Judea Pearl is an Israeli-American professor of Computer Science and statistics at UCLA, the director of UCLA’s Cognitive Systems Laboratory, and a Turing Award recipient recognized for his contributions to the field of artificial intelligence by his invention of Bayesian networks, a “calculus for probabilistic and causal reasoning.” Professor Pearl and his wife Ruth are the co-founders of the Daniel Pearl Foundation in the memory of their son Daniel Pearl, a Jewish-American journalist who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. The Foundation seeks to use Daniel Pearl’s life as a symbol to promote journalism, East/West understanding and to combat hate. Professor Pearl writes frequently on issues of Jewish identity, supporting Israel, and the BDS movement in such publications as the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Forward, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times.
What does being Jewish mean to you?
Well, I’m glad you started with a simple question. [laughs] Okay. I’ll give you some background. My wife and I have edited a book dealing with this very question. It’s called I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. We asked 150 Jewish thinkers what each one them means by saying, “I’m Jewish.” And the common denominator came out clear and crisp. It was nice to see that my definition of being Jewish coincided with that of the great thinkers of our time, like Amos Oz, Shimon Peres, Thomas Friedman, Rabbi Schulweis and others. To me, being Jewish means to identify with the past, present and future of a collective of people who happen to call themselves Jews. So now you have a circular definition. But it doesn’t scare me, because I’m a part-time logician and I know that circular definitions have their roles.
The key point is that this collection of individuals who happen to call themselves Jews also have a story to tell which is rich, unique and breathtaking. The story begins with Abraham and Moses and Mount Sinai and Joshua and ends with Herzl and Ben-Gurion. And this narrative is what keeps them together. They are united not in hate of others, but by commonalities among themselves and, naturally, by the desire to share destiny. Most successful societies start with uniting narrative of this sort, and ours happened to be a beautiful one. It was beautiful up to about 1850 and from then on it became doubly beautiful with the evocation and awakening of Zionism, which made the whole history attain a new meaning: “We had a thriving civilization, then we were displaced, and finally we came back to our homeland with pride and joy and success.” So this is what makes us Jewish. The narrative I just talked about became the main store of our intellectual resources. When we speak in metaphors, our metaphors are drawn from our heritage. And we consequently have a common language. We teach those metaphors to our children, they help propagate that narrative across generations, and that’s what makes us a national collective.
Nationalism has come to ill repute in the 20th century, especially after the rise of the Nazis and the anti-colonialism movement. But, Jewish nationalism can pride itself on defying all the teachings of postmodernist political science. It proved that nationalism can be a positive uniting force that unleashes constructive energy, collaborative energy, and an amazing success story that one can be proud of. And that’s why we are hated so intensely, especially by intellectuals on the extreme left. These pseudo-intellectuals will never forgive us for defying their textbooks. Their textbooks were written at the height of the anti-nationalism period, which did not allow for a nation of peddlers and beggars to lift itself from the margin of history to become a world-class center of art, science and business. And, because they are not very creative, these intellectuals are still stuck with their obsolete textbooks and refuse to forgive us for proving them wrong. They can’t get it into their skulls that a people returning to a land in which its collective memory was shaped and authored has nothing in common with the “white colonialist settlers” that their textbooks villainized so intensely.
Why is Israel an important part of your Jewish identity and Jewish identity generally?
Because once we agree that our cohesive force is our historical narrative, we must also agree that Israel is the culmination of that historical narrative. On two counts: first, the dream of returning to Zion has been the engine that kept us hopeful and resilient through eighty generations of traumatic existence in exile. And second: Israel currently symbolizes the fulfillment of that dream and provides us with pride, cultural resources and intellectual currency to enhance our cohesive narrative. It makes this narrative a living reality that every Jew can identify with. So currently Israel is the symbol of our unity. If you take away Israel from the Jewish psyche, you take away Jewishness. I know this is not something that all Reform rabbis will agree with, some think that Tikkun Olam and dancing with Linda Sarsour can replace our history. They are mistaken. They sadly misunderstand what will become of American Jewry if Israel is gone. They don’t realize that this will be the end of American Jewry as a religion, as a collective, as a cultural movement – everything will end because Jews will not have the cohesive force and the symbol of historical continuity that Israel currently provides. With this in mind, I venture to I make a prophecy, and I hope it will not come to fruition, that if Israel goes down, American Jewry and world Jewry will go down as well – it will be the end of Jewishness.
So do you believe that Jews have a duty to support Israel politically?
[Laughs] Do you have a duty to support your tomorrow? No! You can commit suicide! But do you want to survive? Not as an individual, but as a collective. It is more a sense of mission than a duty that I have. So, yes, I have this sense of duty. I cannot demand this sense of duty of all Jews – I cannot demand it, for example, from Noam Chomsky or from Jews for Jesus. They disavow their Jewish heritage and still insist on calling themselves Jews, which is confusing, but fine. I would gladly invite them to attend my grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, but not to teach in the Center for Jewish Studies.
