A gentle nudge in the back, a graceful shuffle forward past the competing person to the right — exciting muttering and the loud patter of feet eagerly moving toward two open doors filled the entrance to Korn Convocation Hall in the UCLA Anderson School of Management on Wednesday, Feb. 27. Although the doors were officially scheduled to open at 4:30 for the 5:00 event, an eager crowd already filled their seats at just five minutes past four, filling the large hall to near capacity in a matter of minutes. The event? The Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture with Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, sponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, the Daniel Pearl Foundation, and the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA.
Almost an hour before the guest of honor was scheduled to arrive, men in button-down shirts and freshly pressed slacks sat down next to recently coiffured women and leaned over to debate the politics of the imminent speaker. And between them all, students with backpacks wedged between their anxiously shaking legs — students who flooded straight from the library, class, or discussion to attend this once in a lifetime lecture.
As the room gradually hushed, Kal Raustiala, the Director of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and Associate Vice Provost, International Studies, made some introductory remarks. He gave some background information detailing the death of Daniel Pearl, a journalist with both American and Israeli citizenship who was kidnapped and subsequently murdered by Al-Qaeda while reporting in Karachi, Pakistan on Feb. 1, 2002.
Next to speak was Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA. He reminded the crowd — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — about the story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who pretended to be dead so that his students could smuggle him out of the besieged and burning Jerusalem in 70CE. Brought before the Roman general Vespasian, Rabbi Yochanan prophesized that Vespasian would be emperor, and in return for his insight, Rabbi Yochanan asked for a place in Yavneh where he could establish a small school to study Torah with his students in peace. True to his word, Vespasian granted Rabbi Yochanan his request.
“In a Talmudic mind,” Rabbi Seidler-Feller reasoned, “Rabbi Yochanan, by preparing the next stage while Jerusalem was burning, is the hero, not the rebels.”
He then posed the following question to the audience, in light of the event and its commemoration of Daniel Pearl’s life and tragic end, “Who will lead us into the future while the recent past still haunts us? Who will be the Yochanan ben Zakkai of our generation?”
After the rabbi’s speech, Judea Pearl, father of the late Daniel Pearl and professor of computer science at UCLA, thanked the crowd for being there that evening. Daniel’s sister, Tamara, and her husband were also in attendance.
“How can anyone harm a gentle soul like Daniel?” he asked. No one in the room answered. “He was a champion of truth, honor, and friendship, but reality proved capable of betraying all logic.”
He told the crowd assembled (both in the Korn Convention Hall and in the adjacent overflow room), that he had received a phone call from Condoleezza Rice that the killer was in custody. She then added one powerful sentence that Pearl admits, “revealed a cosmic dimension” for him and his family: “I can assure you, justice will be served.”
He had heard the phrase before, but for the first time, coming directly from the current Secretary of State in 2002, it kindled faith in the family’s hearts.
Following Pearl’s words, General Wesley Clark was called up to introduce the keynote speaker. After an exhaustive biography, the supreme allied commander of NATO and senior fellow at the Burkle Center finally presented the highly anticipated Dr. Rice to an enthusiastically cheering crowd.
She repeated the question that Pearl had asked himself: “How could there be so much hatred toward such a gentle soul?”
She detailed her experience in office, and related, “If you were in a position of action after Sept. 11, every day after that felt like Sept. 12. The secret service, she remembers, directed her to the bunker by lifting her up and carrying her. “Levitation,” as she described it, amid chuckling from the audience.
“We saw the ugly face of evil for which there was no explanation, we all saw it and looked for an explanation,” Rice remembers. “In the Middle East, the only functioning democracy is Israel. They are making the desert bloom, united by cultural identity, but also democratic identity.”
Rice combatted the statement that in other countries, the people are not “ready for democracy,” calling this claim patronizing and wryly adding, “cultural explanation is what happens when political scientists can’t explain something.”
She conceded that there is a moral code, “There is a right, there is a wrong. […] It’s not just the job of government to make sure there are no weak links […] not just the responsibility of government to try to deliver compassion.”
Rice ended her address by expressing her belief that “institutions are better protectors of human condition,” and that “democracy is the antidote to terrible events of 9/11, the brutal kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, and other atrocities that we have seen since. There’s only one decent way of governing—with the consent of the people.”
Rice then gracefully stepped to her left, where two chairs were set up in preparation for a question and answer session, where Raustiala posed his own prepared questions to the former secretary of state, and then called on audience members to lob their own questions about contemporary politics, touching on sequestration, China’s increasing economic, military and technological competitiveness, U.S. borders with Mexico, Chinese cyber hacking, Syrian civilian uprising, the U.S.’s adherence to democratic ideals, controversial use of drones, the political situation in South and North Korea, and immigration reform. About fifteen students raised their hands, but only two lucky men (one of whom was Ha’Am’s own Jacob Goldberg, challenging Rice’s assertion that the U.S. had consistently maintained democratic ideals throughout history) were called on to voice their questions (plus two from the overflow room).
Many people left disappointed, unable to speak with the former secretary, but others left satisfied that they had been a part of an event memorializing a man who stood for seeking the truth about the world, and had been privy to a discussion about democracy and the state of freedom in the United States.