Anwar Ibrahim, Anti-Semite?

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Anwar Ibrahim, Anti-Semite?

The Malaysian leader has long expressed strong, and at times contradictory, views on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Anwar Ibrahim, Anti-Semite?

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim addresses a pro-Palestine rally at the inside Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur, October 24, 2023.

Credit: X/Anwar Ibrahi

Let’s assess what we have at hand. As far as I’m aware, Anwar Ibrahim hasn’t deplored Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Gazan groups for the rape and murder of Israeli civilians, nor for taking them hostage. His government did, though, blame the ongoing crisis in Gaza on the “politics of dispossession at the hands of Israel as the occupier.” Anwar tweeted the day after the October 7 attacks: “The confiscation of land and property belonging to the Palestinian people is done relentlessly by the Zionists.” He has condemned Israeli military actions in Gaza as “the height of barbarism in this world.” And he has compared Hamas to the African National Congress.

Anwar has, as many point out, supported the Palestinian cause for decades. He clearly still sees Hamas as the legitimate government of Gaza, not as the corrupt, murderous outfit that has refused to hold elections since 2006. In October, he pledged Malaysia’s “unwavering support for the Palestinian people” in a phone call with Ismail Haniyeh, one of Hamas’ Qatar-based leaders. After the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur reportedly put pressure on Anwar to sever his ties with Hamas, he told parliament: “I said that we, as a policy, have a relationship with Hamas from before and this will continue.” He added in another speech, “Malaysia will not change its stance, particularly our reluctance to consider Hamas as a terrorist group … Malaysia maintains its independent position.”

What about his comments in the past? Typically, Anwar has been given a light touch by journalists because he isn’t Mahathir Mohamad. After Anwar became prime minister in 2022, the chief editor of the English-language Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, argued: “Israel would love closer ties with Kuala Lumpur. Could this be the opportunity?” The editor noted: “Unlike his predecessor Mahathir, Malaysia’s new PM Anwar Ibrahim doesn’t call himself a ‘proud antisemite’; indeed, his foes slur him as an ‘agent’ of Jews and/or Christians.”

Indeed, he isn’t Mahathir, who has said in the past, amongst other despicable things, that “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews” and that Jews “invented and successfully promoted socialism, communism, human rights, and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong…With these, they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power.” Or, one can reference speeches he gave in 1997, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crash, that  “an international Jewish conspiracy” was attempting to destroy the economies of Muslim countries.

Yet, let’s not forget that Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy prime minister at the time. For anyone interested in the topic, I’d recommend Moshe Yegar’s 2006 paper, “Malaysia: Anti-Semitism Without Jews.” Amongst numerous insights on the Malaysian stance on Israel, and from which I have taken the above-mentioned quotations, it informs us that in the aftermath of Mahathir’s speech in 1997,

Jewish leaders in New York met with Malaysian diplomats and with the Malaysian deputy prime minister and finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who was visiting the city. The Malaysians tried to explain that Mahathir was prone to outbursts and did not heed advice from anyone, but was not an anti-Semite. Anwar Ibrahim, however, said Mahathir sincerely believed in the “international Jewish plot.” Shortly thereafter Mahathir fired Anwar Ibrahim, who was tried for corruption and sexual offenses and given a long sentence.

The article leaves open to speculation whether there was causation in his conviction, although it appears unlikely that Anwar was purged because of his comments in New York. But he didn’t resign before he was pushed over Mahathir’s comments. Perhaps Anwar doesn’t believe in an “international Jewish plot.” But that doesn’t mean he isn’t anti-Semitic. Recall that Anwar often evoked Israel in his criticism of Najib Razak’s government. Israeli spies were “directly involved in the running of the government,” he said in 2010. He claimed Najib’s government was run by “Jewish-controlled” public relations teams.

Before the 2008 general election, he stated: “I have evidence proving that the government is backing the Jewish lobby in the U.S. and some parties inside.” He was even suspended from parliament for six months in 2010 for comparing Najib’s “1Malaysia” scheme to an Israeli election campaign in 1999 called “One Israel.” On that, he told the Financial Times in 2013: “I had to face the domestic audience that portrayed me as a Jewish agent… Frankly, I’ve not been able to recover fully, because some of the Jewish establishment in the States went very severe.”

That would appear to lend some credence to the notion that Anwar’s anti-semitism is performative, a way of slinging the same mud that opponents slung at him. On the other hand, Anwar, when deputy prime minister, went against Mahathir’s decision in 1994 to ban the screening of the film “Schindler’s List,” which Mahathir deemed to be Jewish propaganda. We also have Anwar saying things like this in a 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal: “[we] support all efforts to protect the security of the state of Israel.” However, during last year’s election, when these comments to the Wall Street Journal resurfaced, he clearly thought it necessary to respond: “I’m the number one fighter for the Palestinian people in our country.”

