‘If You Can’t Be Antisemitic, There’s No Free Speech,’ Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad Tells Appreciative Crowd at Columbia University
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad defended his right to express antisemitic views in the name of free speech in remarks to Columbia University students on Wednesday.
Speaking to a packed audience at the university’s Global Leaders Forum, the 94-year-old leader — whose decades-old conviction that “the Jews rule the world by proxy” has never wavered — also refused to say whether he accepted the fact that six million Jews were murdered during the Nazi Holocaust.
“Why can’t I say something about the Jews, when people say nasty things about me and about Malaysia?” Mahathir complained, as he responded to a powerfully-worded challenge posed by a member of the Columbia chapter of Students Supporting Israel.
The Malaysian leader went on to argue, “When you say ‘you cannot be antisemitic,’ there is no free speech.”
Pressed by the questioner to state his views on the Holocaust, Mahathir said he accepted that “there was a Holocaust,” but pointedly refused to discuss the number of Jews exterminated by the Nazis and their collaborators.
Conceding only that there were “many Jews killed,” Mahathir attempted to turn the tables on his questioner. “I was very sympathetic to them during the war, that was when you were not around,” he said.
The questioner immediately shot back that while she had not been alive during World War II, her grandmother had survived the Nazi onslaught. Hearing this, Mahathir answered that he had said all he wanted to say on the subject.
The exchange over Mahathir’s well-known antisemitism was the only discordant moment in a carefully-choreographed event that presented the Malaysian prime minister as an elder statesman who had pioneered multilateral diplomacy against US militarism.
“We have a lot of wisdom that we can draw on from you,” gushed Prof. Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, the event moderator, at one point in their conversation. And as Mahathir was leaving the stage at the end of the event, Prof. Nguyen told him, “That was amazing.”
At no point during the two-way interview did Nguyen offer the vaguest criticism of Mahathir — whether the issue under discussion was corruption and patronage at home, the impact of climate change or the denial of the Holocaust.
Other questions put to Mahathir were similarly complimentary. Two Malaysian students who spoke in quick in succession peppered their questions about Malaysia’s internal challenges with flattering admiration for their leader.
Meanwhile, the student who followed the Jewish questioner joked to a smiling Mahathir, “That previous question was very tough — this will be easier.”
Telling Mahathir that he was “praised as much in Pakistan as in Malaysia,” he asked the Malaysian leader for his views on the crisis between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. But strikingly, Mahathir’s response to an appeal for solidarity with his fellow Muslims in Kashmir was somewhat muted.
“We cannot go to war, we cannot invade India, we can only appeal to India to respect UN resolutions,” he said.
In marked contrast, he has previously claimed that the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington, DC “were staged…as an excuse to mount attacks against the Muslim world.” In that same speech — delivered to a a Muslim solidarity conference with the Palestinians — Mahathir spoke darkly of “forces in the United States which prevent the president from doing some things.”
He continued: “One of the forces is the Jewish lobby, AIPAC.”
Despite his lengthy record of antisemitic barbs, as well as his attacks on the LGBT+ community and his baiting of the Chinese minority in Malaysia, some of the world’s top universities clearly believe that Mahathir’s presence on campus is a mark of honor.
An appearance at Cambridge University in the UK in June was distinguished by warm applause and even appreciative laughter when Mahathir told his audience, “I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends.”
In a statement issued in advance of Mahathir’s appearance on Wednesday, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger defended the invitation in a letter to student groups, including Students Supporting Israel.
“This form of open engagement can sometimes be difficult, even painful,” Bollinger said. “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.”
US Jewish leaders bitterly attacked the invitation to Mahathir, calling on Columbia’s donors to drop their financial support for the university in protest.
“Columbia University stands in disgrace today, having hosted the unrepentant Prime Minister of Malaysia who, in keeping with his self-proclaimed ‘proud antisemite’ status, defended his hate speech as a right,” Arthur Stark, chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman/CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement on Thursday. “This would not be tolerated by the University from a leader who expressed such animosity and false assertions about any other group. Indeed, donors and supporters of Columbia University should send a strong message by denying them support. This is not the first such incident but must be the last.”