What is it about Oxford and Cambridge? England’s two great universities have had their moments of glory, but they have also played an outsized part in the history of useful stoogery. In 1933, just a week after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the members of the Oxford Union proclaimed, by a vote of 275 to 153, that they would “under no circumstances fight for…King and country.” During the next few years, five Cambridge students – Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross – were recruited as Soviet spies, and over the succeeding two decades or so they passed a remarkable amount of sensitive information to their KGB handlers.
Both the Oxford Union and the Cambridge Union routinely invite famous figures from around the world to address them. Sometimes the guests are showbiz figures; sometimes they’re controversial leaders. In January, the Oxford Union welcomed Mahathir bin Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia. As Douglas Murray pointed out at the website of the Spectator, Mohamad, age 93, “is an exceptionally happy and virulent anti-Semite.”
Indeed, Mohamad has said that the word “antisemitic” is “an invented term to prevent criticizing Jews for doing wrong.” Back in 1970, he wrote: “The Jews are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively.” In 2010, as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League noted at the time, Mohamad “accus[ed] the ‘Jewish lobby’ of preventing the U.S. from ending the war in Afghanistan.”
“I am glad to be labeled antisemitic,” Mohamad stated in 2012. “How can I be otherwise, when the Jews who so often talk of the horrors they suffered during the Holocaust show the same Nazi cruelty and hard-heartedness towards not just their enemies but even towards their allies should any try to stop the senseless killing of their Palestinian enemies?”
The Oxford Union event came and went without making major headlines. But on June 16, it was the Cambridge Union’s turn to host Mohamad. First Mohamad spoke for about twenty minutes. This was followed by an exchange with one of the student hosts, who deserves credit for challenging Mohamad. Right off the bat, he asked him about same-sex marriage, to which Mohamad, unsurprisingly, expressed opposition. Then the student queried Mohamed about his government’s past incarceration of people without trial.
Then came a question about Israel. Why did Mohamad ban Israeli athletes from an international swim meet in his country? Mohamad replied that Israel failed to show “respect” for other people. The Jewish state, he charged, had “stolen other people’s land, killed a lot of people, broken international laws, and done all kinds of things that have never been done by other countries.”
The interviewer did not let up. “Going beyond Israel,” he went on, “you’ve said some pretty hateful things about Jewish people in general.” He cited remarks Mohamad had made to the effect that the scale of the Holocaust had been “overstated” and that “Jewish people control the world by proxy.” Did Mohamad, the young man asked, still stand by those statements? Mohamad’s answer was, in effect, yes.
After a brief detour into the subject of Sudan, the interviewer returned to the subject of Jews. Was it fair, he asked, to blame all Jews for “the alleged crimes of the Israeli state”? Yes, said Mohamad, unless they explicitly distanced themselves from Israel’s actions. Confronted with his description of Jews as “hook-nosed,” Mohamed refused to apologize, explaining that it was natural to generalize about races and that only Jews seemed to resent this fact. On the positive side, Mohamad was willing to acknowledge that “not all Jews are bad” and even professed that he had “Jewish friends in Britain.” Lucky them!
Mohamad then took questions from the audience. Several topics were covered. Finally one of the audience members brought the conversation, once again, back to Jews, suggesting that Mohamad’s generalizations about Jews were unfair. Mohamad again defended his right to generalize. When the interviewer pushed him on this, Mohamad, at about forty-six minutes into the Cambridge Union’s YouTube of the event, came out with the statement that made the news. “I have some Jewish friends, very good friends,” he said. “They are not like the other Jews. That’s why they are my friends.”
And the reason this statement made the news is that the audience – or at least a sizable portion of it – laughed. Actually laughed. It did not sound like derisive laughter. It sounded like appreciative laughter.
Now, imagine if the interviewee had been, say, Donald Trump, and he has said something similar about blacks: “I have some black friends. They’re not like other blacks. That’s why they’re my friends.” Would the Cambridge audience have laughed? Surely not. They would have booed, hissed, walked out en masse. But in response to Mohamad’s ugly comment about Jews, they laughed, and proceeded calmly to the next question.
Alas, it is not really all that surprising to encounter such behavior on the part of privileged young people in the Britain of 2019. This is a time and place, after all, where the head of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is, like Mahathir bin Mohamad, an outspoken anti-Semite, and where the Jew-hatred of Muslims is routinely granted a pass.