There are suggestions that Anwar hasn’t changed his opinion on the Palestine question since his adolescent days in the Muslim Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM), of which he was president between 1974–1982 and which played a major role in the Islamization of Malaysian politics in the 1980s. He wrote a rather eloquent op-ed for Al Jazeera about the conflict in 2011. He has consistently supported a two-state solution, at least from speeches given since the early 2010s, and has defended Israel’s right to exist, which puts him in ideological conflict with his friends in Hamas. He offered a fine appeal for inter-faith solidarity following the attack on the All Saints Church in Taiping in 2010.

So which is the real Anwar? The Anwar who defended Israel’s right to statehood in an interview with American media and didn’t think a biopic of Oskar Schindler was Jewish propaganda? Or the one who used anti-Semitic slurs when speaking in Malaysia to attack a political rival? Perhaps it is both. He can say one thing in the U.S. and another at home. One can defend Israel’s right to exist and have solidarity with the Palestinian people’s efforts for self-determination. However, Anwar doesn’t just defend Palestinian sovereignty; he refuses to condemn Hamas’ terrorism or even countenance in public that Hamas has done anything wrong.

One must also recall what he hasn’t said. One ought to avoid tu quoque argument but since Anwar brought up “hypocrisy,” it’s worth considering his silence on the suffering of Muslims elsewhere in the world. In December he visited Saudi Arabia. Did he there exclaim loudly about the murder of perhaps as many as 150,000 Muslims in Yemen? Did the Malaysian people boycott Saudi businesses? A few months earlier, he flew off to Beijing. Any grandstanding about the Uyghurs now living in a concentration-camp region? Any public boycott of Chinese businesses? Anwar blasted Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s defense of the Myanmar military’s genocide of the Rohingya, but that genocidal military, now in power in Myanmar, remains a member of ASEAN.

If one wanted to make a cheap shot (as if I would!) you could say that Anwar’s recent statements on Israel and Gaza have been made for cynical reasons. First, he knows his profuse statements on Israel feed a wellspring of anti-semitism in his country, that there are no Jews in Malaysia to argue against him, and that he appears to have international opinion on his side. Second, his governing party is losing ground politically to more extreme Islamist parties in the opinion polls. Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst, told my friend Nile Bowie at Asia Times: “There is a strong domestic imperative for the prime minister to support the Palestinian cause” and that Anwar seeks to “portray himself as a strong and principled statesman in the eyes of the domestic populace by not bowing to American political pressure.”

Anwar, in the past, wasn’t above accusing his rivals of the same cynicism. In 2010, he castigated the Najib Razak government for doing the same thing. “Stoking the flames of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism is a good distraction from the stench in their own backyard, namely rampant corruption, denial of basic human rights, abuse of power and the suppression of civil society,” he said at the time. Et pour vous?

Personally, I don’t believe Anwar is being cynical or opportunistic. An opportunist, after all, would try to emerge in a better position on all fronts. But Anwar has massively frustrated the West, a key partner in his government’s domestic agenda, with his actions, especially his telephone call with Hamas’ leaders. And, as to the question I posed in my title, one cannot know if Anwar is actually an anti-Semite. He’s certainly not of the same species as Mahathir (who has presumably paid Elon Musk’s ransom so he can post long, rambling, toxic threads on Twitter/X about Jews, such as this caustic attempt at history last week). Anwar has said things in the past that can be construed as anti-Semitic, yet he has acted, on occasions, in ways that suggest the opposite.

All causes of conflicts and solutions to conflicts are complex, but the Israel-Palestine one is perhaps the most complex of our times. It has two conflicting nationalisms (in the secular sense) and two conflicting religions. Factor in the fact that a good number of religious fanatics on all sides reckon this conflict will bring forth the final Armageddon, which those types cannot wait for. The actual conflict is now almost a century old, but the antagonisms go back millennia.

Almost everyone outside of the area wants to ventriloquize for the combatants. Global attention goes from intense obsession with the conflict to intense apathy. Many people made up their minds on this matter as children in the 1960s and 70s, and haven’t changed their opinion since. All the while, the drivers of the conflict, purporting to want a solution, know that an actual resolution would be suicidal for themselves; a two-state solution would destroy Hamas and Israel’s extreme-right. All this means that it’s natural for people to turn away from reason and react with pure emotion, which, one thinks, might explain Anwar’s actions.