Ahmadinejad at Columbia: 'We Are Friends of the Jewish People'

At New York's Columbia University on Monday, thousands lined the streets to hear a simulcast of a speech by Iranian ruler Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Nissan Ratzlav-Katz,

As 600 listened inside a hall at New York's Columbia University on Monday, thousands lined streets around the school to hear a simulcast of a speech by Iranian ruler Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Protesters on campus and off greeted the event with counter-speeches and
President Bollinger... [called] Ahmadinejad "a petty and cruel dictator."
anti-Ahmadinejad banners. In his remarks, preceded by a scathing address by University President Lee Bollinger, Ahmadinejad declared, "We are friends with the Jewish people," but called for a referendum to determine the fate of Israel.

President Bollinger, who was savaged by many conservative American and pro-Israel groups for allowing the Iranian president to speak at his university, opened the two-hour event by reciting a litany of human rights abuses and repression in Iran, calling Ahmadinejad "a petty and cruel dictator." He posed a series of questions to the Persian leader regarding Iran's support for international terrorism, freedom in Iran, the Iranian nuclear program, Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, Israel, and other key issues.

In reference to Iran's threats against Israel, Bollinger said:

"Twelve days ago you said that the state of Israel cannot continue its life. This echoed a number of inflammatory statements you have delivered in the past two years, including in October 2005, when you said that Israel 'should be wiped off the map,' quote-unquote. Columbia has over 800 alumni currently living in Israel. As an institution, we have deep ties with our colleagues there. Personally, I have spoken out in most forceful terms against proposals to boycott Israeli scholars and universities, saying that such boycotts might as well include Columbia. More than 400 college and university presidents in this country have joined in that statement. My question then is: Do you plan on wiping us off the map too?"

Bollinger also called the Iranian leader "quite simply, ridiculous" for his repeated Holocaust denial. "Will you cease this outrage?" Bollinger demanded.

John Coatsworth, Acting Dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, who initiated the invitation to Ahmadinejad, moderated the discussion. Following President Bollinger's remarks, which were interrupted by applause several times, Coatsworth introduced "His Excellency the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

'Hasten the Arrival of Imam al-Mahdi'
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened his remarks, as is traditional for religious Muslims, "in the name of Allah." He then added, however, "Oh, God, hasten the arrival of Imam Al-Mahdi and grant him good health and victory...." In Shi'a religious tradition, the Mahdi is a a political and religious leader destined to appear before the Muslim Day of Judgment and establish a global Muslim kingdom that will fight, along with Jesus, against an Antichrist-like figure, the Dajjal.

Speaking through a translator, Ahmadinejad blasted Bollinger's "attempt to, so to speak, provide vaccination of some sort" ahead of the Iranian president's remarks. He then went on to praise the efforts of scholars and scientists in creating human progress, providing Koranic verses and Islamic mythology as support. Ahmadinejad stated that "scientists must be pious," and he redefined science as an enlightenment of the heart granted by God. Impious science, he said, leads to "nuclear, chemical and biological bombs and weapons of mass destruction," among other misuses.

Implying an American attempt to monopolize science, Ahmadinejad charged, "Some big powers do not want to see the progress of other societies and nations. They turn to thousands of reasons, make allegations, place economic sanctions to prevent other nations from developing and advancing, all resulting from their distance from human values and the teachings of the divine prophets."

Holocaust Denial and Israel's Right to Exist
Following his remarks on science and academia, and prior to the question and answer session, Ahmadinejad touched on only three other issues: the Holocaust, the right of Israel to exist, and Iran's nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad touched on only three other issues: the Holocaust, the right of Israel to exist, and Iran's nuclear program.

"Given that the Holocaust is a present reality of our time, a history that occurred, why is there not sufficient research that can approach the topic from different perspectives?" Ahmadinejad asked. "Why don't we encourage more research on a historical event that has become the root cause of many heavy catastrophes in the [Middle East] in this time and age?"

The Persian ruler called the existence of Israel "an old wound, as old as 60 years," laying the blame for Middle East turmoil at Israel's door. "For 60 years, security in the Middle East has been endangered," he charged. "For 60 years, the slogan of expansionism from the Nile to the Euphrates is being chanted by certain groups in that part of the world," Ahmadinejad added, referring to a claim put forth by Arab propagandists that Israel is planning to take over much of the Middle East. 

Later, the moderator asked, "Do you or your government seek the destruction of the state of Israel as a Jewish state?"

Ahmadinejad replied, "We love all nations. We are friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews in Iran, leaving peacefully, with security." He went on to set forth an Iranian proposal "to solve this 60-year problem" - a reference to the existence of Israel: "We must allow the Palestinian people to decide about its future for itself. ...We must allow Jewish Palestinians, Muslim Palestinians and Christian Palestinians to determine their own fate themselves through a free referendum."

Iran's Right to a Nuclear Program
Regarding the Iranian nuclear program, Ahmadinejad claimed that he is cooperating with UN monitoring agencies and that "there is no pretext or excuse, even the inspections carried by the IAEA itself, that can prevent member states' right to" a peaceful nuclear program. "We are a peaceful, loving nation. We love all nations," he concluded.

Later, in response to a follow-up question, the Iranian President declared, "We do not believe in nuclear weapons, period. It goes against the whole grain of humanity."

A Moment of Derision
Although much of Ahmadinejad's speech was peppered with applause from the audience, to one reply the crowd responded with laughter and derision. It was part of his response to a question about human rights in Iran and Ahmadinejad was asked why people who identify as gays faced execution in the Islamic Republic.

After claiming that "Iranian people are free," and that "women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom," Ahmadinejad claimed, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in
To one reply the crowd responded with laughter and derision.
your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it." 

Prof. Rubinstein: 'I Have Become More of a Zionist'
The well-known Israeli legal scholar Professor Amnon Rubinstein, who is a one-year guest at Columbia University, told Voice of Israel radio Tuesday morning that he was disappointed by the protest rally Monday against the appearance of Ahmadinejad at the school. He said few non-Jews appeared and not enough Jews participated.

Prof. Rubinstein also criticized university president Lee Bollinger for inviting the Iranian president to speak. While Bollinger said that he based his decision on the right to freedom of speech, Prof. Rubinstein noted that the freedom does not require providing Ahmadinejad a platform at Columbia University.

Perhaps related to the hostile anti-Israel atmosphere in American academia, Rubinstein told the Voice of Israel interviewer that he has become more of a Zionist during his tenure at the American university.

A founder of the Shinui party, which he then amalgamated into the far-left Meretz faction, Rubinstein was a member of the Knesset between 1977 and 2002 and held several ministerial positions. He is currently dean of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and a patron of Liberal International.

Israeli Emissaries in NY-NJ Join Demo
Although Prof. Rubinstein would have liked to see greater participation, thousands of Jews from the New York area took part in a protest against the Ahmadinejad speech.

The Amcha Coalition for Jewish Concerns joined the protest. In a Monday interview with IsraelNationalRadio, Amcha leader Rabbi Avi Weiss blasted Columbia University for inviting the Iranian ruler: "We are in a struggle to convince the people of Iran that their leader is a modern-day Hitler. Having this man at Columbia legitimizes him, and from that perspective, it helps win over Iranians to his side."

Click here for the Weiss Interview

Lital Organgi of World Bnei Akiva at Columbia protest

Commenting on the Israeli contingent at the protest, Lital Organgi, an emissary in Teaneck, New Jersey for World Bnei Akiva and the Jewish Agency said, "Many members of our community participated in protest, and encouraged us to join. When people in the audience heard that we were emissaries from Israel they were so excited! They said they felt we personally strengthened them by coming."