Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the podium at the Durban II international conference in Geneva on Monday, only to face a loud heckler and widespread walkout as he spoke.
As Ahmadinejad began his speech, three men in the audience rose, wearing clown wigs, and began shouting criticism, calling the Iranian president a racist. The three were removed from the hall by security personnel.
The protesters were later identified as French students Jeremy Cohen, Rafael Hadad and Jonathan Hayoun, members of the French Jewish Student Union. “We dressed as clowns because we wanted to show that his speech and the entire conference is a joke,” Cohen explained.
The speech continued as planned for a brief time. However, as Ahmadinejad began to harshly criticize Israel, dozens of people stood and left the hall in protest.
In total, representatives of 23 states and organizations left the hall in protest of Ahmadinejad's speech. Among them were representatives from the European Union, Jordan, and France.
In addition, three Israeli students who had managed to enter the hall rose as Ahmadinejad derided Israel and began yelling “racist” in his direction. The students were removed. One of the three, Student Union head Boaz Toporovsky, said the audience had expressed approval with the protest, clapping for the students as they disrupted the speech.
United Nations representatives were among those who remained in the hall as Ahmadinejad continued, calling Israel a cruel and racist state and accusing Jews of using the Holocaust as an excuse to steal Arab land.
Ahmadinejad also called Zionism a form of racism, and accused “the Zionists” of working with the United States to wage war in Iraq and oppress the Afghani people.
Among those who remained in the hall throughout the speech were many who vocally protested what Ahmadinejad was saying. Others expressed support for the speech.
President of the European Jewish Congress Dr. Moshe Kantor responded to Ahmadinejad's speech saying:
"The European and other delegations that walked out in the moment Ahmadinejad began his diatribe against Israel should be commended for having the moral conviction not to stand for this mockery of human rights, but they should not have been participants to begin with."
"If Hitler himself had addressed this forum, would UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sit as politely as he did for the lies and hatred spewed forth by Ahmadinejad? Shame on him, and shame on anyone who stayed in the room to hear – or applaud – his evil rants. Ahmadinejad’s brand of revisionist history and lies should not rule the day, but we fear that Durban II will continue to provide a platform for more of this hatred."