(The National Post, 2 January 2016)
Anna Baltzer, a national organizer of boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) against Israel in the United States, was heartened to receive a warm welcome at a recent conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
She found the political atmosphere was much more open to the BDS cause than in the U.S. "You are way ahead in that way," she told the Malaysians. She envisioned Malaysia as her ally, "our secret weapon in this international campaign."
Erna Mahyuni, who blogs for Malay Mail Online, takes a different view of Malaysian public opinion. She headed one of her blogs, "The Ridiculous Malaysian Obsession With Jews," reporting that, "I walked into a local bookstore at Great Eastern Mall to find a special display dedicated to Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf."
Both Baltzer and Mahyuni were responding to the same phenomenon. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) runs a global survey of anti-Semitic attitudes, estimating how many citizens of each country express anti-Jewish attitudes. India, for example, is estimated at 20 per cent. In Malaysia, the number is 61 per cent, higher than Iran.
How can that be? The country has had no conflict with Israel and Jews are so rare in Malaysia that most citizens never see one. Yet this is the only state in the Pacific region where Israel and the Jews are often on the public agenda. For many years, the government has promoted anti-Semitism. Now it's part of the national culture. There's nothing else like it outside the Middle East.
Since attaining independence in 1957, Malaysia has avoided diplomatic relations with Israel. In 1968, when Israeli ships visited Malaysian ports, seamen were forbidden to disembark. In 1974, trade with Israel was prohibited.
The usual explanation was that Malaysian governments hoped to create ties with Arab countries and to please the Muslims who make up half the population. It was political but it also became personal, an expression of the views held by Mahathir Mohamad.
He was prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and today remains a force in public opinion. When Israel was fighting in Lebanon in 1983, Mahathir called the Jewish state "the most immoral country in the world." Malaysia promised to sever ties with any country that moved its ambassador to Jerusalem. The Palestine Liberation Organization set up an office in Kuala Lumpur and achieved full diplomatic recognition under Mahathir. Yasser Arafat, paying an official visit to Malaysia in July 1984, was received by the king and spoke to a large audience.
When an Israeli cricket team arrived in 1997 for a tournament, Muslim students demonstrated by burning Israeli flags. The foreign minister calmed the students by denying the rumour that Malaysia was planning to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Mahathir explained that Malaysia would consider recognizing Israel only after it satisfied all Palestinian demands for Jerusalem and signed peace treaties with all the Arab countries.
But his interests go beyond Israel. Like many who oppose Israel, Mahathir has pursued a broader agenda. He blames Jews for many of the world's troubles. In a speech to the Malaysian Press Club, he said that Jews control the international media and try to destabilize Malaysia through distorted reporting. He called the Wall Street Journal a Jewish tool. During a currency crisis, he spoke of the "international Jewish conspiracy." Jews, he's written, have an instinctive understanding of finance. He claims to believe that "Jews rule the world." In 1983, the notoriously anti-Semitic work of bogus history, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was published in Malaysia. Henry Ford's anti-Semitic book, The International Jew, was given to delegates at a United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) meeting, where Mahathir delivered a speech.
His anti-Semitism extends to culture. In 1984, his information minister demanded that the New York Philharmonic remove music by Ernst Bloch, a Swiss Jewish composer, from a Kuala Lumpur concert. Instead, the Philharmonic cancelled its appearance. In 1994, Mahathir prohibited the screening of Steven Spielberg's movie, Schindler's List, claiming it was anti-German propaganda, aimed at winning support for Jews. After international protests, the government said it would accept the film if seven scenes were cut. Spielberg said it would be shown complete or not at all, so all his films were banned in Malaysia.
Moshe Yegar, a former Israeli diplomat, summarized the Malaysian situation with an article in the Jewish Political Studies Review titled, Anti-Semitism Without Jews. The unremitting intensity of Malaysia's attitudes is anomalous, an extreme example of a widespread tendency. But it demonstrates how intensely Israel can be maligned, even when there's no logical connection with Jews or Israeli politics. It's part of the burden Israel must deal with when enduring threats to its existence.