Cambridge Union condemned by Jewish former presidents for hosting notorious antisemite Mahathir Mohamad

Footage of the event shows the Union audience laughing at the Malaysian PM's antisemitic remark


Jewish former Cambridge Union presidents have condemned the society for hosting the notoriously antisemitic Prime Minister of Malaysia, at an event where the audience laughed as he said he liked his Jewish friends because "they're not like other Jews".

Appearing at the world's oldest debating society on Sunday, Mahathir Mohamad, 93, said he had “many Jewish friends. They’re not like other Jews, that’s why they’re my friends”.

The video, which was published by the Union of Jewish Students, showed this was followed by laughter from the crowd. UJS said: "Freedom of speech is not a joke when it incites hatred against one people."

Barrister Jeremy Brier, who was president of the union in 2001, said he was “appalled that antisemite Mahathir Mohamad was invited to speak, was openly antisemitic and was greeted with laughter. What a shameful chapter in the history of a wonderful organisation.”

Adam Cannon, who was president in 1996, described it as “absolutely appalling".

“To allow vile antisemitic and racist comments to go unchallenged while the audience laughs is unacceptable. It is shameful and humiliating for such a great institution to allow this to take place," he said.

Despite representations from Jewish organisations including the Union of Jewish Students and the Board of Deputies, the Cambridge Union decided to proceed with the event featuring Mr Mohamad.

In his 1970 book The Malay Dilemma, he described Jews as being “not merely hook-nosed, but understand[ing] money instinctively," sentiments he repeated in a BBC interview last year, when he also questioned the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Appearing at the Oxford Union in January, Mr Mohamad said: “We are free to say what we like, we can say something that can be regarded as antisemitic by the Jews.

"That is their right to hold such an opinion of me. It is my right to tell them they have been doing a lot of wrong things.”

At the event on Sunday night, Mr Mohamad was responding to a question from Adam Davies, the Speakers Officer of the Union.

"Why do you say that the Jewish people in general are inclined towards money?” Mr Davies asked.

“There are lots of Jews who…care about human rights, care about social justice, care about democracy".

Mr Mohamad replied: “I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends.”

Peter Sugarman, who was a Cambridge Union president in 1981, told the JC: “Just because the Union has the right to invite someone, doesn’t mean that it’s sensible to do so.

“I endorse free speech. However, given Mr Mohamad’s known antisemitic views, it is regrettable that the Cambridge Union gave him a platform to express such sentiments. Sadly, it appears that he lived down to expectations.”

Brexit Party MEP and businessman Lance Forman, another former president, said "the most concerning thing was the reaction, the people laughing."

He said Mr Mohamed "shouldn't have been invited unless it was in a debate situation. I believe in free speech, but you need to have people who can put up a strong counterargument". 

Ex-Union President and journalist Lauren Davidson called it "abhorrent".

"The Union will say it was defending free speech, but free speech is the right to voice your views without government intervention – not to be given one of the most respected speaking platforms in the country and have your racist views go unchallenged," she said.

She said: "There is a fine line between voices and views that provoke debate and giving a microphone to unrepentant racism that perpetuate damaging tropes and legitimise hatred".

"On this occasion – particularly given Mahathir Mohamad said the same thing earlier this year at the Oxford Union – Cambridge got it wrong."

"That his comments, delivered no doubt in front of Jewish audience members, were received with laughter and left to linger without challenge is hardly holding truth to power."

In a statement, the Cambridge Union said the laughter "originated from the middle section, which was composed of the Prime Minister’s delegation.

"The Prime Minister was scrutinised on his record throughout the event both from the moderator and the audience," the statement said.

"As a society, free speech and student welfare are equally important to us, we invited the Cambridge Jewish Society to attend the talk to ask questions to the Prime Minister and we also allowed them to hand out flyers to the audience."

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