Malaysians start to reject traditionally virulent anti-Semitism, scholar says
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Interview

Malaysians start to reject traditionally virulent anti-Semitism, scholar says

To many, Jews and Israel still represent everything the authoritarian regime in Kuala Lumpur despises. But things are changing, says author of book on philo-Semitism in the country

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a protest outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a protest outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Malaysia is often seen as one of the world’s most anti-Semitic countries.

Up until recently, it had a prime minister who described himself as a proud anti-Semite. A survey by the Anti-Defamation League has found it harbors one of the highest rates of anti-Jewish sentiment in the region, if not the globe.

But a researcher who analyzed the Malaysian people’s sentiments towards the Jewish people and the State of Israel and has just written a book about the issue sees encouraging signs of change.

“We should not mistake loud noises for big noises. Anti-Semitism is part of a ‘backlash’ against the breakdown of social control — it is ugly and it is loud, but it is a backlash against wider social changes that are a force for good,” said Mary Ainslie, of the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China, in an interview last week.

“Perhaps these views are becoming stronger amongst those who hold them, but I do not believe they are increasing among the general population. Instead, the opposite is true.”

The Southeast Asian country, whose official religion is Islam though roughly 40 percent of the population belongs to other faiths, certainly hosts the most virulent forms of Jew-hatred outside the Middle East. According to the ADL, 61 percent of its inhabitants harbor anti-Semitic sentiments, which is significantly higher than neighboring Singapore (16%) and Thailand (13%) and even Muslim-majority Indonesia (48%).

Mahathir Mohamad, who served as the country’s prime minister until March — he still sits in parliament and is planning to return to power soon — notoriously said he was glad to be called anti-Semitic.

“How can I be otherwise, when the Jews who so often talk of the horrors they suffered during the Holocaust show the same Nazi cruelty and hardheartedness towards not just their enemies but even towards their allies should any try to stop the senseless killing of their Palestinian enemies,” he declared in 2012.

Screen capture from video of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during an event at Columbia University, September 25, 2019. (YouTube)

Last year he defended his record of anti-Semitic statements — including claims that Jews are “hook-nosed,” have an “intrinsic” understanding of money and “rule the world by proxy” — by invoking the principle of free speech. “Why is it that I can’t say something against the Jews, when a lot of people say nasty things about me, about Malaysia?” he asked a group of students at Columbia University.

The official hostility to Jews is also reflected in bitter enmity toward the Jewish state: Kuala Lumpur has never had diplomatic relations with Israel and last year lost the right to host an international swimming tournament after barring Israelis from participation. Despite much bad press, defiant authorities justified the decision as “compassion for the Palestinian plight.”

Why is a country nearly 5,000 miles away so obsessed with the Jewish people and their nation-state?

Mary Ainslie (courtesy)

“Jews and Israel have come to represent the pinnacle of a discourse embedded in modernism, secularism, personal freedom and internationalism, everything that is opposed to a political system which depends upon authoritarian religious nationalism in order to stay in power,” said Ainslie, who specializes in Southeast Asian media and culture.

For her new book, entitled “Anti-Semitism in Contemporary Malaysia: Malay Nationalism, Philosemitism and Pro-Israel Expressions,” she interviewed 30 Malaysians who oppose the bigoted views dominant in their country. What she found was both disheartening and promising.

One participant, for instance, recalled meeting a Palestinian student who was shocked by the “misinformation about Israel and the voracity of anti-Semitic discourses in Malaysia, which, for him, were far beyond that in the West Bank.”

Illustrative: Muslim worshipers hold Palestinian and Malaysian flags following Friday noon prayers At Jerusalem’s Old City’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on the Temple Mount, December 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

On the other hand, she detected significant liberal social movements and media outlets refusing to peddle anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda.

“These people are part of a new and growing demographic of educated, generally young, globally aware, middle-class citizens who believe in a secular society and want democratic representation,” she said.

“Many of these people are from ethnic minorities and so feel excluded by religious nationalism that constructs Malaysia as Islamic and for Malays only. They reject anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views as part of rejecting the religious nationalism which excludes them,” she added.

Many members of this group are young Malay Muslims unhappy about their government’s restriction of their personal freedoms, the researcher went on. “They find authoritarian control over their religion to be deeply insulting and resent being told what to think or do by corrupt and hypocritical politicians.”

Reaching out

The Israeli government largely agrees with Ainslie’s findings.

“From our contacts with Malaysian citizens it is clear to us that many of them support Israel and actually reject and are embarrassed by the anti-Semitism coming from their government,” said Michael Ronen, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Southeast Asia bureau.

Jerusalem is actively reaching out to Malaysians, he added.

“Some of them have visited and witnessed the political reality here with their own eyes. They have seen that what they are being told about us in their native country simply isn’t true.”

