Learning From The Daniel Pearl Standard

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My friend Judea Pearl’s writing is frequently moving, and always incisive. On the yahrzeit of his son, Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl, HY”D, brutally slain in Pakistan six years ago, Dr. Pearl creates a new litmus test for journalism in an article in the Wall Street Journal.

No one in whom a Jewish heart beats even faintly will ever forget the words that Daniel proclaimed just before al-Queda beheaded him. “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish! Back in the town of Bnei Brak there is a street named after my great grandfather Chayim Pearl who is one of the founders of the town.”

While we still grapple with the undiminished impact of those words, the task is so much more difficult for his parents. They have thrown themselves into the work of making their son’s death work against those responsible for it. While working to support voices of moderation and tolerance within the Muslim world, they have worked just as tirelessly to out the phonies, to expose the difference between those who are posturing and those who are genuinely committed to decency and coexistence. “Moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl in January 2002,” he writes. Having come face to face with evil as purely distilled as it gets, there can be no hiding behind arguments of cultural differences and alternative perspectives. Pure evil must be labeled as such, without equivocation, without excuses, and without mitigating modifiers.

Dr. Pearl relates that the Pakistani Consul General offered condolences to the Pearls in their home here in Los Angeles. When they spoke about the antisemitic content of Danny’s murder, she commented, “”What can you expect of these people who never saw a Jew in their lives and who have been exposed, day and night, to televised images of Israeli soldiers targeting and killing Palestinian children.” Dr Pearl realized that this was not a hollow excuse, but a fact of life. Journalists – colleagues of his son – had become accessories in the propagation of evil, by helping to tell half-truths and outright lies. The Daniel Pearl video released by al-Queda was set against a background of Mohammed al-Dura visuals, taken from the footage faked by the frauds of France 2 television, who gave the jihadist world an icon and a rallying point for its barbarism. Pondering their role, Dr. Pearl began to see the opposing role of the good journalist.

In one memorial service for Danny, a Catholic priest made an interesting observation that, serving as a mediator of reality, the modern journalist can be likened to the Biblical prophet. My first reaction was that the comparison is too far-fetched. Yet on further reflection I came to understand his point. Who serves today as the moral compass of society, and, like the ancient prophets, risks his or her life by exposing corruption, institutional injustice, terrorism and fanaticism? The journalist.

But the Bible also offers us a foolproof test for discerning false prophets from true ones. The test is not based on the nature of the reported facts, but on the method and principles invoked in the message. Translated into secular, modern vocabulary, the true journalist will never compromise on universal principles of ethics and humanity, and will never allow us to forget that all people, including our adversaries, need be portrayed with dignity and respect as children of one G-d.

Accordingly, to distinguish true from false journalism, just choose any newspaper or TV channel and ask yourself when was the last time it ran a picture of a child, a grandmother or any empathy-evoking scene from the “other side” of a conflict.

Hence, the Daniel Pearl Standard (DPS). If an outlet rarely or never pauses to uphold the humanity of the other side, it is fundamentally flawed. Like other simple and elegant rules, its brevity is inversely related to its wisdom.

It probably has application well beyond the world of journalism. Why should displaying humanity be limited to members of the Fourth Estate? Shouldn’t the DPS work for others, even those whom we expect to be agendized advocates?

Within our own community, different publications reflect varying degrees of openness. Some will not venture out of their own daled amos (four ells). They are equal opportunity ignorers – and they have every right to be! They focus upon what they and their readers – none of whom are their prisoners – want to read about. Others set up walls and boundaries quite close to home – but keep the barriers somewhat porous. Others yet seek a mixture of ideas and viewpoints, although within definite boundaries as well. (I am proud to serve on the editorial board of the OU’s Jewish Action, which encourages the exploration of diverse notions under the Orthodox umbrella. An op-ed from the head of the Society For Humanistic Judaism I don’t think we are ready for. Here at Cross-Currents, we have tried, and continue to try, to recruit voices from across a swath of the Orthodox religious landscape, welcoming contributors from the center to the pretty far right-of-center. Yes, we stop short when it comes to the left.)

So frequently, however, there are stories that burst through the walls we set up. Events, anecdotes, slices of life that tug at our heartstrings, sometimes for their pathos, and sometimes for their extraordinary triumph. It would seem to me we could greatly benefit from the DPS at such times, acknowledging the humanity of those whom we often ignore by widening our circle to include them. Surely there are many such stories that are edifying to readers, but come from outside the usual circles. Pretending that those people do not exist – or are fundamentally irrelevant – is a cruel blow. Many of out publications meet the expectation of the DPS with flying colors. Some fail miserably enough that reasonable people must begin to doubt the humanity of the publishers.

Our mesorah, I believe, places demands upon us that exceed the DPS. One of the halachos that Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 243) squeezes from the text of v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha (love your friend as yourself) is that if you are going to talk about someone, speak his praises. Although the phrase is somewhat ambiguous, I was taught in my yeshiva days that the Chinuch held that we are required to find praiseworthy behavior in others, and give voice to our findings. (I remember hearing R. Avidgdor Miller zt”l repeatedly call on us to look for good things to say about our brothers, in all of their camps. This was despite some very strongly enunciated words of opposition to some of the goings-on in some of those camps.) This would certainly include giving credit where credit is due – even to those with whom we must often disagree, but who clearly fall within the halachic boundaries of inclusion.

