Malaysia treatment of Israel is backward - editorial

Malaysia is refusing to give visas to an Israeli squad hoping to participate in next month’s World Team Squash Championship in Kuala Lumpur.

 Malasian flag. (photo credit: terimakasih0/Wikimedia Commons)
Malasian flag.
(photo credit: terimakasih0/Wikimedia Commons)

Think of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, and what jumps to mind is a spectacular skyline dotted with super-modern skyscrapers intended to create an image of a forward-looking nation.

But when it comes to Jews and Israel, Malaysia is anything but modern or forward-looking.

Indeed, it is downright backward.

At a time when Israeli planes are bringing thousands of Jewish tourists to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, when Morocco is hosting Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and when even Qatar – no great friend of the Jewish state – has pledged that Israeli fans will be welcome at the 2022 World Cup it is hosting, Malaysia is refusing to give visas to an Israeli squad hoping to participate in next month’s World Team Squash Championship in Kuala Lumpur.

The tournament was moved to Malaysia at the last minute because of corona restrictions in New Zealand, the original venue.

The governing body of squash in Malaysia let its counterpart in Israel know that Israeli athletes will not be granted visas, under the pretense that their safety and well-being cannot be guaranteed. This led the Israel Squash Association to warn that it will take the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, if Israel is barred from participating.

A pair of competitors take part in the professional squash tournament on Wednesday night in the outdoor glass court built in the center of Tel Aviv (credit: NIMROD ARONOV / COURTESY)A pair of competitors take part in the professional squash tournament on Wednesday night in the outdoor glass court built in the center of Tel Aviv (credit: NIMROD ARONOV / COURTESY)

As it should: a country not able to guarantee the safety and well-being of all international athletes has no business hosting any tournament.

In a letter to Zena Wooldridge, head of the World Squash Federation, protesting the move by Malaysia, Sport and Culture Minister Chili Tropper wrote that he finds it “impossible to believe that in this modern era there is still a place for discrimination, as well as the mixing of political considerations and sport.”

Tropper should not have been surprised: even though there are almost no Jews living there, Malaysia has both an antisemitism problem as well as a track record in denying Israeli athletes entrance to compete in international tournaments.

For 24 of the last 40 years, Malaysia was ruled by Mahathir Mohamad. Not only was he blatantly antisemitic – he called Jews “hook-nosed,” said they rule the world “by proxy,” and questioned whether six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust – but he also fought for his right to be antisemitic.

In a 2019 speech at Columbia University, Mahathir said that his antisemitic statements were just an expression of “free speech.”

“Why is it that I can’t say something against the Jews, when a lot of people say nasty things about me, about Malaysia?” he asked.

Mahathir, who at 96 is no longer prime minister, left an ugly imprint on the country. According to the ADL’s global survey on antisemitism, 61% of Malaysians hold antisemitic sentiments, the highest percentage – except for Greece – of any country outside the Mideast.

It should also come as no surprise that the Malaysian squash association wants to ban Israeli athletes – the country lost its chance to host the World Para Swimming Championship because of its decision in 2019 to bar Israeli athletes.

“I do not understand why the world must follow Israel,” was Mahathir’s unrepentant response. “The world has the power, but they choose to obey Israel. We do not obey.”

That was not the first time Israeli athletes were barred from international competition in Malaysia. In 2015, Malaysia came under a great deal of international criticism for preventing two Israeli windsurfers from competing in the Youth Sailing World Championships.

Those actions against athletes are not trademarks of the modern, forward-looking country that Malaysia aspires to be.

Israel is right to make a big deal out of this: it should never acquiesce to any manifestation of discrimination against its athletes or any of its representatives taking part in competitions or conferences around the globe.

If Malaysia’s decision is not rescinded, the World Squash Federation should move the tournament, just as the International Paralympic Committee did in 2019. If enough tournaments are canceled in Malaysia because of discrimination against Israeli athletes, then perhaps at some point the Malaysian government will get the message that its discrimination against Israeli nationals is a form of bigotry that is no longer tolerated.