The ADL welcomed signs of waning Jew-hatred in Malaysia, but warned that it was premature to celebrate a sea change.

“While it’s encouraging that there’s a growing cohort of middle class citizens in Malaysia who reject anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda, Malaysia is still one of the most anti-Israel countries in the world in terms of its policies,” Sharon Nazarian, the ADL’s senior vice president for international affairs, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

People with Israeli stamps in their passports reportedly aren’t allowed into the country and Mahathir Mohamad continues to use Jews as scapegoats for economic and political woes, she added. “Any change is encouraging, but we await additional data and change in government messaging and policies.”

A ‘significant electoral force’?

To Ainslie, the young generation of educated Malaysians rejecting their country’s traditional Jew-hatred represent a “significant electoral force.”

“For them, Israel and Jews represent the opposite to the religious nationalism they wish to reject, and this manifests through significant theological interest in Judaism and strong curiosity about Israel as a nation,” she said.

One participant in her study, which was financially supported by the Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University, made efforts to visit a synagogue on a trip abroad. Others learned about the Holocaust and reached out to Israelis over the internet.

Tombstones at the Jewish cemetery in Penang, Malaysia (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Gryffindor/Wikimedia commons)
Tombstones at the Jewish cemetery in Penang, Malaysia (CC-BY-SA Gryffindor/Wikimedia commons)

“They were also able to separate any sympathy they felt for the Palestinian position from that of anti-Israel or anti-Semitic views, believing this to be a complicated political issue that had no bearing on their own religious beliefs,” she said.

“Many also expressed interest in the way in which Israel negotiated the relationship between race, religion and nationality, recognizing that Israel and Malaysia both had a lot in common as fairly young nations with a complicated history and makeup.”

Here is a full transcript of our interview, slightly edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: Malaysia is perceived by some as the world’s most anti-Semitic country. Do you agree?

Mary Ainslie: Ultimately, it is very difficult to measure such views, although the Anti-Defamation League tries very hard to be as accurate as possible. We can say for sure that anti-Semitism is a major discourse in Malaysian society and one that has been normalized to a significant extent.

It is also a key part of political discourse, and anti-Semitic language is regularly used by political leaders as part of their domestic performance when referring to global issues. Anti-Semitic literature is available in mainstream Kuala Lumpur bookstores, and such beliefs are a key part of Malaysian Palestinian rights groups.

Jews and Israel have come to represent the pinnacle of a discourse embedded in modernism, secularism, personal freedom and internationalism

The participants I interview in my book also related some very shocking first-hand reports of anti-Semitism which were difficult to hear at times. One student even recounted how a Palestinian student they had met actually expressed shock at the misinformation about Israel and the voracity of anti-Semitic discourses in Malaysia, which, for him, were far beyond that in the West Bank.

Malaysia is not an Arab country, it’s far away from the Middle East, most Malaysians have never met a Jew, since there are none left in the country — what do you think is behind the virulent Jew-hatred there?

To begin, this is not at all a discourse that is in any way connected to the reality of the Israel/Palestine situation, despite how often this is cited as a motivation. It is instead deeply embedded within the very complicated and polarized nature of Malaysian culture and society.

We have to understand that the country is deeply divided — religiously, ethnically, culturally, geographically, economically, and so on — and is changing fast. It is becoming increasingly polarized. Malay Islamic political authorities who have long depended upon dividing the country racially and religiously are losing power, so their rhetoric is becoming stronger.

We see a backlash against ethnic minorities, other religions, including other versions of Islam, the West, LGBT people, secularism and Judaism, all of which morph into a monolithic ‘other’ against which, authorities argue, a nationalist form of Malay Islam must be defended.

Jews and Israel have come to represent the pinnacle of a discourse embedded in modernism, secularism, personal freedom and internationalism, everything that is opposed to a political system which depends upon authoritarian religious nationalism in order to stay in power.

Mary Ainslie teaching a class at Thammasat College of Innovation in Bangkok, Thailand (courtesy)

You write that “Anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitism are part of state-promoted social control in Malaysia,” arguing that the Jews serve as a scapegoat. How do you explain that this millennia-old blaming of the Jews for all evil is still so effective in contemporary Malaysia?

Anti-Semitism is only a small part of this reactionary discourse, but as Malaysia is so far from Israel and there are no Jews present to counter negative stereotypes, anti-Semitism can grow unchecked in a way that other forms of racism do not. This ‘other’ can then become increasingly demonic and twisted, fed by false reports of Israeli brutality, statements taken out of context, and a simplistic flawed version of the Israel/Palestine situation.

One disturbing element of my research was uncovering how this new form of anti-Semitism is then attaching itself to older more traditional European-originating discourses in order to embolden itself. Such a phenomenon is dangerous and worrying as it cannot simply be countered by improvements in the Israel/Palestine situation.

