May 16, 2019 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Hill.
Malaysia is 4,700 miles away from the Middle East, yet the leadership of this Muslim-majority country in Asia long ago chose sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Malaysia has recognized the “State of Palestine” and hosts a Palestinian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, but refuses to recognize the State of Israel.
Establishing Malaysia’s bona fides as staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause has pushed Malaysia to go even further than most other Muslim-majority countries in discriminating against Israelis even in the ostensibly depoliticized world of international sport. In January, Malaysia banned Israeli swimmers from competing in the Paralympic championship competition to be held in Kuching in July, a pre-qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. Bolstered by protests by a number of groups led by my organization, American Jewish Committee (AJC), the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) stripped Malaysia of the right to host the championship.
Prime Minister Mahathir and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah subsequently reaffirmed the government's decision, with the latter declaring that the ban was not limited to sporting events, but included all conferences, meetings and programs “involving Israel or its representatives.”
Malaysia is not alone in denying Israeli athletes the right to compete. Israelis are regularly excluded from participation in international sporting events in Arab or Muslim countries, or, when admitted by those countries, are forced to compete without displaying their national symbols or flying the Israeli flag or allowing the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva” to be played upon an Israeli athlete’s awarding of a medal. One encouraging exception, however, occurred in Dubai last October, where an Israeli won an international judo contest, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hosts played “Hatikva” at the award ceremony.
Over the past decade, Malaysia has taken on Palestinian statehood as an issue not only of foreign policy, but as a more central issue useful in rallying domestic political support. Approximately 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims. Greater displays of outward religious observance as proof of devoutness has been a trend over the last 10-15 years in many countries with large Muslim populations, Malaysia included.
Allying themselves with the plight of fellow Muslims in what is portrayed as a simple situation of oppressor (Israel = Jewish) and oppressed (Palestinian = Muslim) has been sold not as a political and territorial dispute between peoples with differing narratives and historic claims to the same piece of land, but as a religious conflict of direct and personal consequence to the nation’s Muslim citizens. True believers will defend the faith, and that means unequivocally supporting the Palestinians. Israel and Jews present a convenient and unifying enemy in mobilizing domestic political support.
Is Malaysia’s position a legitimate demonstration of opposition to Israeli policies against Palestinians? Or is it a manifestation of antisemitism, conflated with or disguised as a more “palatable” anti-Zionism — opposition to Israel’s existence as a homeland for the Jewish people?
The underpinnings of Malaysian anti-Israel statements and actions are, in fact, antisemitic. Prime Minister Mahathir, who previously served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, does not deny his longstanding hostility towards Jews and Israel. In fact, the 93-year-old leader proudly repeats and affirms them regularly. No members of his administration or of his political party, officials in the government and opposition parties, or members of Malaysia’s religious or civil society, have criticized or even distanced themselves from his comments.
In his 1970 book, “The Malay Dilemma,” Mahathir wrote that “the Jews are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively,” a slander he has shamelessly repeated. Relying on these two historic tropes of antisemitism, he also has asserted that “antisemitic is a term invented to prevent people from criticizing the Jews for doing wrong things.”
At the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Kuala Lumpur in 2003, he declared that, “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. … There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategize and then to counterattack.” Continuing with a reference to the Holocaust, Mahathir implied that the methods used by the Nazis could serve as an example of what could be done (again) to counter “the Jewish threat.”
In a 2012 blog post, he wrote “Jews rule this world by proxy.” And in a BBC interview in 2018, the prime minister stated, “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 conveniently ignored the wars between Iran and Iraq, in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, turmoil in Libya and Egypt, not to mention the brutality of Syria’s ongoing civil war. In the interview, Mahathir also challenged the established figure of 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, contending that 4 million is the accurate figure.
It will be interesting to see what, if any, repercussions Malaysia will face for its decisions, actions and the words of its prime minister. Just this month the U.S. special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, Elan Carr, said that the United States may review its ties with countries it deems to be anti-Israel. Carr cited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech in March that confirmed that anti-Zionism was a form of antisemitism and that the United States would “fight it relentlessly.”
Developing a comprehensive response and strategy to combat antisemitism is a high priority for Jews worldwide — and should be for any nation and individual supporting democratic and pluralistic societies. In the United States, a renewed effort is under way, spearheaded by AJC, to encourage all members of the U.S. House of Representatives to join the Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism. Launched in 2015 with AJC support, the task force plays a critical role in coordinating congressional efforts, such as legislation and interparliamentary engagement, combatting antisemitism worldwide.
Malaysia and Mahathir should be wary of the consequences attached to their hatred and bigotry.
Shira Loewenberg is director of American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Asia Pacific Institute. Follow on Twitter @AJC_Asia.