Legacy, Life & Zion: An Interview with World-Renowned Professor Judea Pearl

By David J. Chernobylsky. Edited by Leora Matian and Adam Shamam.

Not only is Professor Judea Pearl a world-renowned Professor of Computer Science at UCLA and the recipient of the ACM Turing Award, the highest honor in Computer Science, as well as the Rumelhart Prize and Harvey Prize whose work has revolutionized the fields of Artificial Intelligence and Causality, he is also a Zionist. This past December, I sat down with Professor Judea Pearl to speak with him about his connection to Israel and about how the events concerning his son in 2002 affected that relationship. Professor Judea Pearl’s son, Daniel Pearl, was a top journalist for the Wall Street Journal and in 2002 he traveled to Pakistan to cover the post 9/11 sentiments in that country. He was taken hostage by Al-Qaeda and decapitated on the 1st of February. Daniel Pearl’s legacy lives on and Professor Judea Pearl’s words are a testament to the strength of a great man. This is the interview I had with Professor Judea Pearl on December 19th, 2014:

TZN: I’d like to ask you about your son, specifically about how what happened to your son affected your relationship with Israel.

Judea Pearl: It is a tragedy. It forced me to articulate that relationship, verbally, from my inner-most emotions. I think that every Jew has strong sentiments towards our people and towards Israel, specifically. We have a certain level of emotion and we sympathize. We feel connected. We defend them [Israel and fellow Jews] when they are attacked. But beyond the emotional level you have to verbalize those emotions and philosophize about them in scientific terms. You have to defend those emotions using universal vocabulary. There were different tasks to be done and I had to do them. It was my obligation to explain to Muslims what Jewish-ness means because I had the rare opportunity to communicate with a diverse array of Muslims.

TZN: What does Judaism, or Jewish-ness, mean to you personally?

Judea Pearl: To me, personally, it means identifying with the past, present and future of a collective people who happen to call themselves Jews.

TZN: I like that. In your opinion, what is the Jew’s connection to Israel? Meaning, what is the spiritual and emotional connection to Israel that is felt on an individual level. Where do you believe that it stems from?

JP: In my particular case I was born in Israel. But this is only one string of the connection, and not even the strongest string. It is the same way that a fish does not know the value of water. Reasonable, right? Because it is only when the fish is pulled out of the water does it start to appreciate what oxygen and hydrogen actually are made of and how much good they produce when combined together.  [Chuckles] To live in that environment its part of the norm. It’s part of your water. You don’t think about what it needs to be. It just is.

TZN: What about for the people who were not born in Israel. Many people—students for example—take a Birthright Trip: a ten-day trip to Israel and then come back, having had a great, fun time. What would you hope that they gain from the trip and the experience as a whole? They went into the water and they felt that connection. Then they left. What do you think is the overall value of it all?

JP: I never participated in one of those trips so I don’t really know. I heard these are good programs but I am not exactly sure what they do on each trip. I do realize, though, that it is like coming to touch with something which was foggy and abstract, and then making it visible in real life. Seeing a society that speaks Hebrew—the language of their own history, family, or even possibly their extended family—makes it real. And it makes it normal. For them, it is likely the first time that they see this normality. For me, being born there this was normality. I didn’t go through this transition or transformation. I already knew it was real. Yet for those who have never seen it with their own eyes, it is very important to see the reality and how normal it really is there. People are not fighting all the time as we see here in the newspapers. They have their own lives. They go to the movies. They go to the theater and that is very important, I think, for American kids to see normal Jewish life.

It’s like the birthday of Zionism, which happened in 1853. There was a novelist by the name of Abraham Mapu. In 1853, he wrote a melodrama called Love of Zion. It spread like a brushfire through all the shtetls—through North Africa to the Middle East! He wrote a melodrama about the time of the Kings where Jews lived normal life. They had police men, army generals, prostitutes, thieves and conniving, no-good robbers. It caught the imagination of everyone in the shtetls all throughout the diaspora: the idea that ‘We can be normal’. And that made Zionism, not Herzl.

This is what I believe American Jews feel when they go to Israel: Normality! The touch of normality.

TZN: That is wonderful. Also, what are your thoughts on the idea that many people claim that you can only really identify with either America or Israel, but not both. My 10th grade AP European History Professor asked me that once and it caught me completely off guard. What do you think about that?

JP: I have no ambivalence about that at all. I see this feeling of identity as one that emerges from the connections to historical threads. There is nothing in the world that says you cannot belong to two historical threads or three. So, for instance, my heroes and my villains are the Biblical heroes and villains. That is what makes up my intellectual resources. But I also identify with the American story: Washington and Paul Revere. I can tell their stories to my children. I also identify with the thread of scientists. I admire Galileo, Archimedes and Einstein. This is another thread. I identify with all three of these historical threads. These are my villains and my heroes. There is nothing in the world that says you cannot identify with three threads.

Now, one can play devil’s advocate and say: what if there is a conflict [between Israel and America]? You are now forced to choose between defending Israel and defending America. In that case, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m not supposed to think about all possible conflicts. It is as if we ask: what if your mother and father get divorced, who are you going to support? I don’t want to deal with that problem. I have a mother and I love her. I have a father and I love him. [Laughs] As long as they are not fighting each other I live in harmony with both. None of this devil’s advocate motif.

TZN: Now, final question. We—The Zionist Narrative—are launching in January. We are going to be promoting and writing and blasting out to the community. We want people to read our material and internalize what we just talked about. What would you want people to get out of this magazine, both as a whole and from your piece, specifically?

JP: For them to realize that they are free to express the truth about what they feel about Israel and that those feelings are noble. The Zionist experiment is one of the noblest experiments and noblest endeavors of human history. It is a miracle and it is light to other nations and to other minorities. The fact that a scattered tribe of beggars and peddlers can pull themselves from the margin of history and turn a piece of desert into a world center of science, art, entrepreneurship and business is amazing. It is a source of pride and self-reliance. It is true and that is what Zionism is all about. That is what it reflects and broadcasts to the outside and that is why we are hated. Because we represent an alternative way of doing things; defying all textbooks, yet productive. That is exactly what I want every reader to understand.

Be proud because what you feel proud about in your innermost-self should be articulated using a diverse vocabulary. It is the vocabulary that makes your feelings legitimate and makes them inspiring to all, leftists and conservatives. That is the main thing.

You have something to be proud of so express it loudly and raise your head up high.

TZN: Thank you so much. That is what we are doing here. And I hope we will have the opportunity to activate the Jewish community and actually get people to be involved in what is happening in the world and for them to care about their own voice. We want to be the place where people feel safe to express what they believe in and that emotional connection that you spoke of earlier. That is why we want people to write to us and submit their experiences regarding Israel. Because we have a right to our voice and it has to be heard—

JP: —as a collective.

TZN: Precisely!


  1. Professor Judea Pearl’s Homepage: http://bayes.cs.ucla.edu/jp_home.html
  2. Daniel Pearl Foundation: http://www.danielpearl.org/home/about-us/judea-pearl/
  3. A.M. Turing Award Page: http://amturing.acm.org/award_winners/pearl_2658896.cfm