What can and should be done to fight this?

I believe that the best way is simply to assist alternative voices within Malaysian society and enable these to be heard. Such change will, in part, come from within, and most probably from the growing number of middle-class Malays.

These people dislike the government and its paternalistic control over their personal expression. They have their own relationship to their religion, do not want ethnic minorities, non-Muslims and LGBT people to be victimized, and are educating themselves to find out about global political issues and historical events.

Many of these people are from ethnic minorities and so feel excluded by religious nationalism that constructs Malaysia as Islamic and for Malays only. They reject anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views as part of rejecting the religious nationalism which excludes them

Using the internet and social media, many of these young people are also reaching out and learning about Israel and Palestine, about the Holocaust, about theological Islam, about sexuality, about democracy. They are questioning their parents, teachers, religious figures and politicians.

For those of us outside Malaysia, the message must be that we are not the enemy, we respect them and their country, we support their struggle for personal expression and are ready to respond when they reach out.

Former (and possibly future) Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has never hidden his disdain for Jews. He even said once that he was “glad to be labeled anti-Semitic.” What’s his issue with the Jews? Is his anti-Semitism merely a particular nasty version of what the Malayisian mainstream thinks, or is there more to it?

There is a lot more to it! First, we must remember that Mahathir is a brilliant politician, he is very sharp and savvy even into his advanced old age. His political position has also shifted backwards and forwards a lot over the decades, allowing him to stay in power for a long time.

It is also a little simplistic to label him an anti-Semite. While he expresses anti-Semitic views he also stereotypes other people and races to a significant extent (Chinese, Indians, Western people, even Malays themselves), and so scholars speculate that he is probably more accurately labeled a social Darwinist.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, during a press conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, February 22, 2020 (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Going back to his first tenure in the 1980s, one of Mahathir’s most important agendas was to assist the Malay community. While they are the majority ethnic group, Malays were still extremely poor and had a significant lack of opportunities, much of which can be attributed to Western colonialism in the region.

He introduced Malay-friendly policies designed to help this community and placed a strong emphasis upon Islam as a form of identity through which to create social cohesion and stability. To do this he often expressed sympathy with Muslims internationally who were perceived to be victimized by non-Muslims — such as a flawed and simplistic reading of the Israel/Palestine situation — and he paralleled this with the dispossession of Malay people in their own nation by large and wealthier urban-based ethnic minorities such the Chinese minority.

His policies worked to an extent; life and opportunities have improved for the Malay community, but not as quickly as was hoped. Likewise, it also led to the Malaysian political system being strongly racialized and Malay Islam being turned into a form of religious nationalism.

In this April 23, 1982, photo, then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad raises his hands in triumph as his deputy Musa Hitam, left, places a sash on him in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (AP Photo)

As anti-Semitism and anti-Israel discourse became a strong part of international Muslim identity, this also became a key part of Mahathir’s religious nationalist rhetoric, and, in Malaysia, sits well alongside a similar anti-Chinese discourse.

Mahathir has built a very successful political career and transformed a nation and a people — in many ways, for the better. He is not about to let this go and will always defend it when challenged.

Last year, Malaysia refused to allow Israelis to participate in the World Para Swimming Championships. Even after the country lost the rights to host the tournament, the sports minister unapologetically said Kuala Lumpur won’t compromise “on the ground of humanity and compassion for the Palestinian plight.” How has this episode been received by the Malaysian public?

My participants, my friends and colleagues are very critical and embarrassed about this position. They understand that such rhetoric is not based upon “humanity” or “compassion,” is deeply unfair and is actually damaging Malaysia.

Illustrative image of a staff used to tap a visually impaired swimmer to signal that she is approaching the wall, in the women’s 100-meter backstroke final during the World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City, December 3, 2017. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

But the consequences of airing such views can be severe and, indeed, become more severe as the government loses more popular support due to people questioning such rhetoric. For this reason, individuals, political organizations and media outlets must be very careful of criticizing any anti-Israel position. Critique is there, but it is surreptitious.

The second half of your book is dedicated to philo-Semitism and Malaysians who have positive views about Israel. You write that to some Malaysians Judaism and the Jewish state “represent an alternative, almost mythical model of social freedom.” Tell me more about these people: how many are they, how does their sympathy for Jews and Israel express itself, and is there any chance that they will become a critical mass that could help Malaysia become less anti-Semitic?

It would have been dangerous to quantitatively measure this group in a society that has been known to persecute citizens with Israeli sympathies, so I relied upon qualitative testimony and online evidence of their size.

This new generation of educated and globally mobile Malaysians are a significant electoral force, and are the reason the ruling authorities are losing their political majority. For them, Israel and Jews represent the opposite to the religious nationalism they wish to reject

The growth in liberal social movements, demonstrations and the reluctance by many media outlets to engage in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel discourses suggests that these people are significant.

