NEW YORK - Saying Columbia University would have made a similar offer to Adolf Hitler were he in New York, a university dean defended the institution's decision to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on campus on Monday.
In an interview with Fox News over the weekend, John Coatsworth, dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, where Ahmadinejad will be speaking as part of an annual World Leaders Forum, said: "If Hitler was in the United States and wanted a platform from which to speak, he would have plenty of platforms at which to speak in the US. If he were willingly to engage in debate and discussion, and be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him."
Coatsworth's remarks set off a storm of angry responses, while city officials struggled with security details for the Iranian president's visit and campus and other groups prepared a series of protests both there and at the UN.
"Statements by Coatsworth show that this is not about freedom of speech, but about moral standing and values," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "Somehow the president of Columbia has an extended view of his moral powers of persuasion."
Hoenlein called Columbia's decision "outrageous," but the primary issue, he said, was Ahmadinejad's appearance in New York. "The message is that nations of the world are inviting a guy who is in violation of the very charter of the UN, let alone Security Council resolutions," said Hoenlein.
A protest organized by the Conference of Presidents and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, in cooperation with the United Jewish Communities, UJA-Federation of New York and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, will be held Monday outside the UN, where Ahmadinejad is to address the General Assembly on Tuesday.
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, former US ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrook, as well as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are expected to speak at the rally. Jews and non-Jews alike are flying in from across the country to attend, said Hoenlein.
Religious Web site vosizneias.com (http://vosizneias.com), which linked to the Fox News interview with Coatsworth, charted a range of responses. One said: "If Americans had heard Hitler speak, then American Jews might have believed what was going on. It is never a good policy to keep your head in the sand." Another said simply: "Typical liberal hypocrisy at Columbia."
Some elected local officials and civic leaders planned to demonstrate Sunday outside the university. More protests were to follow Monday near Columbia and the United Nations.
An on-line petition organized by the Columbia University Chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East is circulating among Columbia faculty, condemning "those responsible for bringing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia University."
"This event does not promote academic integrity and honest debate in the true spirit of academic freedom," the petition says. "It gives a podium to an individual who has no intention of speaking or debating in good faith...We disassociate ourselves from the invitation and the event." As of Sunday afternoon, 133 had signed.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger will introduce Ahmadinejad, with a series of "challenges" including the Iranian president's denial of the Holocaust; his public call for the destruction of the state of Israel; his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops; Iran's pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction; his government's widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly of women's rights; and his government's imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia's own alumni, Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh.
Peter Rosenblum, a human rights professor at Columbia's Law School, said a flurry of e-mails were circulating concerning how the university would handle Monday's event.
Though unsure how he felt about the issue, Rosenblum said: "There are horrible human rights issues that need to be addressed, and I wouldn't want the leader of this country to be able to divert attention from inside his own country by performances outside."
Rosenblum said he saw the university "working hard to try to make sure they get something out of him speaking and pushing him to have to engage."
"For any of us following human rights inside Iran, there is the pain of knowing this person is leading Iran in a way that is painful to so much of the country's population," said Rosenblum.
Some political leaders and religious groups have said Columbia should not give Ahmadinejad a platform. City Council head Christine Quinn said "the idea of Ahmadinejad as an honored guest anywhere in our city is offensive to all New Yorkers."
Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust "a myth" and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." The White House has accused Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and helping Shi'ite militias in Iraq that target US troops - claims Iran denies.
Columbia canceled a planned Ahmadinejad appearance last year, citing security and logistical reasons. In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Ali Hosseini said there were "efforts to cancel" the upcoming Columbia speech, but the Iranian government was continuing to pursue the program. He did not elaborate other than to say pressure was being brought to bear on the program's sponsors.
Through a spokeswoman's recorded message on a telephone line set up to respond to inquiries about the speech, Bollinger said the university's commitment to "understanding the world as it is and as it might be" required engagement at times with "offensive and even odious" beliefs.
"It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open a public forum to their expressions. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible," the message said.
The telephone line was not accepting messages early Sunday, and Columbia representatives did not respond immediately to an e-mail message.
Some Columbia students - even some who plan to rally against Ahmadinejad - have said they support allowing him to speak.
Ahmadinejad said Sunday that the American people are eager to hear different opinions about the world, and he was looking forward to having the chance to voice them during his trip to the United States, Iranian state media reported.
"The United States is a big and important country with a population of 300 million. Due to certain issues, the American people in the past years have been denied correct and clear information about global developments and are eager to hear different opinions," Ahmadinejad was quoted by the official IRNA news agency.
State-run television also quoted Ahmadinejad before boarding his presidential plane Sunday as saying that the General Assembly was an "important podium" to express Iran's views on regional and global issues.
Ahmadinejad caused a stir last week with a much-criticized request to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site, an idea that prompted an outcry from politicians and September 11 victims' families. Police denied the request, citing construction and security concerns.
In an interview aired Sunday on the TV news magazine 60 Minutes, Ahmadinejad indicated he would not press the issue but expressed disbelief that the visit to Ground Zero would offend Americans.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini also appeared dismayed that the request was rejected.
"What kind of damage will the US face?" by Ahmadinejad visiting the site, Hosseini told reporters at his weekly press conference Sunday.
Despite the tensions between Washington and Teheran, many Iranians do not share their president's hostility towards the US. After the September 11 attacks, hundreds of young Iranians held a series of candlelight vigils in Teheran to express sympathy for the victims.
Ahmadinejad's visit to New York is being debated back home. Some in Iran think his trip is a publicity stunt that hurts Iran's image in the world.
"Many experts believe Ahmadinejad's previous two visits brought no achievement ... rather, it heightened tensions," the reformist daily Etemad-e-Melli, or National Confidence, said in an editorial Sunday.
But conservative lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi said it was a good chance for Iran to air its position.
"This trip gives the president a good chance to meet world leaders and inform them of Iran's rightful position," IRNA quoted Boroujerdi as saying.
AP contributed to this report.