Thursday, March 1, 2012

"My Name is Daniel Pearl... My Father is Jewish. My Mother is Jewish. I am Jewish."


I don't really want to write about politics or contemporary religion in this blog. I wrote about Occupy when it was on campus, because that seemed relevant to my academic life. I think I'm going to make an exception, though, now that the the latest story has emerged with the identity of another dead Jewish person who has been baptized in the Mormon Church. At some point, as academics, we have a responsibility to engage with the modern world. I've written before about my threshold for disregarding that modern world as being pretty high. But I've reached it. Maybe it's because I'm Jewish, maybe it's because I'm a scholar of religious conflict and coexistence, maybe it's because I miss the younger, invincible version of myself who fearlessly wanted to be a war correspondent. Whatever the reason, I'm climbing the privileged cloistered walls of the academy and of the middle ages to say this:

Cut it out. Now.

This is a man who died trying to bring us a story that would have made us all more human because it would have allowed us greater insight into the war being waged in our national name. He was courageous and he died professing his religion. He suffered for being a journalist, and he may have even suffered more for being a Jew. The title of the video that depicts his death was "The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl." Those are the two things he died for: The story and the faith. Leave him, in death, with both of them.

Since Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, began his campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency, the media have focused much more attention on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Some of that media coverage has been deeply unfair: How many stories about Mormon sumptuary strictures included the phrase "magic underpants"? But some of it has also drawn attention to the deplorable practice of baptizing dead people as Mormons. Recently, most attention has gone to the posthumous baptisms of the parents of Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal, all of whom perished in the Holocaust, but it turns out that President Obama's mother was also baptized after her death from cancer. We are taught as children not to speak ill of the dead because they cannot defend themselves; surely co-opting and commandeering the spiritual lives of the dead who have no choice in associating themselves or not with a particular set of beliefs should fall under the same prohibition.

The pace of the internet and the blogosphere is such that I wanted to post something while this was still newsworthy and not a week or a month from now when I will have had more time to reflect in a historically-informed and rigorous fashion. I've been struggling for a while to formulate, in intellectual terms, what bothers me so much on the gut level about this practice of posthumously baptizing Jews as Mormons — that is, to perform my responsibility as an academic and offer some kind of thoughtful and contextual commentary on a serious issue of the contemporary world. On some level, my rational self argues back: They're dead. And none of it's real. So why get so exercised about it? But every time I see a story like this one, it eats away at me. I'm still shaking now thinking about Daniel Pearl. I'm not yet ready to function with my academic hat on. Not about this. I'm still just trying to put one foot in front of the other wearing my human hat. So there will be more about this topic in this space.

But for now, please, just leave my dead alone.


  1. I was about to post about this on Historiann blog, who doesn't seem to understand why Jews could be so offended by this practice (you might want to head over there and read the two threads).

  2. Thanks for the heads-up and the ht. I just went over and read really quickly, although I don't want to write any more on this now until I can sit down and write something coherent, very well reasoned and more essayistic in tone. Forced conversions are something that's in my academic wheelhouse, so I feel a particular responsibility to handle this well. I don't know that what I've written here will persuade someone who thinks that "only" co-opting someone's name is not a problem, but perhaps the next piece of it will.