Columbia University president Lee Bollinger invited Ahmadinejad to join a debate on campus, provoking a furor from major Jewish organizations, several student groups, virtually all the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, and many local newspapers, who condemned the idea of giving the Iranian head of state a platform.
Bollinger opened the debate yesterday with a 10-minute verbal attack on Ahmadinejad.
Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator, Bollinger said. [W]hy have women, members of the Bahai faith, homosexuals, and so many of our colleagues become targets of persecution in your country? He denounced Ahmadinejad for denying that the Holocaust happened and said it was well-documented that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism.
Bollingers arrogant tone took some students by surprise. Some cheered when Ahmadinejad said that Bollinger ought to let those in the audience make up their own minds about what he was going to say.
The Iranian president avoided some of the blatant anti-Semitism he has expressed in the past, and instead argued there ought to be room for different perspectives on what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany. He said the future of Israel should be determined by letting the people of Palestine freely choose what they want. On 9/11, he called for an examination of why it happened who was really involved?
Many in the audience laughed when Ahmadinejad said, In Iran, we dont have homosexuals, like in your country. The Iranian president also said women there enjoy the highest levels of freedom.
He defended Irans right to develop nuclear energy, stating, If you have created the fifth generation of atomic bombs and are testing them already, who are you to question other people who just want nuclear power?
Columbia students were divided over the visit. The campus was covered with posters denouncing Ahmadinejad for his reactionary views on women, gays, and Jews. A large number of students wore black T-shirts that said, Stop Ahmadinejads EvilColumbia Students United Against Ahmadinejad. The Young Republicans and several Jewish student groups organized a rally against him.
But among the several thousand students who either attended the debate or watched it telecast live in the campuss plaza, there were also those concerned about the growing threat of a U.S. attack on Iran.
A statement was read out by a group of Iranian students who disagreed with many of Ahmadinejads views. The main issue is that the world must not be tricked into believing a war and sanctions are the solution, the statement said. An Iranian-born graduate student, Fatemeh Farshneshani, held an Iranian flag and told reporters, Any change in Iran should come from within.
An open letter urging students to boycott the anti-Ahmadinejad rally and instead express vocally their opposition to military intervention was issued by the Columbia Coalition Against the War.
Outside the campus, more than 1,000 peoplemost of them youngdemonstrated against Ahmadinejad. Many carried signs comparing Ahmadinejad to Hitler or waved Israeli or American flags. A few sported T-shirts of the Israel Defense Force, Tel Avivs army. Some people passed out flyers from the Jewish Defense Organization that threatened, We will break Bollinger in half for inviting Ahmadinejad.
One group of Iranians waved posters with a picture of the son of the U.S.-backed shah who was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. Their signs said Long live Iran; Reza Pahlevi for democracy in Iran.
About a dozen people demonstrated against U.S. threats to Iran and in support of Ahmadinejads right to speak. Several carried a banner from the Iranian-American Friendship Society that said, Stop War on IranNo Sanctions.
Im here in support of Ahmadinejads right to speak at Columbia, at the UN, anywhere, said antiwar demonstrator Ann Shirazi. Theyre demonizing a legitimate president of a country, trying to foment an attack on Iran like they did on Iraq. Iran is permitted by law to have nuclear power.
Ardashir Ommani, who witnessed the 1953 coup in Iran organized by the CIA and British intelligence, said the propaganda surrounding Ahmadinejads visit only serves those who are killing Palestinians, those who are planning another war, the rich.
Im not so much for Ahmadinejad but against Bush and Israel, said Eugene Pastore Desousa, a medical student from Brazil. Bush called Ahmadinejad a terrorist. Who is Bush to decide whos a terrorist?
The antiwar demonstrators stood their ground despite threats from about 50 prowar marchers who shouted insults at them and chanted USA! USA!
Sarah Katz contributed to this article.
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