When I heard that Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs had invited President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—a notoriously anti-Semitic and anti-Israel figurehead—to speak on campus, my first instinct was to oppose the event vehemently.
I reasoned that, if Columbia hosted an anti-Semitic figure on campus, Ahmadinjead’s could attempt legitimize his terrifying and historically incorrect viewpoints. Why should one of the most prestigious universities in the nation provide a platform from which a dangerous leader such as Ahmadinejad could deny the Holocaust and spew his advocacy for the destruction of Israel?
However, as the day approached, my line of thinking about the president’s appearance began to change. After reading over the program, it seemed like Columbia had allocated adequate time to challenge Ahmadinejad’s views. In other words, the university would not simply provide a soapbox from which the President could freely preach.
The event would begin with remarks from Columbia University President Bollinger, who would voice criticisms of Ahmadinejad’s views on Israel, the Holocaust, and the Middle East conflict. After the Iranian President gave his own remarks, he would be required to field questions from the audience.
It seemed like a balanced program, and like any curious college student, I wanted to experience the frenzy of the event first-hand. So like thousands of other Columbia students and faculty on Monday, September 24, I squeezed my way through the numerous rallying students in opposition of Columbia’s invitation to the Iranian President to hear what Ahmadinejad had to say.
Since tickets for the actual engagement had sold out about 30 minutes after they went online, the university decided to televise it on the south lawn of campus. When I arrived, literally every square inch of the grass and surrounding standing areas was completely covered by students and faculty. It seemed that the entire university had gathered to hear the President of Iran; because of heightened security, only those with Columbia ID’s were even allowed on campus that day.
It was easily the most intense engagement I have ever experienced. After President Bollinger's opening remarks, in which he called the Iranian President a "cruel and petty leader," and one who "probably does not have the intellectual courage to answer our student and faculty's questions," Ahmadinejad began his remarks by criticizing Bollinger’s opening statement, claiming that it actually curtailed intellectual freedom because of its harsh tone. He then proceeded not to talk about the background of his country or to offer his own interpretation of history, but to say a lot of nonsense about science, spiritualism, and God.
During the much-awaited question-and-answer portion of the event, the moderator of the program asked Ahmadinejad the expected hard questions: does he deny that the Holocaust happened, does he believe that Israel should not exist, how does he see the role of women in his country, and, my personal favorite, what will he do about homosexuals in Iran? The laughable absurdity and tedious lack of historical knowledge speak for themselves in his answers: instead of directly answering the questions, he proceeded to give long winded tap-dances around the inquiries.
In addition to saying that evidence that the Holocaust, the most documented event in human history, lacks sufficient evidence to prove its historical factuality, he then proceeded to talk about displaced Palestinians instead of giving a “yes” or “no” answer to the question about his views on Israel’s existence. To the inquiry about gays, he simply replied with a chuckle that Iran does not have homosexuals.
When program concluded, we began to file out of campus. Since most of the gates were closed for security reasons, what seemed like thousands of students and faculty exited through one narrow gate, since most of the entrances to campus were closed in light of the tight security.
As we got out to the street, the thunderous voices of protesters, mostly from assorted Jewish and pro-Israel groups greeted us on Broadway: "SHAME ON COLUMBIA! SHAME ON COLUMBIA!" Later that day, the same type of groups, including representatives from JRF NY/NJ, gathered to protest the Iranian President’s appearance on the east side at the U.N. As someone who might have rallied with these very groups just a few days prior to attending the program, I could certainly understand their anger.
In the end though, I felt incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to experience the event in person. I concluded that it is important to invite these leaders that we wholly disagree with, to hear their rhetoric, and to examine the tactics that they use to convey their illegitimacy.
When Ahmadinejad arrived to campus, he patently showed his foolishness for the nation to see. As Americans, we enjoy the fundamental and beautiful right of freedom of speech in order to refine our own knowledge about the world around us. And as President Bollinger said in his opening remarks, "this is not so much for the President of Iran's benefit, but for ours." And I agree.