Protests greet Iranian pres at Columbia

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Columbia University students converged on the center of the New York City campus Monday to stage a series of protests and forums, voicing concerns surrounding the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who came at the invitation of the university.

Ahmadinejad spoke and answered questions at Columbia for about an hour yesterday, addressing controversial topics such as his country’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and homosexuality in Iran – which he insisted did not exist. Ahmadinejad visited Columbia in advance of his appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, which he will address today.

Before Ahmadinejad spoke, Columbia President Lee Bollinger excoriated him in a scathing introduction, saying “you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” and concluding, “Today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for.”

The visit sparked a wide range of student activism on campus in recent days, culminating in yesterday’s protests, as many – on and off campus – debated whether Columbia was right to provide a platform for the controversial leader, whose government has been accused of sponsoring terrorism and flouting the international community in pursuing a nuclear program. Ahmadinejad has also personally expressed skepticism about the occurrence of the Holocaust.

True to form, Ahmadinejad denied homosexuality existed in Iran, accused the United States of supporting terrorism and refused to respond “yes” or “no” when asked if he favored the destruction of Israel. He spoke pointedly in support of Palestinians, saying they had suffered unnecessarily for an event – the Holocaust – they played no role in.

He also said he felt insulted by Bollinger’s introduction, calling it an unnecessary “vaccination,” disrespectful to the students and faculty in attendance.

Columbia’s Hillel and Queer Alliance were among the student groups leading the demonstrations against Ahmadinejad’s presence on campus.

In an e-mail sent last Friday to Columbia’s Hillel members obtained by The Herald, Hillel President Josh Rosner explained his group’s grievances.

“His offensive denial of the Holocaust is abominable and unacceptable,” Rosner wrote, also highlighting Ahmadinejad’s statements calling for the destruction of Israel and “principles that are antithetical to democratic values.”

“The principles that Ahmadinejad champions are repugnant to everything we, both as Jews and Americans, stand for,” he wrote. “We encourage and invite all Hillel members to help raise the voice against President Ahmadinejad on Monday.”

In an e-mail to members of the Columbia University Democrats, Josh Lipsky, the group’s political affairs director, urged students to take advantage of the opportunity to engage Ahmadinejad.

“As Democrats, we seek to engage in dialogue with Iran, and we endorse the decision to invite him unto our campus,” Lipsky wrote. “This is a unique opportunity to challenge and expose one of the most radical leaders in the world. … We need to grill and engage Ahmadinejad in every forum possible – not avoid him.”

Harry Reis ’11 travelled to New York with two other Brown students to attend a rally outside the United Nations. Reis said he made the trip in order to protest the U.N. affording Ahmadinejad a platform and the “general tendency of the U.N. to ignore human rights abuses among member states.”

That rally “was also targeted toward Columbia,” he said.

Reis said he believed it was a “mistake” for Columbia to invite Ahmadinejad, but that “considering that the invitation happened, Columbia took the opportunity to make what it could of the dialogue.”

“Lee Bollinger was rightfully critical of (Ahmadinejad’s) approach,” Reis said. He also said that “the Columbia student body did a really good job of organizing” around the event.

Clare Smith, a sophomore at Columbia, said that students “were shoulder to shoulder” on the lawns outside the lecture hall in the middle of campus, where the speech and subsequent question-and-answer session were projected on a large screen.

“It was pretty packed,” she said. “College Walk, the main walkway through campus, was just plastered in posters berating Iranian abuse of human rights and then other posters that were trying to shed a positive light on Iran.”

Smith said Columbia students had strong reactions to news of Ahmadinejad’s visit.

“People were just disgusted that he was even going to set foot on our campus, and I think that those were the most vocal students,” she said. “A lot of students disagreed with him … but they still wanted to respect the spirit of free speech. But I feel like the students who wished he weren’t invited at all were the much more vocal ones.”

“The general atmosphere seemed very hostile,” she added.

“The entire campus has been peppered with fliers for some time now,” said Sam Parl, also a sophomore at Columbia, noting that in addition to protests against Ahmadinejad, other students took the opportunity to “raise awareness about normal Iranians” and protest against the possibility of a U.S.-Iran war.

“Student reactions were very mixed and very polarized,” Parl said.

Columbia’s campus was closed to anyone without university identification yesterday, but additional protests formed just outside the gates, shutting down several blocks of Broadway near campus for much of the day.

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