Ahmadinejad grilled in Columbia Q&A

Iranian leader: Holocaust cause of Palestinian suffering; University head calls president "dictator."

By MICHAL LANDO
September 24, 2007 18:19
4 minute read.
Ahmadinejad grilled in Columbia Q&A

Ahmadinejad demo 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

 
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking at Columbia University on Monday, evaded the question of whether he would seek the destruction of the State of Israel. He refused to give a yes or no answer to the question of whether he or his government wanted to destroy Israel and said instead that to solve the "60-year-old problem, we must allow the Palestinian people to decide its future itself." "Is the Palestinian issue not an international issue? Tell me yes or no," said Ahmadinejad in response to a question from the dean of Columbia's School of International Affairs, John Coatsworth. Ahmadinejad would only go so far as to say, "Our solution is a free referendum" and never referred to the Israel by name, calling it the "Zionist regime." Click below to view a clip from an anti-Ahmedinejad demonstration, Monday. Footage courtesy of the Israeli Consulate in New York.

The Iranian president's comments followed a brutal introduction by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger. In the days leading up to Ahmadinejad's appearance at the School of International and Public Affairs's annual World Leaders Forum, Bollinger faced harsh criticism from Jewish and non-Jewish leaders alike, several of whom asked him to rescind the university's invitation. But, as promised, Bollinger took Ahmadinejad to task. He did not refrain from name-calling in his noticeably hostile introduction. Bollinger defended his decision to allow the Iranian leader to speak at the forum, but criticized Teheran's human rights record, its calls for Israel's destruction and the president's denial of the Holocaust as a myth. "Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," Bollinger said, to loud applause. "When you come to a place like this, it makes you simply ridiculous," Bollinger said. "The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history." Ahmadinejad rose, also to applause, and after quoting from the Koran said Bollinger's opening was "an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience." He accused Bollinger of giving in to the media and politicians. In his own remarks, the Iranian president launched - in Persian - into a religious diatribe on topics ranging from the purpose of human creation to the misuses of science and scholarship. Given a chance to clarify his position on the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad continued to be evasive. He denied he had questioned the existence of the Holocaust, and defended the rights of scholars to continue to "investigate everything." "I'm not saying it didn't happen, but granted this happened, what does it have to do with the Palestinian people?" he asked. "There's nothing known as absolute," he said, after making repeated comparisons between Holocaust scholarship and science. "I'm an academic like you are, can you argue that the research is finished, done, that the books are closed? You should ask why you want to stop science and research." The dean of Columbia Law School, David Schizer, has been expressing opposition to the decision to invite Ahmadinejad. On Sunday, Schizer joined Jewish groups and others in criticizing the invitation. "Although we believe in free and open debate at Columbia and should never suppress points of view, we are also committed to academic standards," Schizer said in a statement. "A high-quality academic discussion depends on intellectual honesty but, unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad has proven himself, time and again, to be uninterested in whether his words are true." Schizer said the Iranian leader was a "reprehensible and dangerous figure who presides over a repressive regime, is responsible for the death of American soldiers, denies the Holocaust, and calls for the destruction of Israel." Still, Schizer added, "I recognize that others within our community take a different view in good faith, and that they have the right to extend invitations that I personally would not extend." At the close of Monday's event, Gabriel Seed, a freshman at Columbia and at the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary, said he was offended by Ahmadinejad's refusal to call the State of Israel by its name, and by his comparison of Holocaust research to physics. "It's not like physics at all," said Seed. "I think his definition of research is questioning what happened." First-year student Tamara Epelbaum was equally offended. "He calls it [Holocaust research] a science, but it's a fact and there is a clear distinction between fact and science," said Epelbaum. Still, she defended the university's decision to host the Iranian president and said she hoped "people will open their eyes and see what's going on in Iran - that it's a dictatorship." Also on Monday, there were reports that state and city lawmakers were considering withholding public funds from Columbia University in protest over the invitation. In an interview with The New York Sun, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said legislators would consider reducing capital funding and other financial assistance to the school. JTA contributed to this report.

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