March 14, 2002
The Chosen One
I believed Daniel Pearl was dead all along.
Weeks before the U.S. government confirmed his death, I thought it unlikely he would return alive. I returned in December from reporting for the Village Voice from Pakistan, exhausted from being stoned, punched and chased by Islamic fundamentalists. I was burned out -- and burned literally -- from being pushed into one too many burning George Bush effigies, weary from having to repeatedly explain that Americans do not hate Muslims, and that "no, it's not true that we enjoy seeing dead Afghan children on television."
I returned from Pakistan frustrated from arguing that 4,000 Jews did not call in sick to work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 -- explaining that Americans do not classify employees by religion, so how would anyone know?
Naturally, in the back of my mind, there was always some hope that this man -- a man exactly my age, like myself a journalist -- would escape death. Then a friend said, "Well, of course he's Jewish, with a name like Daniel Pearl...." And any lingering doubts I had about his fate were erased instantly.
"My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew and I am a Jew" are the last words Pearl uttered, an instant before his throat was slashed, according to government officials who have viewed the videotape of his murder. At least one of his captors has admitted that the kidnappers were specifically looking for a Jewish victim. Curiously, government officials and Pearl's family, as well as his employer, The Wall Street Journal, are downplaying this angle, as if drawing attention to what is clearly an anti-Jewish killing would dishonor Pearl, who was not an observant Jew.
Yet, his murderers are identified as members of "a fiercely anti-Semitic" Islamic terrorist group called Jaish-e-Mohammed. I can only wonder about what qualifies as "fiercely anti-Semitic" in Pakistan, where anti-Semitism flows as easily as water. In interviews conducted while I was there, government officials would occasionally veer off into long diatribes about the Jews; fundamentalist religious leaders, who educate hundreds of thousands of children, spoke of little else.
In Islamabad, Syed Ubad Ulah Shah, an elderly mullah responsible for the education of hundreds of youngsters, said, "To me, [the bombing of the World Trade Center] seems the design of the Jewish lobby. The Jewish lobby wants to pit Islam against Christianity." Seeking out more moderate voices, I introduced myself to a religious leader from Pakistan's much-persecuted Shia community. He was a gentle, educated man, the keeper of a holy shrine outside the city. After we had spent some time together and I had met his family, he asked me, "So can you explain to me, why is it that America lets the Jews run everything? They run the government, the newspapers, they turn the American people against us. Why do you let the Jews spoil things between us -- we could be friends." His sentiments were gentler than most.
In Karachi, the southern port city where Pearl was kidnapped, I hung out at the dilapidated Karachi Press Club and rode off to cover the anti-war rallies on the backs of mopeds with the local photographers. At one such rally, sponsored by Jamaat-I-Islami, a fundamentalist group, the crowd cheered Osama bin Laden's image and took turns chanting, "Death to Israel" and "Death to America." Word spread that a Westerner was in the crowd and people became agitated; stones and fists flew my way before my hosts pulled me to safety. These were times you wanted to crawl out of your skin, pretend you were someone else. I tried to buy a fake passport that listed my citizenship as Canadian. Journalists routinely lied when asked if they were American. Guides and interpreters introduced their American clients as Swiss or French.
To admit to being Jewish in such a climate would have been unthinkable. On occasion, people asked me point-blank if I was Jewish. I denied it, listing instead my polyglot background, not bothering to explain that my father is in fact Jewish, but that by Jewish law, I am not. I wonder what Pearl said in response to such questions. A rudimentary amount of research on the Internet might have revealed that Pearl's parents emigrated from Israel; his father's name is Yehuda. Government officials now say that the kidnappers never intended to release him; that they kidnapped him with the express intention of killing him.
As is always the case, Pakistan's anti-Semitism exists in a vacuum; with the exception of the tiny elite who had traveled abroad, no one I knew had actually met a Jew -- there simply aren't any in Pakistan. In a country where perhaps three-quarters of the population is illiterate, people take their cues from their religious leaders and politicians. Few understand the difference between Israel's hawks and doves, or the nuances and differences of opinion between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, American Jews and Israeli Jews.
In such a climate, Pearl's kidnappers stripped him of his humanity; the funny, creative, fiddle-playing husband and father-to-be is lost. It is replaced with the enemy, the other, the Jew.