is an essential component of Jewish identity. Zionist students and faculty should therefore be recognized as legitimate participants in UCLA’s tapestry of inclusion and diversity. I said “Zionist” not “Jewish,” which is easy to pay lip service to. This means that in all matters concerning code of conduct, Zionism should attain the same protection status as any religion or nationality or identity-distinct collective, and anti-Zionism should turn as despicable and condemnable as Islamophobia, women  inferiority or white supremacy.

This idea is not mine. Such recognition was accepted by California State University in a recent legal settlement of a lawsuit filed by students at San Francisco State. It is now binding, and we should insist that an identical wording be accepted by the UCLA administration.

“For many Jews, Zionism is an important part of their identity.”

We should insist on it in every meeting with UCLA officials, relentlessly, incessantly, before we even make an appointment. It is a prerequisite for any discussion of our posture on campus and it is the litmus test for our inclusion or exclusion in or out of the Bruins family.

I should add that the administration’s failure to grant us this recognition is not entirely their fault — no one has asked them to do it. We naively assumed that it is self-evident so, as time passed, they forgot how to spell “Zionism.” No more! Zionism has a spelling.

Our second weapon is word power.

We should not beg for safe space but create one, through assertiveness and self-awareness of our just cause. He who does not defend his identity from slander cannot expect to be respected. Remember that, to an outside observer, silence is interpreted as an admission of guilt. The term “anti-Semitism” connotes submissive begging for protection, and should be replaced by a fighting word “Zionophobia” — the irrational fear of a  homeland for the Jewish people.” It rhymes with Islamophobia, on purpose, of course. When you call someone a “Zionophobe,” it means: “If you deny my people’s right to a homeland, something is wrong with you, not me.”

Jewish students will regain respect only when “Zionophobia” becomes the ugliest word on campus. It depends on us; if we use it often enough, it will become the ugliest.

In summary, I believe that once we insist on recognition of our identity and once we arm ourselves with a powerful fighting word, “Zionophobia,” campus climate will change dramatically, and the words “I am Jewish” will ring again as a mark of pride, creativity and accomplishment.

I wish you much success in your future careers, as you continue the long and heroic  journey of our people, a journey of dignity, creativity and excellence.


Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA, president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation and a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

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