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How Ed Koch Honored My Son

The late New York mayor told me he wanted to be remembered by my son Daniel Pearl’s final words: ‘I am Jewish.’

Judea Pearl
February 04, 2013
© Robert Kalfus 2013
Trinity Church workers dig the grave beneath the headstone on the grave of Edward I. Koch, former mayor of the City of New York, on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. © Robert Kalfus 2013
© Robert Kalfus 2013
Trinity Church workers dig the grave beneath the headstone on the grave of Edward I. Koch, former mayor of the City of New York, on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. © Robert Kalfus 2013

Most Jews have simple epitaphs on their headstones—perhaps a quote from Psalms or a passage from the Torah, or maybe a phrase proclaimed by one of the prophets. Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, who died at 88 last Friday and is being buried today in his city, has the last words spoken by our son Daniel Pearl before he was murdered by terrorists in 2002: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

The fact that Koch has now died on the same day as our son seems to be yad hahashgacha, the hand of providence, at work. If I were a believer, I would say: How could anyone doubt God’s existence? Instead, I am struck by what a strange, surreal coincidence this is.

I never met Koch in person, but we first corresponded in 2004, when my wife and I were working on a book of essays inspired by the last words of our son. When I first heard what Danny said in that dungeon, I knew it would strike a chord with every Jewish soul—and, in fact, that every decent human being would be moved by this expression of identity. That he declared those words—words connecting him to his people with a shared, ancient history—makes me feel he wasn’t alone, that he had many millions of hearts with him in Karachi. “Back in the town of B’nai Brak there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chaim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town,” Danny said, and he had the pulse of the entire Jewish history with him, from the Talmudic scholars who founded the ancient town to the city-builders of modern Israel.

The echo of Danny’s words has not subsided. Koch took the dramatic act of putting it on his tombstone, but many others carry Danny’s words and are nurtured by them, quietly. For the book, we commissioned many prominent Jews to reflect on what the phrase “I am Jewish” meant to them, and Koch was one of the 300 people we asked. Koch sent in an essay mainly expressing anger about the terrorists—how they act against civilized society, and how they should be dealt with. It was about our world and how we got into this war, and we felt it didn’t fit the theme. The theme was what does being Jewish mean to you, a very personal question, and we asked Koch if he’d be open to revising it. Koch’s answer was definitive: That’s how I feel, he said, and I can’t change it.

Maybe his Jewishness was genuinely defined by who his enemies were. Or maybe it was defined primarily by being part of a certain generation of New Yorkers who lived through the Depression—after all, he refused to leave Manhattan, even in death. “I’m proud of being Jewish,” he would always proclaim, and his tombstone will never allow us to forget that fact: “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith,” it reads. But Koch never explained, at least publicly, what that meant beyond triumphalism and the joy of making it as a minority. Why be proud? What particular elements are there to be proud of? Surely there is more than the fact that we have survived persecution and genocides for being who we are.

Some will surely comment on the fact that Koch included how our son was murdered, and who his killers were: “Muslim terrorists.” Koch, as I said, was very angry about Islamist terror, and I think using these words was very purposeful on his part: a way of reminding us that our enemy is not 19 misguided lunatics, but a whole ideology that fosters anti-Western fanaticism and elevates itself above the norms of civilized society. In a time where political correctness was at its peak, perhaps it was productive for Ed Koch to remind New Yorkers that our real enemy is not Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but the ideology on which he grew and that is being passed on to his children, emboldened and intensified by the hour. That is our real enemy.

When the New York Times reported that Koch had chosen Danny’s words for his headstone a few years ago, I was extremely moved, and I called to thank him. “This is how I feel,” he told me, “and this is how I want to be remembered.”

As told to Bari Weiss.

Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, promoting East-West understanding through journalism, music and dialogue.