The Pianist

We watched The Pianist on sunday. It’s a good movie about the holocaust. It tells the story of a Jewish pianist, Mr. Szpilman, in Warsaw during World War II. It shows the restrictions imposed by the Nazis on the Jewish population and their internment in the Warsaw ghetto. Szpilman’s family was sent to a concentration camp while he survived. The second half of the movie is basically Szpilman being helped by his friends in hiding and looking at events unfold. Szpilman looks like helpless to do anything except try to survive. The movie moved us a lot with its scenes of death and destruction.

After the movie, my wife and I got into a discussion on anti-semitism and how the restrictions on Jews increased over time until they reached genocidal proportions. It got us thinking about the anti-semitism in the Muslim world today. We have always found the conspiracy theories about Jewish (usually referred as Zionist in this context in Pakistan) power rather strange. These are, however, widespread feelings and are prevalent in the educated middle class as well. [Caveat: As with all generalizations, this one is also defective. Also, I have obviously not met even a small fraction of the 1 billion Muslims. This is just anecdotal evidence of my experience. Hence, it applies mainly to urban middle-class Pakistanis concerned about religion, politics and international affairs and even then not to all.] The more nationalist Pakistanis believe there is an axis of Indo-Zionist conspiracies against Muslims and especially Pakistan. The US is usually considered to be completely under Jewish influence and then there are the conspiracy theories floating about the role of Israel in the September 11 terrorist attacks. It is true that most of these wacko feelings started out with the founding of Israel (except may be in the region surrounding Israel.) But they have gone far beyond anti-Israel and even if there is peace in the Middle East tomorrow, the anti-semitism would remain.

One thing that I have observed in Pakistan is the lack of knowledge of history. History, except Muslim history in South Asia, is not taught in Pakistani schools; so it’s not a surprise. Hence, most people do not know much about World War II and the evil that was Nazi Germany. World War II is often seen as a war between European powers (probably countries that saw battles on the home front, like Indonesia, feel differently.) So there is a tendency for moral equivalence between the Allies and the Axis. When you add anti-semitism to the mix, there are people who either deny the holocaust, minimize it or horror of horrors think Hitler should have killed all Jews.

Back to the discussion with my wife: since we thought that the holocaust was a gradual process starting out probably in the hatred of Jews, we were worried whether Muslims and/or Arabs might try genocide one day. However, we came to the conclusion that it would not happen. The reason for that is not moral compunction on the part of Muslims/Arabs; rather the practical situation on the ground would deter anything like that. It’s a good thing that Israel today is a military power and has nuclear weapons. Also, I believe US support to Israel, especially for the survival of Israel itself, would deter or in the worst case thwart any attempt to destroy the country.

Categorized as Movies

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. You make an interesting point about the use of “Zionist” as a code word for “Jewish.” I’ve noticed that as well, and maybe I should have commented on it in my essay about the language of the Israeli-Arab conflict; sometimes “Zionist” is not meant in the political sense at all but as a a synonym for “Jew.”

    As for the Holocaust, my views on that are a long story. Suffice it to say that I think the Holocaust is frequently overemphasized by modern American and European Jews and that it often occupies an entirely too central place in group identity. Victim mentalities are unhealthy, and the place of the Holocaust in current Jewish imagery has encouraged such a mentality.

  2. The belief in conspiracy theories is both frustrating, and utterly immune to logic. I’ve quit talking to my parents on certain issues because of this.

    Bear in mind that conspiracy theories in Pakistan are not restricted to the imaginary Indo-Israeli axis. People (in Karachi at least) are also willing to believe the worst of their neighbours, the police and the army.

    What contributes to this? Lack of education is one. Poorly educated credulous people are like dry wood for conspiracy theories. A belief in personal powerlessness and the omnipotence of outside powers also helps. Pakistanis have almost a religious belief in the omnipotence of the CIA. And third, the existance of real conspiracies and unexplained events. CIA really is active in Pakistan, and that Gen.Zia’s death is still unexplained. A few real conspiracies allow belief in a 100 crazy ones.

    (I would note that North Americans can also be succeptible o conspiracy theories, from Kennedy, to UFOs, to black helicopters)

    I also agree that the real, deep, anti-semitism, despite it’s fairly shallow historical roots in a lot of Muslim countries (Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia) is not going to disappear with the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  3. Jonathan: Zionist is the word used when someone is talking about Jews derisively or in the context of conspiracy theories etc. I have mostly seen it used in the Urdu version (“Saihooni”) in newspapers.

