Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad Wednesday, talked about racial tensions and government corruption while speaking at the Columbia World Leaders Forum. This event was widely scrutinized before Mohamad’s coming due to his past anti-Semitic remarks.
At Columbia University, The World Leaders Forum is a year-round assembly that draws heads of state and political leaders for a Q&A session with students regarding significant international matters.
Mohamad,94, is the world’s oldest head of state—served as the prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 and worked against the establishment party last year after a 15-year break from the office. He recently had called Jews “hook-nosed” and blamed them for creating the troubles in the Middle East.
Major Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, had questioned his participation at the forum when there were many other world leaders present at New York City, who had come to attend the United Nations, General Assembly.
While speaking at the event the PM was asked stern questions by a student who identified herself as a member of the pro-Isreal group. She asked question regarding his recent remarks on Jews and the Holocaust. To which th PM replied, “Why can’t I say something about the Jews, when people say nasty things about me and about Malaysia?” Mahathir complained. He further went on to argue, “When you say ‘you cannot be antisemitic,’ there is no free speech.”
Pushed by the questioner to state his views on the Holocaust, Mahathir said “So I accept that there was a Holocaust, that there were many Jews killed, and in fact at one time I was very sympathetic towards them during the war, when you were not around, but I was around at that time.” He declined to answer further questions on this topic.
Ronen, another member of the pro-Israel group, said that her organization sent a letter to the Columbia University president, Lee Bollinger, expressing concern that Mohamad’s appearance would normalise his anti-Semitic views. Bollinger replied back calling Mohamad’s comments “abhorrent” and assuring them he was committed to the “safety and well-being” of Jewish students.
The university also issued a statement that acknowledged Mahathir’s intolerance but said it was the duty of the institution to engage with him for higher learning purposes and also give him a chance to clear the air.
The event was attended by 300 people in total, according to university spokeswoman Caroline Adelman. Other speakers at the weeklong forum including Austrian Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein, Queen Mathilde of Belgium, and Iraqi President Barham Salih.
In 2007, Columbia drew critique from Jewish groups for inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address. The university did not back down, though Bollinger did criticize Ahmadinejad’s history of Holocaust denial in introducing the leader.
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