By the way, Jews for Jesus are more pro-Israel, hence more Jewish, than Jewish Voice for Peace. As a result, I find myself more comfortable with Jews for Jesus than with Jewish Voice for Peace. Unlike the former, Jewish Voice for Peace are laboring to dismantle Israel – our strongest uniting force — thus committing a collective suicide of all Jews.
Yes, I do have a sense of mission. Whatever skills, knowledge and stature I have, I feel that I partly owe them to my heritage and I want to give that part back for the preservation of this marvelous tribe which I’m proud to be part of. And why am I proud? First, because it’s a very accomplished tribe, and second, it serves a very important function in the intellectual history of mankind. Jews were always the scouts of civilization. Always questioning authority and promoting chiddush (innovation). Actually, the very presence of Jews among their gentile neighbors represented the idea that there is no absolutism. Whatever your priest preached this morning, there is an alternative narrative to it, and it is embodied in the Jew. That was the role of Jews throughout history, and that’s why they were hated. People don’t like alternatives. We are still serving this role in the intellectual making of mankind and I’m proud to be a part of it because this is what science is all about: Search for alternatives, question authority and insist on understanding things your way.
What is your view on Students for Justice in Palestine and the BDS Movement at UCLA and on other college campuses?
[Laughs] I assume this is not a loaded question! It’s just a question that came to your mind! Well, these two are special kinds of racist movements that need to be handled with their own weapons. They are racist movements because they deny us, Jews, rights that they grant to others; the right to exist. They say so explicitly, despite of what this guy [Robert Gardner] wrote in the Daily Bruin last week [laughs]. He knows very well that “Palestine free from the river to the sea” is a death threat. And the proof that the guy means it too is that he would never say that Jews have a right to a state of their own. You can coerce him to say perhaps that he disagrees with Louis Farrakhan, but he would never say that Jews deserve a state. He essentially said, “No, don’t worry! We wouldn’t kill you! We would just strip you of your sovereignty, and let you survive statelessly at the mercy of your benevolent neighbors” [laughs].
BDS is a racist and genocidal movement which should be named for what it is. And it’s not named so because we Jews want to appear as inclusive and respectful people. The BDS ideology can be defined by one word: “Zionophobia.” — an irrational fear of Zionism and an obsessive commitment to delegitimize Israel in any borders. Zionophobia should be exposed as one of the 21st century’s greatest threats to mankind. And I say mankind, not only Israel, because the technique that they are perfecting now will be used in the next decade against other hated groups. The technique is simple: Pose yourself as a political activist . . . “Just criticizing the policies of Israel! Just protesting the occupation. etc, etc..” while working incessantly towards the elimination of Israel. This deceitful technique makes BDS racist of the first degree, and it should be fought, like all racist movements, by exposure.
No! More than exposure – by fighting words. Unfortunately we, Jews, weren’t trained to use fighting words. It’s time to do so now, because our existence is at stake. It’s time for us to acquire fighting words. And I am proposing the one and only effective fighting word that I could find – “Zionophobia.” The word “anti-Semitism” has lost its punch 20 years ago, and the word “anti-Zionism” sounds like a legitimate political opinion. The word Zionophobia, on the other hand, describe precisely the ideology promoted by Professor Makdisi and Professor Gelvin at UCLA – and I mention them by name because exposure is essential in the fight against Zionophobes. Why I like the world Zionophobia – because it rhymes with Islamophobia and hence it has an element of irrationality, and an element of bigotry, it has all the elements that they attribute to Islamophobia and that they are trying to stick to Zionism.
Indeed, one of the sad accomplishments of the BDS movement is turning Zionism into a dirty word, so dirty that even Jews are sometimes hesitant to use without some qualification. We must reclaim the Z-word as one of the most noble words in the English language. And we should do so not only through comeback but also through pushback. We can only reclaim Zionism and the beautiful miracle it represents by shaming the Zionophobes, i.e., by exposing their bigotry to the light of universal norms of decency and morality. Ordinarily, listening to a racist defiling your heritage and maligning everything you cherish would make you feel low. But when you get the spine and the idea that you deserve the right to shame back, you become proud of who you are. So I’m shaming back Professor Makdisi and Professor Gelvin for being Zionophobes. I’m sure they would not take it as an insult but as a badge of honor. I bet they are actually proud to be called Zionophobes, as revealed in their writings and in their teachings! So, let me congratulate them personally for the honor, with all the ugliness and moral deformity that the word Zionophobes conveys.
Why do you think that opposition to Israel on college campuses is on the rise?
There are many reasons, but the main reason is because our professors were educated on obsolete anti-colonialist textbooks. Colonialism is gone. We don’t have true colonialism today except for the Falkland Islands and maybe Cyprus where the Turks still control the island. So, colonialism is gone and our poor professors have lost their bully — the bad guy they got used to blame for all the ills and maladies of our planet. And what do you do when you lose your one and only bad guy? You invent one! And who do you choose as a surrogate? The weakest and most defenseless candidate! Namely, Israel!