    Regarding the Holocaust,I think it destroyed a lot of lives and affected a lot more people. Also, since it put everyone of Jewish descent in one category, it is natural for it to become part of the group identity.

    Ikram: Conspiracy theories come in all shapes and sizes. People in Sindh for example have conspiracy theories against the Punjabis. The official culture of secrecy in Pakistan also leads to more conspiracy theories.

    Regarding Gen.Zia’s death, well all I can say is whoever killed him should have done it sooner.

  4. Interesting discussion. I’ve posted about conspiracy theories and about anti-Semitism before on my blog.

    The word “Zionist” is kind of elastic. First, there’s the point Jonathan has raised about what exactly the original Zionism was. Many people that I have seen use Zionism today to mean “support of Israel”. In this sense, a Christian like Jerry Falwell is a Zionist while a Jew who did not support Israel would not be a Zionist. Here I am referring to support of Israel’s actions and policies not its right to exist or not. Most of the Muslims that I know oppose Israel’s policies, not its right to exist and therefore, when they say that they condemn Zionism, they generally mean that they condemn an ideology that leads to Israel’s policies, not an ideology about Israel having a state. Do you see what I mean?

    I think even more fundamental than rescuing the original meaning of the word “Zionism” is to cure Muslims of the idea that all Jews are Zionists and that all Zionists are Jews (in the sense of “Zionism” that I mentioned). If we can at least get people to mean “I’m against those who support Israel’s policies” instead of “I’m against the Jews” when they say “I’m against Zionists” then we’ll have made a big change. Maybe once we get that far, we can talk about whether Zionism is really the correct name for “support for Israel’s policies”.

  5. Al-Muhajabah— I think the misconception to correct is that Zionism = Sharonism. This idea is spread far beyond Muslims. A few all-Israel-all-the-time web-sites I frequent have the same misconception.

    Zack— You raise an interesting point about the Pakistani “culture of secrecy”. It’s something freedom-of-information types should make a bigger deal of. If a government (like the Bush gvt) is making a trade off between national-security and freedom-of-information, the former almost always wins. Perhaps if there were a greater realization of the corrosive effects of overdoing secrecy (e.g. conspiracy-mania), the bias against openness would shift somewhat.

  6. Al-Muhajabah, here’s your point in plain-speak: “Not all Jews are murderous thugs who want to deny the humanity of Palestinians.” IMO, Zionism is simply Jewish nationalism. And “support of Israel” is not exactly what people equate Zionism with; rather it’s “support of Israel even when it’s wrong” and “support for Greater Israel” that people have started using Zionism for.

    My original point about Zionism was that it has become code to hate Jews in general in the Muslim world.

    Ikram: I can tell you lots of funny anecdotes about government secrecy in Pakistan, but I am sure it would be a violation of the Pakistani Official Secrets Act.

  7. Given that most Muslims I know strongly oppose Israel’s current policies, then it would follow that they believe that Zionism is support for Israel whether it’s right or wrong, including when it’s wrong. I was however attempting to make a contrast between Zionism as “Israel’s right to form a state”, which Jonathan mentioned, and Zionism as a more general “support of Israel’s actions”. My point, as I stated, was that most Muslims that I know (who may be an unrepresentative group?) do not deny Israel’s right to exist, they just oppose Israel’s current policies. Whether it’s “support for Israel” or “support for Israel, right or wrong” seems to be a relatively minor detail.

    Second, if “murderous thugs who want to deny the humanity of Palestinians” is your definition of Israeli policy or Ikram’s definition of Sharonism, then fine, you can interpret my words that way if you want. However, I did not say any such thing and I have never said any such thing to the best of my knowledge. I would appreciate it if you would not put words like that in my mouth.

    I thought that my post was clear, but apparently I was mistaken. I will have to see if I can find a better way to say what I mean.

    Anti-semitism is a terrible problem in the Muslim world, it’s like a poison or a cancer that may yet destroy us from within. All I was attempting to suggest was that rather than getting too picky about the precise meaning of “Zionism” we get Muslims to stop using it as a code word for Jews when what they mean by Jews IS “murderous thugs”.

    I’m really sorry that I’ve made such a mess of explaning myself.

  8. Al-Muhajabah: I apologize about that comment.

    Your last comment makes your position much clearer. I do disagree a little though in the sense that I think there is a lot of difference between “support of Israel” and “support of Israel when it’s wrong.”

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