Mahathir and the Jews

Last week the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, telephoned the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, in Gaza to express his government’s strong support for the Palestinian cause. Significantly Mahathir chose Palestinian Islamism and not Palestinian nationalism, Hamas rather than Fatah, to demonstrate Malaysian solidarity. His publicised telephone call came shortly after his controversial anti-Jewish – as opposed to anti-Zionist – remarks at the Oxford Union.

As a radical Islamist, the 93 year old premier, came of political age after 1945 – an era of anti-colonial struggles for independence, but also during the conflict between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs which ended in the establishment of a Hebrew republic and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Arabs. Although there have been quiet contacts and growing trade relations, Malaysia has never recognised Israel and refused to establish diplomatic relations. Mahathir’s approach has long outstripped that of many Arab leaders towards Israel in its uncompromising virulence. Whereas most Arab leaders have studiously avoided attacking Jews per se, Mahathir has demonstrated no qualms about plunging into a racist cesspit for over half a century.

During the 1960s Tunku Abdul Rahman, the founder of the Malaysian Federation, hoped to establish diplomatic relations with Israel on independence in 1963. Indeed Foreign Minister Golda Meir sent a congratulatory telegram – but internal Islamist opposition and rivalry with its neighbour, Indonesia, stopped any progress. In November 1964, Moshe Yegar, established a commercial concern in Malaysia and although not a diplomat was a point of contact between the two countries. In January 1966, he was expelled due to Islamist pressure, the actions of the Egyptian embassy and the behind-the-scenes opposition of the British High Commission.

Malaysia refused time and again to allow Israelis in personal and public capacities to visit the country. In January 1968, Israeli seamen were refused the possibility of disembarking. In 1969 Malaysia became the first Asian country to permit Fatah to open an office and full diplomatic recognition was accorded the PLO in 1982. Mahathir has advocated force to retake lost Palestinian land and in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in 1986 told his audience that the Jews had become ‘gifted students of Goebbels’. In December 1992 Malaysia refused to allow an Israeli footballer, a member of the Liverpool team, to enter the country. Liverpool cancelled its trip.

The Oslo Accords created a dilemma for Mahathir – after all Arafat and Rabin had resolved to work for peace and reconciliation. Unlike the Arab Gulf States, Mahathir refused to establish diplomatic relations and to revoke the trade embargo, but did allow Malaysian Muslims to visit Jerusalem. With the gradual erosion of the peace process by Hamas and the opposition of the first Netanyahu administration, Mahathir reverted to type and Malaysia’s lightweight liberalisation came to an end. In the election campaign which returned him to power last year, he told the crowd that if Trump can ban Muslims from five countries ‘Why can’t I?’ And so, Malaysia has refused to allow an Israeli Paralympic team to enter the country to compete in the 2020 Games

While all this reflects the ongoing Israel-Palestine imbroglio, it is Mahathir’s unequivocal anti-Semitic comments which are exceptional – not the odd outburst from a doddering ninety something, but the latest in a long career built on the promotion of Malay nationalism to the disparagement of others, the Chinese, the Indians, indigenous ethnic groups – and the Jews. Despite claims of a model multi-ethnic society, Mahathir’s about-turn on a UN agreement on racial discrimination last month was simply the latest episode in this saga.

Mahathir’s anti-Jewish comments in Oxford simply reiterated what he had written in his book The Malay Dilemma (1970) a book banned in Malaysia until he took power in 1981. The Chinese were ‘almond-eyed’ and ‘inherently good businessmen’, the ‘fair-skinned’ Europeans possessed ‘an insatiable curiosity’, the Malays were ‘brown, easy-going and tolerant’ while ‘the hook-nosed Jews understood money instinctively’. It was ‘Jewish stinginess and financial wizardry’, according to Mahathir, which allowed them to gain ‘commercial control of Europe’.

It was this world outlook that allowed Mahathir to describe the Wall Street Journal as ‘a Jewish tool’ and to permit the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Henry Ford’s The International Jew in Malaysia. He refused to allow the New York Philharmonic to include a work by the Jewish composer Ernst Bloch in its repertoire (August 1984), banned the showing of Schindler’s List (March 1994) and promulgated the belief that George Soros was behind the economic crisis of 1997 in Malaysia.

Mahathir has been compared to Mussolini before fascist Italy’s anti-Semitic legislation in 1938. His political opponents have been labelled as ‘Zionists’. Yet the Oxford Union preferred to brush such racism under the carpet and to promote Mahathir’s anti-imperialism and Malaysia’s economic prowess instead. Another example of the closing of the progressive mind in which universal principles are gleefully abandoned.

Jewish Chronicle 1 February 2019

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