Malaysia’s avowedly anti-Semitic prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on Sunday night told the Cambridge Union that while he has some Jewish friends, “they are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends,” drawing laughter from the audience.
Britain’s Jewish students body denounced the remarks, made at a University of Cambridge debate event, as inciting hatred against Jews.
Footage of the incident was published on social media the following day by the Union of Jewish Students, which said in a statement that “it is chilling to see a crowd of students laugh off flagrantly anti-Semitic comments.”
“Freedom of speech is not a joke when it incites hatred against one people,” the UJS said.
“I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends"- Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad at the Cambridge Union last night.
The audience laughs.
Freedom of speech is not a joke when it incites hatred against one people. pic.twitter.com/2ZRrMDtfKy
— Union of Jewish Students (@UJS_UK) June 17, 2019
Mahathir, who has a history of previous racist remarks regarding Jewish people, was asked by the Speakers Officer of the Cambridge Union, Adam Davies, about his attitude toward Jews, including a past statement that they are “inclined towards money.”
“Why do you say that the Jewish people in general are inclined towards money?” Davies asked. “There are lots of Jews, most Jews, who care about human rights, care about social justice, care about democracy.”
“I have some Jewish friends, very good friends,” Mahathir responded. “They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends.”
There was brief laughter from some parts of the audience which the Cambridge Union later said came only from Mahathir’s delegation.
“With regards to the clip in question, the laughing originated from the middle section, which was composed of the Prime Minister’s delegation,” the Cambridge Union, the world’s oldest debating society, said in a statement.
The Cambridge Union defended its invitation to Mahathir, saying it has “a tradition of promoting free speech” and noted that it had invited the Cambridge Jewish Society to attend the talk to ask questions and also to hand out flyers to the audience, “in the interests of free debate.”
— The Cambridge Union (@cambridgeunion) June 17, 2019
The UK’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper said that several former Cambridge Union presidents had condemned the incident. Journalist Lauren Davidson, a former Union president, called Mahathir’s comments “abhorrent.”
According to the newspaper, Mahathir appeared at the Oxford Union, a similar debating group, in January, where he defended his right to be anti-Semitic as freedom of speech.
“We are free to say what we like, we can say something that can be regarded as anti-Semitic by the Jews,” he said at the time, according to the report. “That is their right to hold such an opinion of me. It is my right to tell them they have been doing a lot of wrong things.”
In his 1970 book “The Malay Dilemma,” Mahathir wrote that “the Jews are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively,” relying on two famous anti-Semitic stereotypes that were used by Nazi Germany to dehumanize Jews.
Mahathir also claimed that the consensus among historians that some 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust was false, putting the number at 4 million.
Speaking to the BBC in October, he reaffirmed his comments on Jewish facial features, insisting they are “hooked-nosed.”
Mahathir, a long-time supporter of Palestinian causes, also blamed Israel for the Middle East’s woes.
“If you are going to be truthful, the problem in the Middle East began with the creation of Israel. That is the truth. But I cannot say that,” he added.