Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's latest comments in the United Kingdom have been called out for being anti-Semitic, with Israeli and major international media picking up the news.
He was speaking at the Cambridge Union debating society on Sunday, June 16, where some of his comments reportedly riled Jewish students there.
Mahathir's Jew-baiting comments were said to have been followed by laughter from the audience.
The Cambridge Union noted in a statement after the event that the laughter had originated from the prime minister’s delegation seated in the middle section of the room.
Called out by student from Singapore
A Cambridge law undergraduate from Singapore, Arjun Dhar, who was also in attendance, subsequently called out Mahathir's latest comments in a June 18 Facebook post.
Arjun highlighted that Mahathir's comments were anti-Semitic and demonstrated an inability to support his positions with logic.
The student's post also noted that a significant portion of the crowd were purportedly sycophantic to Mahathir's sentiments -- tantamount to successful dog-whistling by Mahathir.
These various versions reporting on Mahathir are highly critical of the Malaysian leader, who has a long history of utilising anti-Jewish rhetoric.
Malaysian media, on the other hand, painted a very different picture of Mahathir's speech.
Malaysian media whitewashes Mahathir's comments
Malaysian newspaper The Star reported that Mahathir's speech was well-received by the crowd.
It put out the following headlines:
- Dr M engages audience with wit and humour during Cambridge talk
- Cambridge audience tickled pink by Dr M’s scintillating wit
The audience at the event consisted of Mahathir's wife, Cambridge undergraduates, Malaysians living in the UK, Malaysia Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, and Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.
What did Mahathir say?
Mahathir's anti-Semitic statements reportedly included:
- Jews were complicit in the "killings" of the Israeli state,
- Nearly all Jews were bad, but the few good Jews were those he knew, and
- Jews should have learnt from their experiences in World War II to not treat others (the Palestinians) in the same manner.
These remarks were documented in Arjun's Facebook post.
Arjun elaborated that Mahathir backed these statements up by generalising who Jews are -- a fallacy that Mahathir himself had criticised the West of engaging in when stereotyping Malays as lazy.
Arjun added that when this double standard was pointed out by a member of the audience, Mahathir replied: "Sometimes we have to generalise."
Mahathir's glossing over of Malaysia's treatment of its minorities, and his own experience of racism as a medical student in Singapore, further problematised Mahathir's statement that Jews should have learnt from their experiences in World War II, Arjun wrote.
Mahathir subjected to questions
But it appeared Mahathir was not exactly given a free pass and allowed to coast through his talk, as he was challenged with questions from the crowd and a moderator.
Mahathir was questioned to justify his anti-Semitism to the event's moderator, Adam Davies, an American interviewer of Jewish descent -- a spectacle that made for uncomfortable viewing at times during the event.
However, Davies was able to challenge Mahathir on the inconsistency of his beliefs that only Jews, and not Americans, were to blamed for supporting Israel, along with the Malaysian leader's decision to ban Israeli swimmers from the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships.
“Our moderator repeatedly challenged the Prime Minister on his anti-Semitic comments, bringing the conversation to the topic continuously,” the Cambridge Union statement said.
The statement added that the Cambridge Jewish Society was also invited to attend the talk and ask questions -- where asking hard questions and free debate have been a time-honoured tradition of the Cambridge Union.
Additionally, questions by the Union of Jewish Students were also relayed by Davies to Mahathir.
The UJS represents more than 8,000 Jewish students on UK campuses.
Touched on gay marriage as well
Mahathir also said at the event that he rejected gay marriage, a position he has consistently held for a long time.
When Davies pressed Mahathir to explain if his position on marriage's objective being procreation excluded infertile people as well, the Malaysian PM back-pedalled to state that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
This was after Mahathir had initially said at the event: "I don’t understand this gay marriage."
History of anti-Jewish rhetoric
This is not the first time Mahathir has made anti-Semitic remarks publicly.
He has in the past questioned whether six million Jewish people died during the Holocaust and described Jewish people as “hook nosed”.
At the Oxford Union in January 2019, he was repeatedly challenged by students over his anti-Semitic comments.
He then said in response: “I cannot understand this. We talk about freedom of speech and yet you cannot say anything against Israel, against the Jews. Why is that so?”
In that same month, Malaysia banned Israeli athletes, which resulted in the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) stripping Malaysia of the right to host the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships.
Malaysia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
On Sunday, Mahathir reportedly continued to defend his decision to call Jews “hooked nosed”.
“People do generalise, in describing certain people we take some general characteristics that they have, why is it that it’s the Jews who resent this when other people don’t resent being accused of some general characteristic that they have?” he said.