NEW YORK — When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad arrived at Columbia University on Wednesday, he was no doubt fully aware that his appearance had generated controversy.
Major Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, had condemned the Ivy League school for giving such an exalted platform to someone who has called Jews “hook-nosed,” said that they “rule the world by proxy” and questioned the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. He once said he was “glad to be labeled anti-Semitic.”
But when given an opportunity to apologize or express remorse — at a college with more than 10,000 Jewish students — the Malaysian leader was defiant.
In the face of an emotionally charged confrontation with a Jewish student during a question-and-answer session at the World Leaders Forum, Mohamad had a simple justification for spewing vile anti-Semitism: he has the right to say whatever he wants.
Roughly 40 minutes into the program, Romy Ronen, a sophomore at Columbia, asked him to “address and clarify” his past remarks about Jews and the Holocaust.
“I am exercising my right to free speech,” Mohamad told her. “Why is it that I can’t say something against the Jews, when a lot of people say nasty things about me, about Malaysia? I didn’t protest, I didn’t demonstrate.”
“We have to be willing to listen to views which are not in our favor because of free speech,” he went on. “Free speech is about free speech. When you say, ‘no, you cannot say this, you cannot be anti-Semitic,’ then there is no more free speech.”
Mohamad also commented on his having denied that the Nazis killed six million Jews: “I have not disputed them, but I have said that ‘Who determined these numbers?’ If it is somebody who is in favor, you get one figure; if somebody who is against, you get another figure.
“So I accept that there was a Holocaust, that there were many Jews killed, and in fact at one time I was very sympathetic towards them during the war, when you were not around, but I was around at that time.”
At that point, the student interjected. “My grandmother survived the Holocaust,” Ronen said. “She was around.”
“Okay, I think I’ve said enough,” Mohamad said back, with a smile.
Throughout Mohamad’s answer, there was not a gasp or a boo or hardly any display of alarm. “It’s blatant anti-Semitism — and the students clearly had no reaction,” an exasperated Ronen told The Times of Israel shortly after the event ended.
Another Jewish student in attendance said she was struck by the reaction of the discussion’s moderator, Lien-Hang T. Nyugen, a Columbia history professor.
“She just sat there and let it happen,” said Eva Wyner, a senior from Philadelphia. “She put her hand to her chest in acknowledgement that it was going on, but she had a platform to say something and she didn’t say anything.”
“For just Jews to have to be standing up for themselves — as he essentially denied the Holocaust and didn’t repudiate any of the anti-Semitic claims and welcomed it as free speech — it makes Jewish students here feel unsafe.”
Mohamad, 94, became prime minister of the southeast Asian country last year, after also previously serving in that role from 1981 to 2003. His tenure in politics has been marked by derogatory remarks about Jews.
Columbia invited him to speak on its campus while he was in town for the United Nations General Assembly. But Jewish leaders questioned why he was asked to participate in the discussion when hundreds of other world leaders were also in New York City.
“For decades, Mahathir Mohammed has blamed Jews for Malaysia’s & the world’s ills, recently at Oxford & Cambridge Universities,” tweeted Jason Greenblatt, who heads the ADL. “Among almost 200 heads of state in NY this week, it’s a shame that the Columbia community chose to feature him on their stage.”
For decades, Mahathir Mohammed has blamed Jews for Malaysia’s & the world’s ills, recently at Oxford & Cambridge Universities. Among almost 200 heads of state in NY this week, it’s a shame that the @Columbia community chose to feature him on their stage. https://t.co/ebVHPWFh0w
— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) September 24, 2019
Ronen, a member of Students Supporting Israel, a pro-Israel campus group, said that her organization sent a letter to the Columbia University president, Lee Bollinger, expressing concern that Mohamad’s appearance would normalize his anti-Semitic views.
Bollinger emailed them back calling Mohamad’s comments “abhorrent” and assuring them he was committed to the “safety and well-being” of Jewish students.
The university also released a statement that acknowledged Mahathir’s bigotry, but said it was its obligation as an institution of higher learning to engage with him — not shut him out.
“This form of open engagement can sometimes be difficult, even painful,” Bollinger wrote. “But to abandon this activity would be to limit severely our capacity to understand and confront the world as it is, which is a central and utterly serious mission for any academic institution.”
Before the program started, a school administrator, Vishakha Desai, read from Bollinger’s statement and noted how Malaysia banned Israelis from the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships. The country lost its right to host the event as a consequence. “Clearly such attitudes are absolutely contrary to what we stand for,” she told the audience.
“It’s good that his remarks were denounced in the beginning, but the things that he said still made students feel unsafe,” Ronen said. “It showed exactly how he feels about anti-Semitism. It shows that he is proud to be anti-Semitic.”
After the event, this reporter asked two other students whether they were bothered by Mohamad’s comments.
“I don’t know,” said Gerald Lee, a master’s student. “I have to think about it.”
Another was less ambivalent. “Frankly speaking, not really,” said Shawn Ang, a master’s candidate in applied analytics. “He didn’t really say anything much.”