Will Malaysian PM Mahathir get away with victimising Israeli Paralympic swimmers?

Israeli Paralympic swimmer Inbal Pezaro (Razi Livnat/Wikipedia)

As expected, Malaysia’s recycled Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has resumed his Israel-hating ways, this time taking out his bigotry on, of all people, Paralympic swimmers.

Mahathir, in his cantankerous way, told a local news agency that he had banned Israeli swimmers from competing at the world championships, planned for July in Kuching.

He further goaded the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), reportedly saying, “We maintain our stand on the prohibition [on Israelis].”

Mahathir continued: “If they want to withdraw Malaysia’s right to host the championship, they can do so.”

The IPC’s response was fairly muted, saying the organisation was “disappointed”. Not outraged that one sovereign state has prohibited another sovereign state’s swimmers from competing in its pool in violation of all sporting norms? No, just disappointed.

The IPC said it would continue to try and find a solution to the issue to ensure eligible swimmers from all nations could participate.

Given Mahathir’s very public stance, that seems unlikely to happen in Malaysia. The IPC now need to do as Mahathir himself suggested and withdraw Malaysia’s right to hold the championship.

This seems the minimum course of action required by the IPC, whose own constitution states that athletes should not be discriminated against for “political” reasons and which calls on all sports coming under the banner of the Paralympic movement to be practised in “the spirit of fair play”.

There are strong precedents for stripping sporting tournaments from countries that ban or restrict Israeli athletes – both Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates were stripped of international judo tournaments last year for their failure to guarantee equal treatment of Israeli athletes. More recently, an international chess tournament was removed from Saudi Arabia over its refusal to admit Israeli players.

Mahathir’s ban is based on Malaysia’s long-time refusal to allow Israeli passport-holders into the Muslim-majority country, which has often extended into outright antisemitic policies.

Malaysia has form going back decades. In 1984, the New York Philharmonic cancelled its Kuala Lumpur concerts after it was refused permission to play a piece by Jewish Swiss composer Ernst Bloch as part of the Government’s policy to discourage works by Jewish artists. The 1994 film Schindler’s List was also banned from being screened, with the government saying it was anti-German propaganda, and Malaysia later banned all films by Jewish-American director Steven Spielberg.

Such events, which occurred under Mahathir’s previous long tenure as prime minister, only highlight the extent to which Malaysia’s ugly tradition of extreme anti-Zionism and antisemitism, which some believed was moderating slightly in recent years, has undergone a resurgence since the 93-year-old Mahathir won the 2018 election.

Last year, following sustained lobbying, an Israeli diplomat visited the country for the first time in 53 years. The occasion was a UN Habitat conference and Malaysia was required to allow participants from all UN-affiliated countries to attend.

On his return from the conference, Israeli diplomat David Roet called Malaysia “a tough nut to crack”.

This is hardly surprising from a country that has a strong local Palestinian advocacy movement led by a number of popular non-government organisations – all of whom supported Mahathir’s swim ban.

Mahathir’s latest diatribe also continues a rich tradition of offensive and antisemitic remarks. Most recently he told BBC News that Israel is the cause of all trouble in the Middle East and stood by his description from 1970 of Jews as “hook-nosed” and understanding “money instinctively”.

While shocking to fair-minded people, Malaysia’s ban on Israeli swimmers is what must be expected when a nation has a bigot like Mahathir as leader.