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Rattling the Cage

Daniel Pearl's Last Words, Uncensored


06/05/08 "
Jerusalem Post" -- -- I was surfing YouTube one day and decided, just out of curiosity, to listen to Daniel Pearl's last words. (Not to see the video, only to listen to the audio.) I heard the famous part, "My name is Daniel Pearl... My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am a Jew." Then he went on to mention his father's Zionism, his family's trips to Israel and the street in Bnei Brak named for his great-grandfather. All this was in line with the heroic story of Daniel Pearl as it has come to be known in the Jewish world, which was the story I knew.

But then I heard Pearl go on to say things I hadn't expected, that were completely out of character with the legend:

"...only now do I think about some of the people in Guantanamo Bay..."

"...this is the sort of problem that Americans are going to have anywhere in the world now."

"We can't be secure, we can't walk around free as long as our government policies are continuing and we allow them to continue."

"We Americans cannot continue to bear the consequences of our government's actions, such as the unconditional support given to the State of Israel. Twenty-four uses of the veto power to justify massacres of children. And the support for the dictatorial regimes in the Arab and left-wing world. And also the continued American military presence in Afghanistan."

I WASN'T shocked, of course, that Pearl made such statements - he was being held captive by his soon-to-be executioners, and he recited any propaganda they told him to recite. That's what hostages do - they have no choice and are in no position to resist.

Still, I was surprised to hear these last words because according to the legend of Daniel Pearl, his last words were, "My mother is Jewish. My father is Jewish. I am a Jew." The words that came afterward have been edited out of his legend.

I surfed some Jewish Web sites and found tributes to the way Pearl "stood up to his terrorist captors to assert his Jewish identity, illustrated by his last words, 'My mother is Jewish. My father is Jewish. I am a Jew.'" The way he "quietly defied his captors." That "as the world would later learn, Pearl never capitulated to his captors, acknowledging his nationality, his religion and his beliefs openly and proudly."

I'm sorry, that's not what happened. Daniel Pearl was a hostage. From the tone and content of his last words, he wasn't defiant, he wasn't assertive, he made no ringing declarations of anything - everything he said, he said under duress. In captivity, he was not a hero. How exactly could he have been a hero in such circumstances? How could he have resisted? No, Daniel Pearl was a victim. He was helpless in front of his captors. He didn't die a hero, he died a martyr.

BUT WHY can't we accept that? Why does the Jewish world, the Jewish establishment, the caretakers of the image of the Jewish people, have to airbrush out the part where Pearl calls down America and Israel - even though Jews, like everyone else, know that he said what he said under orders from armed terrorists?

I don't mean to take issue with anything Pearl's family has done to commemorate him; that's their business, not mine or anybody else's. I'm taking issue, instead, with the Jewish public memory of Pearl's words.

I imagine that some Jews realize that his statement "I am a Jew" was part of a forced confession, and that what they're doing, consciously, is turning it into an affirmation as a way of avenging Pearl's murder and telling his kidnappers that ultimately, he defeated them.

That would be an honorable gesture, and an honest one. But I don't think that's how world Jewry at large remembers his last words. Pearl was murdered over six years ago, and as time passes, history and historical figures tend to be shorn in the public memory of their complexities and contradictions, becoming reduced to images out of a child's coloring book - exaggerated, oversimplified, distorted.

World Jewry at large doesn't acknowledge Pearl's coerced statements against America and Israel. My guess is that most Jews don't even know he made them. Those other last words of his have been dropped down the memory hole.

And why? Why does the truth of Pearl's behavior before he was murdered have to be abridged, "fixed up" for popular Jewish consumption? Why does he have to be turned into a Superman? Why can't he be left as a human being who, from the evidence, reacted to the terrorists who kidnapped him more or less like any human being would probably react to being kidnapped by terrorists?

The answer, unfortunately, is that societies create myths about heroes who showed surpassing loyalty in standing up to the enemy, who showed superhuman courage in the society's cause. Invariably, this involves some touching-up, some additions and deletions in the story. By turning a human story into a superhuman legend, a society not only magnifies the hero, it magnifies itself. The greater the hero's courage, the greater his or her willingness to sacrifice for the society's cause, the worthier that cause becomes.

A Daniel Pearl who obeyed his captors' demands by confessing to being Jewish and castigating America's treatment of Muslims together with its "unconditional support" for Israel and the "massacres of children" - that's not an image that can inspire Jews and strengthen Jewish identity. What's needed is a Daniel Pearl who, with his last words, verbally spat in the eye of his captors and declared with quiet assertiveness, pride and defiance: "My mother is Jewish. My father is Jewish. I am a Jew." End of story.

The problem with this story is that it's not true. It's a distortion of the truth - about Pearl, about the Jewish people, about any people. It may be okay for children to believe such a legend, but adults should know better. 

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