Audience members at a University of Cambridge Union have been roundly condemned for laughing at the antisemitism of the Malaysian prime minister.
The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) reacted angrily to the latest remarks from Dr Mahathir Mohamed at the prestigious university last week, which drew laughter from assembled students at the world’s oldest debating society.
Challenged on his past comments about Jews and money, Mahathir said: “I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews. That’s why they are my friends.”
UJS shared a video excerpt and noted the audience’s laughter, adding: “Freedom of speech is not a joke when it incites hatred against one people.”
Reacting to the news, human rights barrister Adam Wagner tweeted: “This is unreal. Cambridge Union should be ashamed.” Likewise David Wolfson QC said he had resigned his life membership of Cambridge Union in disgust.
Former President of the Cambridge Union, Adam Cannon, tweeted that “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.
“The Cambridge Union used to be an institution that challenged people with vile antisemitic and racist views, not rolled over and laughed when such views were expressed. Really pathetic.”
Four people waving Israeli flags protested outside the university ahead of Mahathir’s appearance, which went ahead despite Jewish student concerns.
Hours earlier, UJS said the Malaysian PM had “repeatedly and unapologetically engaged in vile antisemitism, including classic antisemitic tropes” such as Jews having hooked noses and being “instinctively” good with money.
“We are disappointed that the Cambridge Union has taken the decision to host the Malaysian Prime Minister. Freedom of expression is paramount, but must be balanced against incitement to hatred,” said UJS campaigns manager Daniel Kosky.
“We expect Mahathir Mohamad to be robustly challenged on his anti-Jewish racism and to be shown that his views are not welcome on UK campuses.”
The Board of Deputies said that by hosting Mahathir the university was “creating a hostile environment for Jews” and “giving a platform to a person who has repeatedly denied the scope of the Shoah, spread antisemitic tropes and made straightforward racist comments”.
A UJS statement said: “Having raised concerns about the speaker and his history of unrepentantly anti-Jewish rhetoric, UJS are dismayed, but not surprised, that the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was allowed to use the prestigious platform of the Cambridge Union to espouse hatred.
“It is chilling to see a crowd of students laugh off flagrantly antisemitic comments. Freedom of expression is not a joke when it incites hatred against one people.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “There is no place within higher education for any form of hatred, discrimination or racism – including antisemitism. Universities have clear responsibilities, including under the Equality Act 2010 in this regard.
“This government remains committed to freedom of speech, providing it is lawful and does not include unlawful hate speech, incitement to violence or terrorism.
“The Universities Minister called on institutions in May to step up in the battle against antisemitism on campus, which includes adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, and we expect universities to balance their legal responsibilities effectively, including those for equalities, when holding speaker events.”
Watch the clip of Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad at the Cambridge Union on the Union of Jewish Students Twitter account here:
“I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends"- Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad at the Cambridge Union last night.
The audience laughs.
Freedom of speech is not a joke when it incites hatred against one people. pic.twitter.com/2ZRrMDtfKy
— Union of Jewish Students (@UJS_UK) June 17, 2019