PETALING JAYA: News that Dr Mahathir Mohamad will be addressing a forum at Columbia University in New York today has been met with fierce backlash from critics who recall the prime minister’s comments on Jews, citing these as proof that he is an anti-Semite and calling for the speech to be cancelled.
Mahathir, who wrote in his book “The Malay Dilemma” that Jews “are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively”, also said in an address to the Cambridge Union in June that he had “some Jewish friends, very good friends”.
“They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends,” he was reported as saying.
The New York Post in an editorial today said it appeared that Columbia University, the oldest institution of higher learning in New York, was “happy to host one kind of hate speech”.
Calling Mahathir “a blatant anti-Semite”, the paper quoted the university’s president Lee Bollinger who defended Mahathir’s invitation by saying: “This form of open engagement can sometimes be difficult, even painful. But to abandon this activity would be to limit severely our capacity to understand and confront the world as it is.”
“We look forward to him citing that standard the next time a controversial speaker who isn’t an anti-Semite gets invited to campus,” it said.
Mahathir, a frequent critic of Israel’s policies, is in New York for the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.
He had defended his remarks in England, saying they were merely his opinion and that he had been practising free speech.
In January, meanwhile, he said in an address to the Oxford Union Society that he had a right to speak out against Israeli policies just as his critics had the right to label him anti-Semitic.
“That is their right to hold such an opinion of me. It is my right to tell them also that they had been doing a lot of wrong things,” he said.
However, a prominent Jewish leader in the US maintained that Columbia University’s decision to host Mahathir is “consistent with the double standard against Jewish people, which would never be tolerated with someone who spoke similarly against people of colour, gay people or other minorities”.
In a letter to Bollinger, cited by New York-based Jewish paper The Algemeiner, World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder said he would urge his friends to halt any contributions to the university “until such a time anti-Semitic despots are no longer welcome on your campus”.
A petition on change.org started by a group called Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University or SSI Columbia calling on Lee to either cancel Mahathir’s speech or publicly denounce the prime minister on stage had gained over 3,000 signatures as of press time.
SSI Columbia said Mahathir had a right to express his opinions but said the university was not protecting the prime minister’s right to free speech by allowing him to give an address on campus.
“Rather, it is granting the credibility of one of America’s most prestigious universities to a vile anti-Semite and shaking even further the already fragile sense of safety and belonging of Columbia’s Jewish students,” it said.
“Free speech is an important fundamental right of any individual living in a free society. Mahathir can say anything he wants, of course – that is free speech. But being able to speak at Columbia University – or at any university, for that matter – is a privilege, not a right.
“This is not a matter of free speech, or of scholarly freedom. It is a matter of basic academic decency.”