Don’t ask, don’t tell

By Zeev bin Natan, Shumen, Bulgaria

The US Congress recently repealed the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on gays serving in the U.S. military. There is a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy operative in education in Malaysia that I think should be discussed and done away with. It regards ex-pats of Jewish background working as teachers in Malaysian higher education.

Jews from the U.S., Australia, the UK and elsewhere who apply for a job to work here are generally advised not to disclose their background when applying. And if hired, perhaps with the knowledge of a dean that the new visiting lecturer is Jewish, there is advice along the lines of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’: “don’t tell your students or colleagues you’re Jewish. Let them think you’re Christian if they ask.” The upshot is that few qualified Jews seek employment to teach here in the country. They don’t want to be constrained to hide their ‘dark secret’.

Why should this be? The answer is clear: because of solidarity with the Palestinians and official government policy critical of Israel. The political irony is that many progressive Jews throughout the world are highly critical of Israel and its policies, and in strong solidarity with the Palestinians. Yet even such Jews are basically ‘not welcome’ as academics here in the country. 

This needs to change. Israel does not ‘represent’ Jews outside Israel. Indeed, many Jews say ‘not in my name’ in reference to Israeli abuses and war crimes, as reflected in the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network: In Tel Aviv on New Year’s day 2011, hundreds of Jewish Israelis demonstrated against the murder of a Palestinian woman by the Israeli army on New Year’s Eve in Bil’in village on the West Bank, chanting“Citizens, awake! Fascism is already here!” A number of demonstrators were arrested. Here a detailed report: and video:    

Malaya had a long history of Jewish presence in the colonial period, particularly in Penang, which boasts a large Jewish cemetery in old George Town dating back to 1805, located on Jalan Zainal Abidin. Yet there seems to be great reluctance in George Town to reveal the cemetery’s location to tourists, or to list it officially as part of Penang’s heritage. The cemetery is barely mentioned in any guide books, though it is quite accessible in the old city:

Jews in Kuala Lumpur built a synagogue in the heart of the city a century ago that was in operation down into the late 1930s. That building is still standing, not far from Masjid Jamek, one ofn the oldest buildings in the city. The KL municipality is uninterested in noting its location, or placing a commemorative plaque there. The history of the KL Jewish community over several decades has yet to be researched, even though it was an integral part of the history of the city and its diverse communities in the colonial era. 

The first and founding Vice-Chancellor of University of Malaya was the world-famous British-Jewish mathematician Dato Alexander Oppenheim. Alexander came from a Jewish family, Yiddish-speaking, born in Salford outside Manchester in 1903. Oppenheim’s most famous contribution to number theory is the ‘Oppenheim conjecture’. He became VC of the U of Malaya in Singapore in 1957, and of UM in KL in 1962, and served in that capacity until 1965. As VC of both universities, Oppenheim worked closely with Tunku Abdul Rahman in organisational questions, private fund raising and the like. Yet Oppenheim’s memory at UM is barely recorded, even though he is the most famous mathematician ever to have been connected with the University: The University of Malaya should name a major building or new research centre after him, and establish a special scholarship in his name. The Institute of Mathematical Sciences at UM could initiate steps in this direction.

Malaysian universities are very energetically attempting to attract qualified foreign staff. There is exceptional effort to do so on some campuses, such as U of Malaya. If Malaysian higher education really wishes to join the global community, and upgrade the quaility of its teaching staff, it should not allow any tacit or invisible barriers to recruitment of lecturers and researchers from overseas based on religious or ethnic background.

It is high time Malaysia do away with this tacit ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ veil of silence regarding its own Jewish heritage. The bond of deep solidarity between Jews and Moslems is over 1,400 years old, and is well recognised in Turkey, Morocco and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled from Christian Europe to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, to find refuge under Islam. In Malaysian education, Jews with a knowledge of Judaism teaching here could contribute to a better understanding among students of the roots of both Christianity and Islam.

Justified criticism of Israeli policy should not preclude Malaysia from becoming a country Jews from across the world are happy to visit and work in, to the benefit of all.