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PARK CITY - He's most comfortable speaking the language of equations, offering audiences, preferably captive students, glimpses into the truth algebraically.
But Judea Pearl, a semi-retired UCLA computer science professor and an international leader in the field of artificial intelligence was forced to step out of that academic mold six years ago when his 38-year-old son Daniel, whom he calls Danny, became a household name. Four months after 9/11, Pearl's son, then the south Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was abducted in Karachi, Pakistan, and later beheaded by his captors. This act of terror, one that appeared on video, threw the Israeli-born father onto stages and in front of microphones.
"It's not my natural language. I'm not a politician. I haven't been a social activist," Pearl, 71, said in a thick Hebrew accent during a drive from the Salt Lake City airport this week. "At the same time, it's an opportunity and a duty that I cannot let go."
Pearl, of Encino, Calif., flew into Utah for a Wednesday evening speaking engagement at Park City's Temple Har Shalom. The touring public role is one he's embraced as president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting East-West understanding and respect through education, communication and concerts - all to honor Danny's spirit.
He was "a walking sunshine of truth, humor, music and humanity," Pearl said of his only son. He was "the most gentle person I've ever known."
Rather than be angry at God or agonize over the "whys," Pearl looks toward the possibilities and responsibilities.
"We have vowed to fight the hatred that took Danny's life," he said, "and one way to fight the hatred is to communicate. . . . This is our vision of revenge."
On this night, addressing a synagogue audience, Pearl came to speak about being Jewish in a post-9/11 era. He spoke about Danny's final words, uttered into the camera, just moments before his voice was silenced.
" 'My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish,' " remembered Pearl, who stood beside a large projected image of his smiling son.
With these 11 words, Pearl said Danny came to symbolize every individual's right to assert their identity. And these words were the inspiration for the book, I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, a compilation of 147 essays - from political and religious leaders to actors, comedians, athletes, authors, children and more - that Pearl described as "a panoramic view of how Jews define themselves in the 21st century."
Pearl, who was raised "semi-Orthodox" but became secularized with the years, said Danny "was not religious in the traditional sense." His son's Jewishness was a "source of strength." It was a heritage that encouraged Danny to ask questions, seek understanding and empathize with suffering, something his ancestors' experiences helped him grasp.
Danny's great-grandfather left Poland with his family, including Pearl's dad who was then 14, in 1924, after being beaten bloody by someone who called him a "dirty Jew," Pearl said. He banded together with others to buy a sandy plot of land, helping to establish Bnei Brak, a town in Israel. Danny's mother, born in Baghdad, was part of the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews who fled persecution and came to Israel in the 1950s.
"I sometimes say that history has imposed on us a combination of a tragedy and an opportunity," Pearl said of his son's murder. "And if we don't reach for the opportunity, we're left with the tragedy,"
The opportunity lies in who Danny was, in how he had garnered relationships with and respect from Muslims the world over, Pearl explained. In his years as a foreign correspondent, "armed with a pen and a fiddle," Danny had given voice to so many embattled and misunderstood Muslim communities, the proud father said. Using "this idea of friendship," is a "rare opportunity," Pearl said.
And in putting Danny's face out there, he said the terrorists failed because the journalist was "not the image of America and Jews that they meant to advertise."
Pearl has worked to cultivate this opportunity by joining forces with Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani-born Islamic studies professor at American University, with whom he shares a recurring public dialogue to promote Muslim-Jewish understanding. The duo doesn't just hold hands, speak of love and offer up kumbaya moments, however.
"We're honest," Pearl said during the airport shuttle ride. "There are grievances, there are complaints, and we express them."
Ahmed speaks of Islamophobia in America, the poor image painted of Muslims, "and Jews take part in this," Pearl explained. He, on the other hand, tends to focus on the actions, or lack of actions, taken by Islamic clergy.
"No cleric issued a fatwa. . .against the killers of Danny," Pearl said. "As far as I know, they still haven't done it."
He doesn't pretend for a second that his work will bring world peace. "We're not naive," Pearl told those gathered at the synagogue. But he looks at biblical stories, like the one where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac, to God, and he finds meaning.
"Living by principles is a dangerous business," he said. "Progress is a bloody journey. There are victims on the roadside, but the caravan must go on. . . . Humanity prevails."
Reading from an open letter he wrote to the Pakistani people, only five months after his son's death, Pearl said, "The loss of Danny will forever tear my heart. But I can think of no greater consolation than seeing your children some day pointing at Danny's picture and saying, 'This is the kind of person I want to be.' "
Daniel Pearl Foundation
To learn more about the Daniel Pearl Foundation, visit http://www.danielpearl.org