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10 Responses

  1. michoel halberstam says:

    In this regard, I remember very well how, after Anatoly Scharansky was tried and sentenced by the Soviet courts, he gave a speech that was publicized all over the world. To me.it seemed clear that this speech,standing alone, constituted one of the most powerful examples of Kiddush Hashem in my lifetime. Nevertheless, our yeshivish-chareidi world chose to completely ignore the story. I found that many Jews who came from Europe were scandalized by this indifference. But our generation thought nothing of it.

    I have often thought that one of the problems of not having a Bais Hamikdosh, amongst many others, is that as long as there was a machtzis hashekel, there was an easy rule of thumb to define who is a Jew, at least for purposes of discussion, whoever pays the shekel counts. Today we don’t have that, so we have to look for other things.

  2. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Regarding the DPS, there are circumstances when virutally no one should be excluded, as long as they still possess a Tzelem Elokim, the image of G-d…”

    In a recent radio interview with Zev Brenner, Rabbi Efraim Sturm, formerly of the National Council of Young Israel, told of a level of civility which could apply to even serious ideological opponents. Perhaps the idea is a balance somewhat similar to the Netziv’s (preface to Bereishis)regarding the Avos’ interaction with their contemporaries.

    Rabbi Sturm was a representative in the World Zionist Congress, when its majority was trying to pass a bill in favor of a particular form of religious pluralism, while Rabbi Sturm was trying to have it defeated. The Meretz and Labor representatives voted in favor of the WZC bill, but when the ballots were tallied, the bill failed by a very small margin, because all of the Reform representatives voted against it!

    When Rabbi Alexander Schindler was asked why Reform did that, he told Rabbi Sturm(loosely quoted) that it was “because of friendship. Many mornings when you came into the dining room, you sat down at our table and kibbutzed with us, and we liked you”(interestingly, an Agudah leader also had a relationship with Rabbi Schindler).

    My point in mentioning the above is not to endorse pluralism, or to deny that Reform has caused serious damage to Torah Judaism; I also agree that each interaction should be assessed separately for a possible blurring of ideological boundaries. Rather, my point is that today, civility and menschlichkeit in communication are generally more effective than approaches which may have worked in the past(e.g., using terms like “clowns” in reference to the concept of non-Orthodox clergy is likely to be counter-productive).

  3. Ori says:

    Dr. Pearl: Accordingly, to distinguish true from false journalism, just choose any newspaper or TV channel and ask yourself when was the last time it ran a picture of a child, a grandmother or any empathy-evoking scene from the “other side” of a conflict.

    Ori: This is a nice, civilized standard. Very good for conflicts between sides that are nice and civilized. The divisions within Judaism are conflicts of this type. We may disagree with each other, but the idea of using anything stronger than words is laughable.

    However, this standard is counterproductive when dealing with real enemies. Imagine WWII newsreels in the US showing kindly German grandmothers in Dresden, or Japanese school children learning their letters in Hiroshima. Would they have made the world a better place, or a worse one?

  4. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    I apologize for the confusion. I wrote about two different levels: the DPS, and the mitzvah that the Chinuch writes about. Regarding the DPS, there are circumstances when virutally no one should be excluded, as long as they still possess a Tzelem Elokim, the image of G-d (see Sforno on Bereishis that it is called a tzelem rather than a portion because it is possible for a person to lose it.) It is only in regard to the special requirements of v’ahavta – the ones that reflect closeness and brotherhood, rather than acknowledging essential humanity that it is appropriate to speak of halachic guidelines.

    R. Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l once articulated those guidelines. He pointed to the words of the Rambam after his presentation of the Thirteen Principles of Faith. He argued that the Rambam was a posek, and had therefore paskened for us that no matter what other beliefs a person held, if he/she subscribed to the Principles, he had to be seen and treated as an insider, not an outsider.

  5. Ori says:

    This would certainly include giving credit where credit is due – even to those with whom we must often disagree, but who clearly fall within the halachic boundaries of inclusion.

    What do those boundaries mean? That you would only give credit to groups that follow Torah truthfully? Those that follow Torah and make a few minor mistakes?

    People here often lament the exclusion of Charedim. But isn’t limiting credit to groups within certain Halachic boundaries the same thing?

  6. Joseph says:

    Indeed. The DPS as applied to Daniel himself was inclusive enough to wed outside the faith.

  7. mb says:

    “This was despite some very strongly enunciated words of opposition to some of the goings-on in some of those camps.) This would certainly include giving credit where credit is due – even to those with whom we must often disagree, but who clearly fall within the halachic boundaries of inclusion.”

    But it this the crux of the problem? It is not at all clear who falls within or without those boundaries.(except to those in the middle, like me, of course)

  8. Garnel Ironheart says:

    It’s interesting to recall that the Daniel Pearl standard applied to the man himself. Few want to remember that he was going to that part of the world to meet with the terrorists so he could write a SYMPATHETIC piece about them and advertise their side of the story to the world. Oh irony!

  9. Ori says:

    The comparison between journalists and Tanakhic prophets is apt for another reason. We tend to think about prophets are people who are truly guided by G-d, doing their best to deliver His message. I can’t prove this, but I suspect that is a reporting bias. The Tanakh focuses on the true prophets, because they are the ones who matter to our lives today.

    See I Kings 22, for example, for a discussion that involved both kinds of prophets. The true prophet is clearly in the minority.

  10. joel rich says:

    but who clearly fall within the halachic boundaries of inclusion.
    =========================================

    I’ll go out on a limb and posit that the publications that appear to fail your DPS standard would claim an exemption based on your last caveat(i.e. in their understanding of halacha these groups don’t qualify for inclusion).

    KT