With Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad standing by his claims that Jews rule the world, Israeli leaders and Jewish groups say they are stepping up efforts to organize a “global rejection” of the Asian leader’s remarks.
Israeli Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky issued a statement Wednesday announcing that the night before he had consulted with several American Jewish groups during a conference call in an effort to “coordinate and intensify” protests against Mahathir’s remarks. One of the participating groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, issued its own statement calling for a boycott of Malaysia.
“It is time for all decent people to stand up and be counted,” Sharansky said. “The world is watching.”
Mahathir drew intense criticism from Israel, Jewish groups and many Western governments after he accused the Jews of “ruling the world by proxy” and of getting “others to fight and die for them.” The remarks were part of an October 16 speech delivered in Putrajaya, Malaysia, during a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group that includes 57 Muslim nations. During the speech, which called for reform in the Islamic world and an end to terrorism, the Malaysian leader urged Muslims to marshal their resources toward a “final victory” over the Jews.
Aside from serving as a rallying cry for Jewish groups, the speech has also triggered a feud between France and the Anti-Defamation League. The sides are wrangling over allegations that French President Jacques Chirac successfully pushed to keep any rebuke of Mahathir out of the final communiqué of a European Union summit taking place in Brussels.
The speech was condemned in a separate joint statement read to the press by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on behalf of the top diplomats of E.U. member states. Frattini described Mahathir’s remarks as antisemitic, but the term does not appear in the version of the statement posted on the E.U. Web site. The diplomat was tapped to speak to the press because Italy currently occupies the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Conversations with French officials suggest that the row over France’s response is deepening French suspicions that Israel and its supporters in the United States are conducting a defamatory campaign depicting France as antisemitic and pro-Arab. Israeli officials and some Jewish organizations, meanwhile, are openly critical of France’s stance on the Middle East and its allegedly tepid response to the wave of antisemitic acts that have occurred since the outbreak of the intifada.
The accusation against Chirac, which he flatly denies, was first raised in an Associated Press report but quickly seized upon by the media and government officials in Israel, and then by American Jewish groups. The Israeli daily Ma’ariv carried a photograph of the French president on its front page with the caption “The antisemitic face of France” and a piece by its editor Amnon Dankner headlined “The Collaborator” linking Chirac’s attitude to the old French antisemitism.
This prompted Israel’s Foreign Ministry to issue a written statement claiming that it was “a disgrace that a country like France… can show even understanding or acceptance of the anti-Semitic remarks of Mahathir Mohamad.” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also blasted France, and The New York Times published an editorial October 18 questioning French motives.
A letter sent by the French embassy in Israel to Ma’ariv on Chirac’s behalf called the “insult… as shocking as it is despicable.”
Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that while it was “scandalous” to accuse Chirac of antisemitism, the separate E.U. statement was “insufficient and too formal.” The CRIF issued its own statement calling on the French Foreign Ministry to formally protest to the Malaysian ambassador in Paris.
French Jewish leaders received a letter from Chirac in which he bitterly complained about the criticisms from Israel. Chirac also sent a letter to Mahathir condemning his remarks.
Israeli officials have been backpedaling from the accusations against Chirac. Monday, in an interview with French radio, Israel’s ambassador to France Nissim Zvilli said that there had been “a certain misunderstanding” and that Chirac “did nothing to torpedo a European decision to condemn the antisemitic and hateful declarations of the Malaysian prime minister.”
But some Jewish groups are standing by their criticisms of Chirac.
“Something fishy is going on here,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman issued a statement October 17 praising the E.U., and also hailing individual steps taken by Italy, Spain and Germany. The statement blasted Chirac and Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis by name for what it described as their efforts to “block” the inclusion of a condemnation in an official statement of the E.U. summit.
Chirac in turn sent the ADL a private letter October 19 saying he was “shocked” that the organization had “given any credence” to the accusations. He wrote that it was in accordance with E.U. “procedure” to issue a separate statement on “a solemn statement on such a serious subject.”
“This is the reality of the situation, and it is very different, you will agree, from your presentation which is insulting to me,” Chirac wrote. “In a matter of such seriousness, it seems to me indispensable that all information that is made public should rest on specific, verifiable and indisputable facts since distortion of them can be fraught with consequences.”
Officials at the ADL answered back in an October 22 letter, arguing that Mahathir’s speech required a break from routine practices. “We also remain convinced that you personally are opposed to anti-Semitism,” wrote Foxman and the ADL’s national chairman, Glen Tobias. “The problem is that you have not made this crystal clear on this occasion, when the most vicious anti-Semitic speech since the days of the Nazis was delivered by the leader of a nation.… As to your letter to Mr. Mahathir, had you been as angry with him as you were in your letter to us, we would have applauded you.”
Prior to the exchange with the ADL, Chirac sent a letter to Mahathir saying, “These statements can only be condemned by all those who guard the memory of the Holocaust.” The letter was sent after the Israeli media reports came out and after the Malaysian leader thanked the French president for his understanding, according to a French official.
Foxman said that Chirac had been too tepid in his letter to Mahathir, arguing that the French president should have said that he personally found the speech abhorrent.
A French diplomat noted that unlike Chirac, President Bush failed to issue a strong statement over the weekend.
Administration officials had hinted that Bush would issue a public condemnation of Mahathir this week during an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok attended by both leaders. In the end, however, Bush chose to have White House spokesman Scott McClellan announce that the president had told Mahathir that his remarks were “wrong and divisive.”
Several Jewish groups from across the political spectrum, including the ADL, praised Bush for rebuking the Malaysian leader, though Mahathir has denied that any such rebuke took place. Even though the E.U. and several Western governments condemned the speech, the Wiesenthal Center hailed Bush as a lone voice in speaking out. Sharansky referred to “an absence of a strong, global rejection and refutation.”
On Tuesday Mahathir told the Bangkok Post that the criticisms of his remarks proved that Jews indeed controlled the world. Later, he told reporters, he would be willing to come to Israel to explain his charges against the Jewish people if the leadership of world Jewry would first explain why they refer to Muslims as terrorists, Ha’aretz reported.