Labour deputy leader urges government to act over Malaysia ban on Israeli athletes

Tom Watson says Kuala Lumpur's decision “completely unacceptable" in letter to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt


Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, has called for the government to act over Malaysia’s decision to bar Israeli swimmers from a key Paralympics qualifier.

In a letter to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Mr Watson branded Malaysia’s decision “completely unacceptable” and said the “decision to discriminate against Israeli athletes” also goes against the mission of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

Officials in Malaysia – which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel – announced last week that they would not allow competitors from Israel into the country for the World Para Swimming Championships over the summer, a qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Calling on Mr Hunt to put pressure on the Malaysian High Commission to reverse the decision, Mr Watson added: “If the Malaysian government refuses to do so, I would ask that you call on the International Paralympic Committee and World Para Swimming to relocate the Championships to a nation where the ideals of the Olympic movement will be upheld by allowing Israeli athletes to participate.”

He added that the decision to block the Israeli swimmers from competing in the qualifying event  would “unfairly hinder the chances of these athletes being able to compete at the 2020 Paralympic Games”.

Last Thursday, Israel accused Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of "rabid antisemitism" after he said his country would not host any more sports events involving competitors from the Jewish state.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah had earlier insisted the country would "not host events" that have Israeli participation.

"It is about fighting on behalf of the oppressed," he added.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon hit back at the "shameful" decision to bar athletes from the country and said the move "totally opposes the Olympic spirit".

"Israel condemns the decision inspired no doubt by Malaysia's PM Mahathir's rabid antisemitism," he said.

"We call upon the International Paralympic Committee to change this wrong decision or change the venue of the event."

Meanwhile, Labour Friends of Israel chair Joan Ryan – who has written to the Malaysian High Commissioner over the issue – said the ban was “utterly appalling” and “completely contrary to the ideals of the Olympic movement”.

“They must reverse this decision immediately,” the Enfield North MP said. “If they do not, the championships should be relocated and Malaysia barred from hosting sporting events until they recognise that there is no place for racism and prejudice in sport.”

The Oxford University Union was also criticised for inviting the Prime Minister of Malaysia to speak to its members last Friday night, with the university’s Jewish society calling him “an open and unrepentant antisemite.”

Speaking to the Oxford Union, Mr Mohamad doubled down on his well-known antisemitism, saying it was a matter of freedom of speech for him to speak “against the Jews”.

When it was pointed out his previous remarks about Jewish people being “hooked nosed” with “an instinctive sense of money” were antisemitic, he responded saying: “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. Why can’t we say anything against Israel, against the Jews?”

The 93-year-old was also asked why, when he wanted to criticise Israel, he used the word “Jews” instead of pointing to certain policies by the Israeli government.

He said: “Well, it seems most of them support the stance taken by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu against the Arabs, so when I say only the ‘Zionists’, people don’t understand. What they do understand is the word ‘yahudi’ or ‘Jews’.”

But Oxford Jsoc President Nicole Jacobus said her society had “contacted the President of the Oxford Union with concerns" over Mr Mohamad and "several speakers" who are "well known for publicly expressing antisemitic views".

She wrote on Facebook: “Prime Minister Mohamad is an open and unrepentant antisemite, accusing Jews of ‘Nazi cruelty’ and seeking to wipe out all Muslims, has said ‘Antisemitic’ is ‘an invented term to prevent criticizing Jews for doing wrong’.”

Malaysia is one of several predominantly Muslim states that have no formal diplomatic ties with Israel. Entry to the country on an Israeli passport is forbidden.

The Palestinian cause has widespread support in Malaysia.  Thousands took to the streets in protest when US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017.

In contrast to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Mr Watson has shown himself to be a staunch supporter of Israel.

At last September’s Labour Party conference – which saw of sea of Palestinisn flags raised during one debate – Mr Watson spoke at the Labour Friends of Israel event saying he was “proud” to defend the country.

During last Wednesday’s heated Brexit crisis debate in Westminster, Michael Gove, the Tory Enviornment Secretary, said of the Deputy Labour leader:  "We have several things in common - we've both lost weight, him much more so. We're both friends of Israel - him much more so."

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