Middle Israel: Who won at Columbia?

The limelight into which Ahmadinejad had strayed ultimately illuminated what could not be concealed.

October 3, 2007 12:52
4 minute read.
amotz asa el 88

amotz asa el 88. (photo credit: )


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Sixteen years after my graduation, Columbia University remains to me the enlightenment supertanker that fuels much of what I do, the place where thousands of giants on the scale of Teddy Roosevelt, Herman Wouk, Isaac Asimov and Art Garfunkel studied, and generations of luminaries on the scales of Enrico Fermi, Milton Friedman, Joseph Brodsky and some 70 other Nobel laureates taught. And since theirs is not a company naturally joined by an ignoramus on the scale of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his intrusion last week to Morningside Heights has made thousands of Columbians the world over ponder its meaning and assess its damage. Here in Israel, a consensus emerged, that the Iranian president's tour of New York marked an Islamist victory. Led by Channel 1 TV's authoritative Oded Granot, dozens of Middle East scholars and media experts argued that this visitation and its massive coverage invariably legitimized Ahmadinejad and prized his radicalism. It didn't. THAT THE invitation was unwise from Columbia's viewpoint is by now obvious. The outrage it sparked among varied communities, from Jews to gays, might make some of them reconsider their relations with the school, and scrutinize its public activity with a kind of suspicion Columbia neither needs nor deserves. Once held, the event would also have been fairer, and more educating, had the guest been challenged in direct conversation rather than from beyond a distant lectern, and not by the hopelessly foreign president Lee Bollinger but by an Iranian dissident, say an intellectual exile like Amir Taheri, someone who would have spoken to Ahmadinejad in Farsi and exposed his lies not as an ideologue lecturing from afar, but as a compatriot speaking from within. That would also have been the most moral thing to do, since at stake was not - as Columbia officials naively insisted - the freedom of speech, but the freedom of debate, which is what the Iranian people are being deprived of by a regime that banishes its opponents from all aspects of public life. In fact, the very concept of freedom of speech was unwittingly twisted in this affair, not because Ahmadinejad's views don't deserve exposure, but because unlike the impression one might have had, that the poor Iranian leader is being muzzled, the fact is he enjoys access to myriad stages, microphones, cameras and entire broadcast networks and publishing houses through which to preach his views, a task in which he engages religiously, so to speak, and also efficiently, as evidenced by the fact that none of the views he expressed so ineloquently at Columbia were new to any of us. Altogether bizarre was dean John Coatsworth's statement that he would also invite Adolf Hitler to speak at Columbia. If so, then what next: a joint seminar by Pol Pot, Timothy McVeigh and Jack the Ripper? Has the university once headed by Dwight Eisenhower, Hitler's defeater, really become so morally disoriented and politically gullible? Understandably, then, many proceeded to suggest that just like the invitation was embarrassing its impact was devastating, as the Iranian president made the most of Columbia's free ride and won an additional opportunity to voice his Holocaust denial, Islamist vitriol and medieval chauvinism. Well, that's wrong. In fact, at Columbia Ahmadinejad made a fool of himself and probably lost yet more of the already dwindling support he needs in order to get re-elected in spring '09. FIRST OF all, visually, one could not escape the impression that the backdrop of the Big Apple in general and Western academia in particular were novel and alien to the narrow-minded populist who is already anathema to his country's educated elite. His pedestrian appearance left them embarrassed and wondering whether even the mullahs can't come forth with someone at least a bit more presentable. Second, even from his cause's viewpoint he was tactless. To deny the Holocaust in the middle of New York, no matter how squirmingly, is like shouting in the middle of Teheran's Majlis, "Allah is dead, long live Madonna." Now of course one might say, but he had no choice, the man really believes we are making it all up. Well that's good to know for those in his audience who would do anything to seek, and when necessary invent, goodness in bad guys' manifestos. But most crucially, the limelight into which Ahmadinejad had strayed ultimately illuminated what could not be concealed: his intellectual limitations. This came through in his straight-faced assertion that there are no gays in Iran. In making such an Earth-is-flat statement - in Manhattan's Upper West Side of all places - the Iranian squandered all the PR gains the Columbia visit had offered him on a silver platter. SOME MAY have taken that statement for a wink, others for a misunderstanding, but most took it for what it was: an inhuman liar's life in denial. Maybe, considering the Islamist regime's occasional executions of gays for being gays, what that zealot really meant was "had it been up to me there would be no gays in Iran." Yet what he actually uttered was a flat denial not only of his Khomeinist policies, but of reality itself, a reality as glaring as a midnight crescent above a pitch-dark skyline, and a denial that shed new light on his many other denials as well as his general detachment from the world the rest of us inhabit. Watching this, I remembered the Columbia Journalism School's courageous hosting back in '92 of Salman Rushdie in his first public appearance since the mullahs declared a prize on his head, and imagined that brave rebel now standing there instead of president Bollinger and retorting to Ahmadinejad: "You know what, Mahmoud? You're right. There really are no gays in Iran. There also are no fundamentalists, chauvinists, bigots, anti-Semites, censors, hangmen or Doctor Strangeloves in Iran. It's all American propaganda."

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