I find myself thinking a lot about Danny Pearl these days. He was the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped in Pakistan a few months after 9/11. His murder was filmed by his terrorist captives, in which they made him say out loud before beheading him, “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish.”
It was shocking, the brutality of it — all the hate of Jews that sometimes seems so hard to comprehend when contemplating the vast evil of the Holocaust, brought home in the singular torment of one man staring into the camera and saying the simplest of facts about himself and his family, the reason for his slaughter.
I follow the Auschwitz Memorial on Twitter and its leaders understand the impact of individualizing our understanding of what happened in that place of hell on earth. Several times a day they tweet photos of people, the very young, sometimes babies, the very old and every age in between of the murdered. The tweets state the date each were born and where, and then when. When they were taken from their homes, their neighborhoods, their communities and deported to Auschwitz. When and how they died there.
I sat in my backyard last week surrounded by the peace and beauty of our magnificent town and I tried to imagine what it would feel like to hear an air raid siren. To have to rush into a safe room. To hear angry voices and sporadic gunfire outside my door. To quiet terrified children. To hear the screams of my neighbors. The shattering of glass. Death coming closer.
For a few moments last week, we were them. We were the 20-somethings dancing with abandon at a concert in the desert and then gunned down one by one or hiding for hours under a pile of leaves hoping not to be found. We were the parents of the babies who in the echo of the pogroms of an earlier generation, witnessed them killed like animals. Or worse.
We were the grandmother in the golf cart, being driven away from our life, our everything. We were the young woman, splayed out in the back of a pickup truck and driven through the streets. We were the three-year-old granddaughter who inexplicably stayed quiet for more than nine hours without food or water, until she heard a voice and a knock on the window and said in Hebrew, “Grandfather is here.”
For a little while after last Saturday’s massacre, mostly all of us, a fractured, angry nation, had moral clarity. What Hamas did, armed with maps and instructions, was purposely torture and kill innocent people, just because, like Danny Pearl, they were Jewish. The outrage and grief was felt throughout the world as The White House, 10 Downing Street, the Brandenburg gate in Berlin were lit up in blue and white, in solidarity with Israel. A remarkable gathering was held on the streets of Tokyo where citizens gathered, waving Israeli flags, singing a Hebrew prayer.
Yet, it didn’t take long for the moral clarity to start to erode. On college campuses first, then in commentary and capitals around the world. To blame the victim, to blame Israel. Oh, what a common, lazy trope that is.
Yet, I also heard moral struggle in the tears and the voices of Jewish friends. Israel has a right to defend itself but what of the innocent people in Gaza? How can we spare them further suffering? Yes Hamas is responsible, yes they are using Palestinians as human shields. But Israel has an obligation to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, they said.
Unlike the purposely uninformed students at Harvard and elsewhere who don’t bother to understand history or acknowledge that Jews are an indigenous population of the Holy Land, this anguish is not borne of false moral equivalence. This anguish is the definition of deep moral clarity.
After Daniel Pearl’s murder, his wife Marianne, pregnant at the time with their first child, wrote a book, later made into a movie in tribute to her husband entitled, “A Mighty Heart.” His mother, Ruth devoted the rest of her life to battling antisemitism and also promoting cultural understanding including providing fellowships to Muslim journalists. In an interview in 2014, she said, “Dehumanizing people is the first step in inviting violence like Nazism and fascism. We have to do our share, and that’s the part that’s the most difficult to get people to realize. It’s very easy to dehumanize. I’m sure the killers of Danny had no sense of identifying with the humanity that connects us. For them Danny was an object.”
My friends who grieve for the murdered in Israel, and see and fear the rise of antisemitism around them, anguish over the innocents at risk in Gaza. They know Palestinians, like Jews, are not objects. They refuse to dehumanize them. What mighty hearts the Jewish people have.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”