Jewish Group Hopes Mahathir's Exit Will Usher in New Climate

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A Jewish group that monitors and campaigns against anti-Semitism is hoping that the retirement Friday of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will change the atmosphere in the Southeast Asian country, thus preventing a "full-blown battle" over his recent attacks against Jews.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has called for a curb on tourism to and business investment in Malaysia because of Mahathir's repeated charge in recent weeks that Jews control the world, Western governments and media.

Mahathir first made the comments in a speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) on October 16, and then repeated them on various occasions in response to the subsequent condemnation by Western governments and Jewish organizations.

The U.S. Senate Monday voted unanimously to make the continued provision of $1.2 million in military aid to Kuala Lumpur conditional on a determination by the State Department that Malaysia "supports and promotes religious freedoms, including tolerance for people of the Jewish faith."

The veteran leader, who has a history of attacking Jews and the West, has shrugged off both the Senate decision and the call from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"We don't really need that money," Mahathir told journalists, in reference to the military aid. "I think we can find that one million dollars here."

Of the Simon Wiesenthal Center campaign, Mahathir said in an interview with a Malaysian paper, "I don't think we should allow ourselves to be blackmailed by them."

The U.S. is Malaysia's biggest trading partner, as well as its largest investor, making up 20 percent of total foreign investments.

According to the immigration department, 128,000 Americans visited last year. Tourists from the U.S. were the third-largest group from any non-Asian country, after Britain and Australia.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Wednesday the organization has yet to call for a full boycott, and was not eager to do so.

"We're not looking to 'go to war' with the people of Malaysia," he said by phone from Los Angeles. "They're not our problem. He is, and his mindset very much is."

Cooper said Mahathir appeared to be under the impression that "there is no price to pay for that kind of racist grandstanding."

He expressed the hope that with his departure, the Malaysian government would adopt a different approach.

After more than 22 years in office, the 77-year-old Mahathir is handing over power to his handpicked successor and deputy for the past four years, Abdullah Badawi.

Cooper said the new prime minister and the rest of the leadership would be closely watched.

"If he [Mahathir] is still pulling the strings and calling the shots in Malaysia and we see that the country's rulers and diplomats are signed on to continue to promote this kind of antisemitism, then there'll be a full-blown battle."

"It's not a campaign we want to launch," he said of the calls for a curb on investment. "We're still hopeful the new leadership will simply cool it and go off in another direction."

Cooper conceded that, as a Muslim country, Malaysia would obviously continue to support the Palestinians. "We don't expect them to become Zionists overnight."

But the Simon Wiesenthal Center hoped the new leadership would move away from Mahathir's behavior in the weeks ahead.

"We're not asking the new leader to come out and make a speech about Jews - quite the contrary. We're hoping he will concentrate on moving his country forward."

Mahathir's critics say his remarks are highly irresponsible, and could provoke more violence.

Cooper recalled that Mahathir during the 1980s wouldn't allow the New York Philharmonic to perform in Malaysia because it planned to include in its concert music by Jewish composer Ernst Bloch.

At the time, people could simply "scratch their head and say, what kind of nut is this?"

"But we live in a completely different climate today. We live in extraordinary volatile times, when that kind of rhetoric just can't be shrugged off."

Cooper voiced disappointment that no OIC leader has publicly criticized Mahathir for his speech - for which he received a standing ovation - or for his subsequent comments.

"What does that say to the rest of us who are searching for moderates [in the Islamic world]? I think it's shocking and disturbing, and not only to Jews."

'My Muslim hero'

At an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok last week, President Bush took Mahathir aside and called his comments "wrong and divisive," White House spokesman Scott McClellan reported at the time.

Mahathir has since denied that Bush scolded him, calling it "the biggest lie of all."

On the eve of his retirement, the outgoing prime minister is being lauded in the Malaysian media, with newspapers publishing glowing tribute from commentators and ordinary people in the country and the wider region.

"Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has achieved almost mythical status among his admirers in Malaysia and tributes have been pouring in as he prepares to step down on Friday," began one local report, published Wednesday.

"Mahathir is my Muslim hero," ran the headline on one accolade, while another said: "Thanks for so many great things accomplished."

How Badawi and other ministers conduct themselves in the absence of the man who has run Malaysia for more than two decades remains to be seen.

Mahathir himself, at a press conference Tuesday - in which he once again expounded on his views on the Jews - said he was sure Malaysia under his successor would be able to maintain its independence in the face of "attacks" on the nation.

At least one cabinet minister looks unlikely to disown Mahathir's opinions after his departure.

Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister Kadir Sheikh Fadzir was quoted by the New Straits Times newspaper as saying that "the international media are controlled by the Jews and the [West's political] leaders have to make statements which support them."

"I am confident Malaysia will not in any way be affected by the boycott call," Kadir added.

Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz also said she doubted investors would be swayed by what she called biased media reporting on Mahathir's statements.

See also:
Bush Scolds Mahathir, But Muslim Leader Maintains 'Jews Control World' (Oct. 20, 2003)
Islamic Leader's Comments on Jews and the West Condemned by Some (Oct. 17, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow