Mahathir Mohamad was asked why he previously said Jewish people were “inclined towards money”.
“I have some Jewish friends, very good friends, they are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends,” the Malaysian leader replied, to laughter.
The exchange was recorded and later posted on Twitter by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), which condemned the 93-year-old’s comments.
The CU said the laughter, which can be heard in the clip, came from the prime minister’s delegation.
“The audience laughs,” the UJS said on Twitter.
“Freedom of speech is not a joke when it incites hatred against one people.”
Commenting on the video, Simon Schama, a prominent historian and a Cambridge University alumnus, said: “The laughter even more horrifying than the remark."
“I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends"- Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad at the Cambridge Union last night.
The audience laughs.
Freedom of speech is not a joke when it incites hatred against one people. pic.twitter.com/2ZRrMDtfKy— Union of Jewish Students (@UJS_UK)June 17, 2019
A spokesperson for the CU said it had invited the Cambridge Jewish Society to attend the talk and ask questions of the Prime Minister.
“We also allowed them to hand out flyers to the audience,” the spokesperson said. “With regards to the clip in question, the laughing 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.”
The debating society’s decision to invite the leader, who has a history of making allegedly antisemitic remarks, has angered some Cambridge University students.
“Mohamad is a vicious antisemite and the current prime minister of Malaysia,” the Cambridge Labour Club said in a statement before the prime minister’s appearance on Sunday.
“We don’t expect much from the Union but we do hope – in the hours left – they will reconsider.
“The decision to open their doors to this man downplays the murderous effects of his hate speech.
“As ever we stand in solidarity with Jews across the world, who live in fear of attack, and especially those in Malaysia.”
The anger over the 93-year-old’s comments follows his recent appearance at the Oxford Union, when he reportedly attempted to defend antisemitism on free speech grounds, according to The Jewish Chronicle.
The Malaysian leader has also challenged the fact that 6m Jewish people died during the Holocaust and has described Jewish people as “hook nosed”, a common antisemitic trope.
The University of Cambridge did not comment on the 93-year-old’s remarks.