If the audience's applause was any indication, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scored points Monday when he denied advocating the violent destruction of Israel and instead called to "let the people of Palestine freely choose what they want for their future."
The comment, which by definition was the tacit endorsement of Israel's disappearance as a Jewish-majority state from the Middle East, earned cheers from the estimated-600 crowd who turned out to watch the leader answer questions in a forum sponsored by Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
According to Rabbi Yonah Blum, a campus religious life adviser and co-director of the Chabad Resource Center of Columbia University, the mood outside of the hall where the Iranian spoke was decidedly less enthusiastic about anything Ahmadinejad had to say.
"On the one hand students are calling it a positive event, because it was clarifying to see what his policies are," said Blum, who joined a protest organized by dozens of student groups and attended by thousands. "Many students felt that Iran's president advocated positions that were downright illogical."
In his more than half-hour talk, Ahmadinejad – who was in New York to address a general session of the United Nations on Tuesday – dodged questions about his country's pursuit of nuclear technology for suspected military purposes, called for academic inquiry into the existence of the Holocaust, denied that Iran oppressed women despite numerous reports to the contrary and accused the United States of sponsoring terrorism.
Columbia president Lee Bollinger, who introduced the speaker, challenged him to address a ream of charges, from his country exporting terrorism and funding Hizbullah to leading the world in state executions of minors. Regarding Ahmadinejad's well-publicized statements calling the Holocaust into question and accusing the Jewish community of profiting off of it, Bollinger called the foreign head of state "either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."
John Coatsworth, the acting dean of the School of International and Public Affairs who moderated the forum, said in thanking Ahmadinejad for coming that he doubted the Iranian president answered any of Bollinger's or the audiences' questions adequately.
Denouncing a Speaker
Noah Leavitt, a history major from New York and former director of operations for the university's College Republicans, was one of the students protesting the speech. While some groups – all told, human rights, women's rights, Jewish and pro-Israel organizations took part in the protests – agreed with Ahmadinejad's right to speak but called into question the leader's message, Leavitt said that he abhorred the university's decision to invite the leader in the first place.
"I understand why he's an important figure today in world politics," Leavitt stated before the event. "But I don't think he should be speaking on campus. By letting him speak, we lend him the prestige of Columbia University, we give him a respect he doesn't deserve."
Second-year law student Aviva Robin was more adamant in her disgust.
"I'm opposed to the way the school organized it," she said. "It was announced at the last minute, right before the weekend. If they're promoting academic debate, they did not allow for adequate debate from the students. I do not believe that a state sponsor of terrorism, one who wants to destroy another nation, as well as a human-rights offender, should be given a forum to speak at Columbia."
Robin, who organizes Jewish cultural events for Columbia's School of Law in conjunction with the Chabad House, said that she was proud of the students for coalescing in opposition to the Iranian president.
"But I'm not very proud of the administration," she said. "My mother's family actually fled from Iran [after the 1979 Islamic revolution put Jewish families in danger]. My father's family fled Nazi Germany. So this is probably the last person I would ever like to see."
Echoing Robin, Blum said that if there was anything to be gleaned from the appearance, it was that Columbia's students, and the Jewish ones in particular, could rally together so successfully.
(The rabbi, who like other protesters dressed in an anti-Ahmadinejad T-shirt for the occasion – the front quoted 17th century British statesman Edmund Burke, who said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" – offered the Chabad House's support in the effort. The Jewish response to the speech was primarily coordinated by Columbia's Hillel.)
"First and foremost, I'm very proud of the students and the Jewish community in coming together in such an effective way," stated Blum. "The coalition is wide and impressive. Obviously, not everybody shares the exact same views, but the fact that it was a unifying event for the whole community is inspiring.
"I’ve been on Columbia’s campus for more than 10 years and I have yet to see the unity of students like I did today," he continued. "I'm honored to be part of that community."