These people are part of a new and growing demographic of educated, generally young, globally aware, middle-class citizens who believe in a secular society and want democratic representation.

Malaysian Muslim school girls pose for a selfie with a cut-out of the US presidential candidate Donald Trump during an event following the election results in Kuala Lumpur on November 9, 2016. (AFP photo/Manan Vatsyayana)

Many of these people are from ethnic minorities and so feel excluded by religious nationalism that constructs Malaysia as Islamic and for Malays only. They reject anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views as part of rejecting the religious nationalism which excludes them.

A substantial portion of this group are also young Malay Muslims who are angry at government control over their own personal freedom. They find authoritarian control over their religion to be deeply insulting and resent being told what to think or do by corrupt and hypocritical politicians.

This new generation of educated and globally mobile Malaysians are a significant electoral force, and are the reason the ruling authorities are losing their political majority. For them, Israel and Jews represent the opposite to the religious nationalism they wish to reject, and this manifests through significant theological interest in Judaism and strong curiosity about Israel as a nation.

A pageantry display in Malaysia. (photo credit: CC BY phalinn, Flickr)

One participant had spent a long time looking for a synagogue when they visited overseas, others took time to educate themselves about the Holocaust, and many had reached out to Israeli people online.

They were also able to separate any sympathy they felt for the Palestinian position from that of anti-Israel or anti-Semitic views, believing this to be a complicated political issue that had no bearing on their own religious beliefs, while also stating that they would never become involved in Palestinian campaigns in Malaysia (which they considered to be divisive, racist and damaging to Malaysia).

Many also expressed interest in the way in which Israel negotiated the relationship between race, religion and nationality, recognizing that Israel and Malaysia both had a lot in common as fairly young nations with a complicated history and makeup.

Finally, all participants recognized the hypocrisy involved in such discourse, expressing disgust for politicians who championed the Palestinian cause while simultaneously encouraging racism against vulnerable refugees such as the Rohingya.

What would it take to reduce anti-Semitism in Malaysia?

It is already reducing — we should not mistake loud noises for big noises. Anti-Semitism is part of a “backlash” against the breakdown of social control, it is ugly and it is loud, but it is a backlash against wider social changes that are a force for good. Perhaps these views are becoming stronger amongst those who hold them, but I do not believe they are increasing among the general population. Instead, the opposite is true.

According to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, almost 14,000 Malaysians visited Israel in 2018 — 4,000 more than the previous year. Do you think the number of Malaysians interested in Israel will continue to climb?

Yes, I do. This is part of a general increased trend in global travel from countries with growing economies and middle classes. Tourists from Southeast Asia are now a significant presence around the world. More Malaysians are taking advantage of the ability to visit Israel, either through the Christian pilgrimages or simply because Israel welcomes them as tourists.

They see no reason why they shouldn’t visit a country that is such an important part of global history and religion and seek to educate themselves about a country and a people that they have heard so much about but had so little direct contact with.

A cruise ship carrying Malaysian tourists returns to the port of Kibbutz Ein Gev on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel on October 8, 2018. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

One of the Malaysians you interviewed said his country doesn’t really boycott the Jewish state. “Malaysia does have ties with Israel. It’s just that it’s not really open. Because I do see products from Israel coming here,” he said. How would you describe the state of Israel-Malaysia trade and economic cooperation?

My participant was right, there is a great deal of trade and cooperation between these two countries, but this is surreptitious and not direct. Such trade will grow as Malaysia becomes more integrated into the global economy and the new middle class ceases to respond to anti-Semitism as a discourse.

The rest of Asia is relying upon and investing in Israel tech more and more, and Malaysia cannot afford to be left behind. As countries such as China, Thailand and South Korea increase their ties with Israel and realize the benefits of doing so, Malaysian politicians will have to change their discourse in order to remain globally relevant.

What do you predict for the future of diplomatic ties between the two countries? Could you imagine Kuala Lumpur engaging in clandestine relations with Jerusalem, similar to what the Gulf states have been doing for decades? What would have to occur for such links to be established?

Ultimately, there will eventually be normalized diplomatic and economic relations between these two countries, but it will probably take some time. While increasing stabilization of the Israel/Palestine situation has led to better relations elsewhere, Malaysia’s political discourse has been built upon anti-Semitism and anti-Israel discourses to a much more significant extent.

Change is likely to come due to the benefits seen in the increased relations with Israel in other Asian countries as well as the internal challenging of religious nationalist discourses (in which anti-Semitic and anti-Israel beliefs are embedded) in Malaysia itself. Global development suggests that such change is coming, but, as history tells us, we should be mindful that the opposite can also happen.

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