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After Mahathir’s Anti-semitic Remarks, Jews Wonder if Outrage Will Yield Change

October 23, 2003
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The only things worthy of attention about the recent speech by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad are his remarks about Jews and the accolades those comments drew from his mostly Muslim audience, leaders of Jewish groups are saying.

“We were outraged by his comments, and by the applause he received by the leaders of the Arab world,” said Rebecca Dinar, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “This is not going to go away.”

President Bush’s press secretary said the president castigated Mahathir privately this week, and members of Congress have introduced motions to condemn the Malaysian prime minister.

Mahathir told his audience, which included heads of state from an array of Islamic nations, “The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule the world by proxy: They get others to fight and die for them.”

He also said the Jews invented “socialism, communism, human rights and democracy” to help them gain “control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power.”

Some commentators have suggested that Mahathir’s speech last week at the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference deserves a second reading, beyond the anti-Semitism that initially earned it headlines. They say the speech contains an important message about Muslim self-help.

In his column Tuesday, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said Mahathir’s anti-Semitism was “inexcusable” but that other parts of the speech were “worth reading.”

Mahathir used the Jewish example to exhort Muslims to stop blaming others for their plight, Krugman wrote. He quoted Mahathir as saying, “We are up against a people who think. They survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking.”

Krugman suggested that such thinking was behind Malaysia’s relative stability. “Malaysia is the kind of success story we wish we saw more of: an impressive record of economic growth, rising education levels and general modernization in a nation with a Muslim majority.”

Krugman also wrote that Mahathir’s anti-Semitism was “almost surely part of Mr. Mahathir’s domestic balancing act.”

“Poppycock,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “This is what they said in the 1930s about Hitler. Hitler talked about education and employment, but first, ‘We’ve got to get rid of the Jews.’ “

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, agreed. “The fact that he urges countries to keep their trains running on time doesn’t diminish the level of bigotry,” Harris said of Mahathir.

The challenge now is to maintain the outrage, Harris said. “This is a good test case in terms of international reaction to bigotry: Is it condemnation followed by business as usual, or are there teeth to the denunciation?”

Foxman said he was disappointed not only that leaders of moderate Arab nations — such as Morocco and Jordan — failed to walk out when Mahathir made his remarks, but that European leaders at a European Union summit failed to criticize Mahathir.

“I find the response a lot more troubling than the speech,” Foxman said. Mahathir “read the world map well.”

E.U. representatives have noted that other E.U. bodies subsequently condemned the comments.

President Bush waited several days to respond to Mahathir’s remarks, even as other nations condemned them. But Bush dispatched his spokesman on Monday to tell reporters that the president took Mahathir aside at an Asian summit in Bangkok to tell him his comments were “wrong and divisive.”

Bush embraced Mahathir, who is to retire soon, for his support of U.S. anti-terror efforts after the Sept. 11 attacks but cooled on him this year because of Malaysian opposition to the war in Iraq.

The House of Representatives likely will pass a bipartisan resolution next week that repudiates Mahathir’s comments and “deplores the tacit acquiescence of those national representatives in attendance of the October 2003 Organization of the Islamic Conference as willing complicity in spreading a message of hate and incitement against Jews.”

Mahathir, for his part, was unrepentant.

“In my speech I condemned all violence, even the suicide bombings, and I told the Muslims it’s about time we stopped all these things and paused to think and do something that is much more productive,” he told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “That was the whole tone of my speech, but they picked up one sentence where I said that the Jews control the world.”

Foxman said he took some consolation in Mahathir’s pending departure from his post, and said whoever succeeds him should not be held accountable for Mahathir’s sins.

Still, Foxman said, “I think we should deliver a message that such language and ideology is unacceptable.”

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