Columbia University’s president chided Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his introductory remarks before the Iranian president spoke at the university.
Lee Bollinger said the Iranian president possessed “all of the signs of a petty criminal and a cruel dictator.”
Ahmadinejad’s controversial appearance drew a crowd of 600 in an auditorium at the New York City school, as well as several thousand who watched on a screen in the center of campus. The Iranian also addressed questions from Columbia faculty and students.
“A critical part of freedom of speech is that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open up their views for debate,” Bollinger said, reiterating previous statements he had made about Ahmadinejad’s visit.
Bollinger in his introduction asked Ahmadinejad to defend his oppression of women, homosexuals and the Baha’i, as well as to explain statements in which he called for the destruction of Israel. He also challenged his denial of the Holocaust and questioned his pursuit of nuclear weapons, which has brought United Nations sanctions against his people.
“I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions,” Bollinger said.
Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs had invited Ahmadinejad as part of the school’s World Leaders Forum. The school received widespread criticism for proffering the invitation.
Ahmadinejad asserted that Bollinger had insulted the intelligence of his audience by offering a one-sided introduction “affected by the press and a political monster,” a seeming allusion to the pro-Israel lobby. While Iran welcomes its guests with honor, Ahmadinejad said, “I got a wave of insults” from Bollinger.
He reiterated his past claim that the Palestinian people are unfairly paying the price for the Holocaust. “Why should five million Palestinians pay for this, when they had nothing to do with it?” he asked. He later insinuated that Israel is the reason for all strife in the Middle East. In response to questions about his denial of the Holocaust and his hosting of a conference of Holocaust deniers last year, the Iranian leader said that studying the issue is like any other scientific pursuit and that it should continue, regardless of how well the Nazi killings have been documented.
“There are Europeans in jail because they attempted to write about it from a different perspective,” he said. One would not suggest that scientists stop studying chemistry simply because there has been an enormous amount of research already, he said. “Why should we not research an event that has been the cause of so many catastrophes in this region?” he asked.
When asked whether he believes in the destruction of Israel, Ahmadinejad sidestepped the question, saying that he wants a free election in Palestine in which Muslims, Jews and Christians can vote on the nature of their state. But, he said, Iran is open to negotiations with all governments of the world aside from two – “the apartheid regime in South Africa,” which no longer exists, and “the Zionist regime.”