In an interview on Monday, Malaysia’s avowedly anti-Semitic prime
minister Mahathir Mohamad said accusations that he was anti-Semitic were
meant to silence his criticism of Jews “for doing wrong things.” (Malaysia has almost no Jews.) Associated Press reports:
Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (photo: AP)
In an interview with the Associated Press that ranged from trade
with China to the Rohingya crisis in nearby Myanmar, Mohamad, a longtime
champion of Palestinian causes, was asked about his record of comments
seen as anti-Semitic.
“We should be able to criticize everybody,” he said, and assailed laws against denying the scale of the Holocaust.
“Anti-Semitic is a term that is invented to prevent people from criticizing the Jews for doing wrong things,” he said.
led his opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition to a
surprise victory in national elections in May. On Thursday he took his
oath of office before the king, Sultan Muhammad V. He is a
larger-than-life figure in Malaysia, with his influence dominating the
multiethnic country’s politics from the Cold War into a new millennium.
His first turn as prime minister stretched for 22 years, coming to an
end in 2003.
He is also famous for his virulent anti-Semitism. He wrote on his
personal blog in 2012 that “Jews rule this world by proxy,” the
Associated Press has reported.
The last Jew in the Malaysian town of Penang has died, just short of his 90th birthday. Mordecai David Mordecai, known affectionately as Uncle Mordy, was buried in Penang Jewish cemetery alongside his parents.
Fifty friends and neighbours attended the burial, among them a handful of Jews. With his passing, the only Jew to hold a Malaysian passport is Mordecai’s niece Tefa Ephraim, who now lives in Sydney, Australia.
Mordecai was the son of David and Mozelle Mordecai, who came from Baghdad to Penang in 1895. David Mordecai was active in the tin and rubber industries under British rule and a colonial turf racing enthusiast in Penang and Singapore.
Mordecai spent his career in hotel management in Penang.
At the turn of the last century some 170 Baghdadi Jews lived in Malaya. Now there is only one. All traces of the Jewish community, save the synagogue, have been erased. FreeMalaysiaToday onlineinterviews Joseph Jacobs, now living in Australia, visiting his childhood haunts:
It was a muggy night in George Town but Joseph Hayeem Abraham Jacobs was loathe to dine in any of the air-conditioned restaurants lining Gurney Plaza’s swanky strip. Not when he had travelled all the way from Australia, and certainly not when he was in his hometown. Instead he made a beeline for the Gurney Drive food court.
“You haven’t been here?” he asked in amazement as he wove his way through the crowded square. “This place is an institution!”
Twenty minutes and a neat pile of satay sticks later, Jacobs, 53, spoke of the reason behind his unplanned trip back to Penang.
“My nanny passed away,” he said. “My sister, Meeda, and I are here to attend her cremation and set up an education fund in her name. She was a wonderful woman… really wonderful… and we want her to have a legacy.”
His eyes misted over at the gentle pull of memories and he concentrated on his last bite of satay before clearing his throat.
“Her name was Soundravalli,” he said. “She brought me up when my parents left me with my grandparents to work in Kuala Lumpur. I grew up speaking Tamil.”
He tossed out a few Tamil words, unaware of how delightfully startling it was to hear them roll off a Pan Asian tongue. Then again Jacobs has never felt like he was cut from different cloth. Not even when he was a Malaysian Jew in Penang.
Penang heralded the arrival of the Malaysian Jewish community in the 19th century when Baghdadi Jews set foot on its shores to explore the trade opportunities there.
The first known Jew to make Malaya his home was Ezekiel Aaron Menasseh in 1895. Menasseh claimed to be the only practising Jew in Malaya for three decades but the general census of Jewish settlers in Penang (1881-1941) showed that 172 Jews already lived there in 1899.
World War II, however, drove a significant number of Jews to Singapore and a majority chose to build new homes there as well as in Australia, Israel and the United States. The Jewish Welfare Board of Singapore recorded that by 1963, only 20 Jewish families remained in Malaya. One of them was Jacobs’ family.
The hazan’s grandson:Jacobs’ father, Abraham Jacobs, was only five when his father, Hayoo Jacobs, packed them up and left Baghdad for Singapore in 1936. But Hayoo wasn’t a tradesman. Nor was he just any other Jew.
Hayoo was a hazan (the leader of a synagogue), a shochet (one who slaughters cattle and fowl for kosher consumption) and a mohel (one who performs ritual Jewish circumcisions).
Penang synagogue, now a flower shop
When word reached him that the Jewish community in Penang required these services, Hayoo uprooted the family once again and made for the island state. Once there the family took up residence in Penang’s synagogue, built in 1929, and nestled at the corner of Nagore Road.
Abraham grew up juggling a myriad of professions including that of a fighter pilot and professional boxer. At one point, he even enjoyed a French dairy board consular status with the French government. He eventually met and married Tan Kok Choo who would go on to become a popular RTM broadcaster.
Jacobs, Meeda and their younger brother, David, were born in the synagogue where they lived for most of their childhood.
“It was a very normal childhood,” Jacobs recalled. “We went to school, we played with the neighbourhood kids. Everyone knew we were Jews but no one cared. That’s the beauty of Penangites.”
When he turned 13, Joseph’s parents returned from Kuala Lumpur and the family left the synagogue for a proper home in a residential area. Four years later, Abraham had a sense of foreboding that the future of Jews in Malaysia would be short-lived.
“Times were relaxed during (first prime minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman’s reign,” Jacobs said. “But when (second prime minister) Tun Abdul Razak stepped in, things began to change.”
“My father decided to move to Australia in 1975. We settled down in Sydney and I surrendered my Malaysian passport the next year. When (fourth prime minister) Mahathir (Mohamad) came into power, it was obvious that Malaysia was no longer a good place for Jews.”
This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.
Point of No Return
Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
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