What exactly was the Cambridge Union thinking when it invited Mahathir Mohamad to speak last week? Mohamad, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, has been one of the world’s most outspoken and notorious antisemites in recent decades. He has stereotyped Jews as ‘hook nosed’ people who ‘understand money instinctively’, questioned the scale of the Holocaust and accused the Jews of ruling the world ‘by proxy.’
He has also tapped into a rich vein of conspiratorial antisemitism by accusing Israel of being behind all the woes of the Middle East. Indeed, he has not even hidden his prejudice, declaring that he is ‘glad to be labelled antisemitic’. In essence, this foul racist is imbued with a level of hatred that would have endeared him to the Nazi regime.
To understand why Mohamad was invited, one need only listen to the comments made by the Union afterwards when they stated that ‘free speech and student welfare are equally important to us.’ The union has long opposed the ‘no platform’ policy of the National Union of Students. It argues that students should freely listen to all those who have made a decisive impact on national politics and that is why they have invited such ‘luminaries’ as Marine Le Pen and Abu Hamza to address them.
Freedom of speech is indeed a vital component of a civilised society and, with only a few exceptions, students should be able to judge for themselves who they can and cannot listen to. But free speech fundamentally requires accountability, the ability to hold people’s words and actions to serious public scrutiny. This is especially true for those who espouse deeply controversial and irrational views that violate standards of decency. If they are simply allowed to spew yet more venom, their freedom of speech becomes a licence to hate, mock and demonise others.
And that is indeed what happened. When challenged about some of the anti-Jewish comments he had made, Mohamad replied: ‘I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends.” This spiteful reference to ‘good versus bad’ Jews invited laughter from the audience, reportedly from the Malaysian delegation that were present, while the rest were shamefully silent.
Where was the Douglas Murray or Melanie Phillips or John Mann to counter such a vicious remark? Where was the fearless interlocutor to remind those watching that this man was a calculating, nasty racist? When the BBC made the decision to invite Nick Griffin on BBC Question Time in 2009, it generated understandable controversy. But at least the corporation ensured that he faced an array of political and cultural figures, people of considerable experience and calibre, to hold his past words and actions to scrutiny.
Yet there was no such heavyweight to challenge the Malaysian Prime Minister on his record of bigotry and offensiveness. He had an easy ride when he should have been made to squirm. Under those circumstances, the generous platform that Mohamad was given allowed him to incite hatred against a minority without any fear of recrimination, a clear abuse of freedom of speech.
Worse, this has happened at the very same time that antisemitism continues to be a problem on our university campuses. Jewish student societies have been forced to use security for fear of racist attacks and some keep the locations of their events secret for the same reason.
In 2018, vicious name calling was reported at Oxford University’s Labour club with Jews labelled pejoratively as ‘Zios’. Earlier this year, more than 200 students tried to block the creation of a Jewish society at the University of Essex while one of the university’s academics, Dr Maaruf Ali, was dismissed for antisemitism. The Cambridge Union has contributed to this cacophony of prejudice by giving a free platform to an unrepentant Jew hater. Shame on them.