I Am a Jew

Israel's president reflects on the meaning behind journalist Daniel Pearl's last words.


Excerpted from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, ed. Judea and Ruth Pearl. Order online from Jewish Lights Publishing.

The late Daniel Pearl, of blessed memory, by stating "I am a Jew" to his terrorist captors before being murdered, proclaimed his affiliation to a religious and national entity and his being part of Jewish history. This declaration encompasses a way of life, beliefs, and views. To be a Jew means an outlook on worldwide issues, founded on Jewish principles based on the Bible.

To be a Jew means to belong to a faith, which gave humanity the belief in one God and universal values, that has accompanied humankind since the founding of the nation 3,313 years ago at Mount Sinai, when we sanctified our faith and received the Ten Commandments.

To be a Jew means to belong to a people who showed determination and steadfastness and who withstood many afflictions and tribulations for thousands of years.

The Jew belongs to a nation, which lost its independence when the First Temple was destroyed 2,690 years ago and the people of Israel were expelled and exiled to Babylon.

He belongs to a nation, which the Persian empire tried to annihilate 2,480 years ago. The Purim miracle occurred and the Jews were saved.

He belongs to a nation, which the Hellenist empire, 2,166 years ago, tried to convert and did not succeed. The Jewish People then revolted under the Maccabeans against the Greeks and in so doing prevented the loss of independence.

He belongs to a nation, which lost its independence a second time, 1,933 years ago, to the Roman empire, resulting in the exile of the Jewish People from its country.

He belongs to a nation, which for 2,000 years experienced continuous suffering, expulsion, forced conversions, exiles, inquisition, and, worst of all, the terrible Holocaust by the Nazis and their collaborators. The Jewish People rose up from the ashes and succeeded in reviving and obtaining sovereignty and independence in its homeland.

No event in the history of mankind is similar to that of the Jewish People.

Fifty-six years ago, the Jewish people succeeded in reestablishing its State, a democratic, modern, and liberal country with advanced scientific and technological achievements, a country that bases its national life on the vision of the prophets of Israel and on the moral values that Judaism has given humanity.

Judaism emphasizes the value of communal life and mutual solidarity. "All Israel is responsible for one another" is the key phrase outlining a way of life. To be a Jew means to care for the weak and the needy.

Social justice and concern for the weak are cornerstones of Judaism and of the Torah of Israel, and we see a straight line between concern for the weak and our possession of the Land of Israel. "Justice, justice shall you pursue that you may thrive and inherit the land." In other words, in order for the Jewish People to live successfully in its historical homeland, it must take care of the weak, the orphan, the widow, and the disabled, as social justice is the basis of our life in Israel and the beginning of our redemption.

In the Bible there are many references and laws dealing with social justice and concern for the weak, including the commandments of "digest" (a poor man?s share of the crop), "peah" (leaving the corner crops for the poor), forgotten sheaves, the "shmitta" year (the seventh year during which the land must be uncultivated), and the jubilee year (for the redemption of people and land). It is even stated that "charity is equal to all the commandments of the Torah." The State of Israel, as a Jewish democratic country, is also an advanced welfare state, confronting social needs.

There is no conflict between Judaism and Christianity and Islam.

After all, Christianity is based on Judaism and the Bible. The festivals and Jewish tradition were sanctified in the life of the Jewish nation before Christianity appeared, and Christianity is also based on them. During my last meeting with His Holiness the Pope in the Vatican, he quoted the Prophet Jeremiah and said to me that Jews are the elder brothers of Christians.

Likewise, regarding Islam: When the Jews were persecuted and expelled from Europe, approximately 500 years ago during the Middle Ages, the Muslim world absorbed the exiled Jews. The cooperation between Judaism and Islam resulted in a period of great cultural development for all humanity. During those times, great collections of writing, meditations, and culture–in commentaries, law, Jewish thought, and communal life–were created.

The prayer book and the Bible, on which our national and religious life are based, bound thousands of Jewish communities, cut off from each other for thousands of years and scattered throughout the world. In this way, Judaism and the Jewish People were maintained.

The prayers in synagogue are meant for religious and worship purposes, but they are also an expression of appreciation of Judaism?s magnificent past, thanks to which we survived as a nation. The synagogue is also a place where moral principles and rules of behavior are imparted to the congregants; in this way, a combination of religious prayer, honoring the past, and the acquisition of moral principles was created.

Every Jew feels a spiritual bond and an emotional attachment to Judaism even if, in the era of globalization, he hardly knows the basic concepts of Judaism; even if in his bookcase there are no books dealing with the Jewish faith, the Jewish People, or Jewish culture and history.

The values of Judaism are universal and humane values and certainly in all sectors and parts of the nation–Sephardic, Ashkenazi, ultra-Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Israelis, and Diaspora Jews are all linked and joined to each other and to these values.

Judaism, therefore, is focused on social justice and concern for the weak. Judaism is faith, a world outlook, universal values, laws governing man?s conduct toward his fellow man and his conduct toward God. Judaism is linked to life.

To be a Jew means to belong to a nation whose people are linked to each other spiritually and emotionally, to belong to a group that shares a common magnificent past, one tradition, and a common destiny and fate. The Jewish people are the sons of one father. They are one big family.

In conclusion, I wish to quote Professor Erwin Radkowski, the Chief Scientist of the American Atomic Energy Commission in the sixties, which built the first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus. When asked how he recommends improving one?s thinking ability, his reply was: "Study a page of the Gemara (commentary on the Jewish Oral Law) every day."

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