Last night I played Schubert.
I put his String Quintet in C Major on the disc player in my room and went to sleep thinking, of all people, of Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister. Across the lake from where I am writing, hidden in trees streaked with the colors of autumn, is the Wannsee villa where the Nazis in 1942 held a conference on how to dispose of Europe's remaining Jews. The stunning HBO movie "Conspiracy," re-creating the Wannsee Conference, ended with Adolf Eichmann playing the same inexpressibly lovely Schubert piece on the phonograph. Things have changed. We have gone from the phonograph to the disc player but as Mahathir shows, for too many people the thinking remains the same.
Addressing a summit of Islamic leaders in Malaysia last week, Mahathir said some ugly things about Jews. "The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy," he said. "They get others to fight and die for them," he continued, and then went on to say that Jews "have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power." Mahathir did not call for violence but essentially asked his fellow Muslims to outthink the Jews. His speech shows he has his work cut out for him.
Mahathir is a bit of a nut, given to extravagant, sometimes repellent statements. Yet in his 22 years in office, he's been seen as a progressive, moderate leader. He is also so far removed from the Western tradition of Jew-hatred that it's possible he did not even know his remarks would be deemed insulting and bigoted. In the West, most anti-Semites refrain from publicly saying what they believe.
When I wrote that not much has changed since the Wannsee Conference, I was referring not to Mahathir but to his audience. They gave the Malaysian a standing ovation. Asked afterward what they thought of the speech, the luminaries in attendance -- including some of our most cherished allies -- thought they had heard nothing untoward. Mahathir's claque included Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, our guy in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and even Russia's Vladimir Putin, representing his country's large Muslim minority. Either they chose to overlook the rank anti-Semitism in their midst or they took no umbrage. Islamic unity comes first.
Yes, indeed. But what ails part of the Islamic, especially Arab, world, is both anti-Semitism, which is rampant and state-tolerated, and the sort of thinking that underlies it. The belief that Jews have some sort of mystical powers -- that they are smarter and, of course, more diabolical than others -- provides the Islamic world with a handy explanation of why more than 1 billion Muslims cannot seem to cope with little Israel. But what corrupts and enfeebles large parts of the Islamic world is not Jews in either New York or Tel Aviv but its own self-serving and inept leadership -- in other words, some of the very people who stood and cheered the speech.
Sadly, throughout the Islamic world, anti-Zionism has been corrupted into anti-Semitism. Saudi clerics preach that Jews use the blood of non-Jewish children to make their Passover matzos. That classic forgery, the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," can be found throughout the Arab world. The tenets of traditional European anti-Semitism have been adopted in the Islamic world -- the globalization of crackpot conspiracy theories. Governments either look the other way or offer support.
The use of such language, the support of such ideas, is too often a precursor to violence. The scenario of Germany and the rest of Europe cannot apply. Islamic countries have next to no Jews. But it does transform the opposition to Israel from a political-nationalistic dispute into a kind of vast pogrom in which compromise becomes increasingly impossible. In the end, such language could justify the use of the so-called Islamic bomb, an atomic weapon such as the one Iran is now developing and Pakistan already has.
The Europeans were quick to denounce Mahathir's remarks -- the Germans with their customary and admirable swiftness. But the European Union itself demurred. French President Jacques Chirac maintained it was not the EU's place to issue a condemnation (though he did later write a letter to Mahathir criticizing the remarks). He apparently reserves moral condemnations for the United States.
The Wannsee house is now a museum, its walls covered with the usual, horrific pictures of the Holocaust. They seem of the past, but Mahathir's remarks, especially the way they were received, are very much of the present -- and maybe the future. The house still stands, Schubert is still lovely -- and good men still do nothing.