That is how Israel, with her seven million defenseless people became the easiest prey for the intellectual elite in this country. And I keep on saying “defenseless.” Look at her. Seven million human beings who, for 70 years, have not enjoyed one hour of normalcy. Besieged by all its neighbors. Under constant and explicit threats of extinction. Under the shadows of 150,000 rockets in the hands of Hezbollah aimed at her civilian centers. Isn’t that defenseless? Plus, world opinion being so blind. And the Jewish community being so divided. We are truly defenseless. Our villain-seeking professors have picked on the weakest candidate to replace colonialism, and are now too embarrassed to admit their mistake. Plus, we have an occupation on our hand – namely, a territory that our neighbors force us to control against our wish. All this contributes to a hostile anti-Israel atmosphere on campus. It’s so easy to depict Israel as a bully, as Goliath, and our neighbors as Davids, especially to uninitiated, uninformed and gullible students. Most students in our schools are liberals, like me, which should make them critical and inquisitive. Unfortunately, they are being educated and brainwashed by Zionophobic professors who dominate Middle East education in the UCLA history department.
Why is BDS not an acceptable way to protest Israel?
I would never say that I am against BDS because it’s “non-academic,” or because they do not boycott Iran with the same fever. That’s not my style. I’m fighting BDS because they are denying Jews a right which they grant to all other national collectives – like Mexicans and Palestinians – the right to a homeland. They even deny the Jewish people the right to peoplehood, and the right to define itself. That’s what makes BDS racist, and that’s why I’m speaking against them, not their tactics. By objecting to their tactics we confer legitimacy on their aims.
Have you ever personally felt uncomfortable, singled out, or unsafe as a Jewish professor at UCLA?
I wish I was. Had anybody talked against my Jewishness or against my Zionism, I would have gotten a stage to expose his or her racism! Currently, I don’t have such a stage on campus. The only conduit I have to communicate with UCLA students is through my columns at the Jewish Journal. The campus stage is managed by the Daily Bruin editors, who rush to interview Professor Gelvin each time an anti-Israel hostility breaks out on campus, and quote his Zionophobic views as oracles of wisdom. Yes, I wish someone would speak against my Zionism because that would give me a microphone to expose the bigotry of the Zionophobes among us. So far, they seem eager to avoid the exposure.
Oh, sorry, on one occasion I did feel discriminated against, and this was in an interview with the Daily Bruin. It took place after I received a scientific prize, the Turing Award, and they did a story about me, about my background, and about my scientific accomplishments. When I told them that I am a product of Israel and that the first memory I have from the conflict was sitting in the shelter and being bombarded by Egyptian warplanes, they changed it into something like “he recalled the Israel-Palestinian conflict over territorial boundaries.” Imagine this, Israel war of independence, against five invading armies, resulting in 6,000 dead Israelis, reduced to a “border dispute”! I called the editor – “It wasn’t a borders dispute,” I said “it was a war of annihilation by intent. I was there, and I remember the genocidal rhetoric. Where did you get the idea that it was about borders? There was no one there to negotiate boundaries, because the Arabs rejected the UN partition plan together with the very idea of a Jewish state in ANY boundaries.” It did not get me anywhere. For some reason the editors insisted on inserting this idiotic “territorial boundaries” into my narrative, and forbade any mention of Arab states, perhaps to minimize Arabs’ embarrassment over their annihilation-intended attack of 1948. It shows you how distortions produced by an industry of lies manage to penetrate the mindsets of well-meaning people. I wouldn’t blame the DB editors for being stupid or anti-Israel – these are dedicated editors like you! But look what happened to their mindsets, and their credibility as journalists once they were put into a PC-pressured environment. I bet they were duped into this “territorial boundaries” fib by peer pressure, or perhaps by a student of Gelvin or Makdisi. In short, they chose to distort my personal narrative, including historical facts, to parrot a slogan of political correctness. I cannot forgive the Daily Bruin for that “territorial boundaries” comedy, unless they issue a public apology. Was this a case of discrimination? Yes. They would not do it to a professor from any other country.
Can you describe the work of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, why you started it, and why it’s important?
It so happened that Danny came to symbolize the aspirations of many communities – journalists, because of his courage and integrity; Jews, because of the message of identity he conveyed in his last words; Muslims, because of his campaign for dialogue and mutual understanding; musicians, because he used his music to inspire friendship. So we have here four communities that could be empowered by one symbol. The Foundation’s aim is to leverage this symbol in order to fight the hatred that took Danny’s life. To this end we developed programs that appeal to all four communities – dialogues with Muslims, Journalism education for youth, promoting free press, running worldwide concerts, and strengthening Jewish identity. This is what he have been doing in the past almost twenty years. And now that we reached 80, both me and my wife, we are looking for young people like you to take over and continue to promote the ideals that Danny came to symbolize.
So I’ll see you at Daniel Pearl World Music Day at UCLA, when the UCLA orchestra plays on Oct. 10, Danny’s birthday.