The Cambridge Union is at the centre of a racism row after footage emerged of an audience laughing at “flagrantly anti-Semitic” comments by the Malaysian prime minister.
Mahathir Mohamad, 93, who is known for anti-Jewish remarks, was met with enthusiastic laughter when he said: “I had some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends.”
It came after he was asked about previous comments he has made regarding Jews and money at the world's oldest debating society on Sunday.
Footage of the event emerged online a day later, prompting a backlash from campaigners and a former union president.
Dr Mohamad's invitation to speak had already proved controversial, but Cambridge University said he should not be banned because they respect freedom of speech.
The politician, who was Malaysian Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003 before returning in 2018, once wrote: “The Jews are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively."
He has also said that he is “glad to be labelled anti-Semitic” and has claimed that four million Jews, not six million, died in the Holocaust.
The Union of Jewish Students said: “It is chilling to see a crowd of students laugh off flagrantly anti-Semitic comments. Freedom of speech is not a joke when it incites hatred against one people.”
Media lawyer Adam Cannon, a former president of the union, described the Cambridge event as "absolutely appalling".
“To allow vile anti-Semitic and racist comments to go unchallenged while the audience laughs is unacceptable. It is shameful and humiliating for such a great institution to allow this to take place," he wrote.
On the day of the event, The Cambridge Union urged members "rightly concerned about the Prime Minister’s views and actions to come to the Union this evening to have the chance to question him in person".
In a statement after his appearance, the union said the laughter “originated from the middle section, which was composed of the prime minister’s delegation”.
“The prime minister was scrutinised on his record throughout the event both from the moderator and the audience," it added.
"As a society, free speech and student welfare are equally important to us. We invited the [university’s] Jewish Society to attend the talk to ask questions to the prime minister and we allowed them to hand out flyers to the audience.”