Once again, Columbia University is in the hot seat for inviting a world leader who some believe is anti-Semitic to speak on campus. And once again, students are protesting, with a Change.org petition garnering more than 2,900 signatures as of Tuesday morning.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was scheduled to speak Wednesday, Sept. 25, at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, an annual event established in 2003 by university President Lee C. Bollinger.
Three pro-Israel student groups on campus — Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University, Aryeh and J Street U – wrote a letter to Bollinger last Friday noting Mohamad’s history of anti-Semitic remarks and questioning why the university would host “a vocal anti-Semite.”
The letter noted the Malaysian leader’s remarks to a summit of Islamic leaders in 2003 when he said that “Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.”
The letter also cited an incident at Cambridge University as recent as June, when he told a debating society that he has “some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like other Jews, that’s why they are my friends.”
The student groups said that an appearance by Mohamad would “be a severe blow to Jewish students, many of whom already feel as though their identity is targeted on campus.”
The students said that they didn’t expect Columbia to cancel the speech on such short notice since it would negatively affect the university’s reputation. Instead it suggested that Bollinger introduce Mohamad’s speech the same way he did in 2007 when the school hosted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then-president of Iran, who had a history of anti-Semitic statements and Holocaust denial. Under intense fire for allowing Ahmadinejad to speak, Bollinger introduced the president with a scathing condemnation of Ahmadinejad, calling him out on his Holocaust denial and saying he shows “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
Bollinger responded in his own letter Monday, saying that “while no one has the right to come onto the campus to speak,” invitations are extended “for many reasons, including to provide us with the opportunity to engage people who shape our lives — for good and for ill. … to abandon this activity would be to limit severely our capacity to understand and confront the world as it is.”
While he agreed that Mohamad’s comments are “abhorrent” and “deserving of condemnation,” he didn’t indicate that he was planning a repeat of 2007. Rather, he said that the event “is open to questions and comments from the audience” and he encourages “Columbia students to probe and challenge as I know you are so powerfully able to do.” He also noted that the University would be taking steps to protect students during the event.
The Change.org petition, posted by SSI Columbia, said that allowing Mohamad to give an address on campus “is granting the credibility of one of America’s most prestigious universities to a vile anti-Semite and shakes even further the already fragile sense of safety and belonging of Columbia’s Jewish students.”
It added that, “Universities should present divergent and radical opinions, but they are not environments in which absolutely anything goes.”
Students aren’t the only ones speaking out against Columbia’s decision to host Mohamad.
“The real question is why this person was invited in the first place,” Brian Cohen, executive director of Columbia’s Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview.
“I affirm the right to free speech on campus, but I question why the prime minister of Malaysia deserves a place on the dais in Low Library,” he added via email. “This is an affront to Jewish students and to anyone committed to equality and human dignity. The prime minister referred to Jews as ‘hook nosed,’ claims the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust is exaggerated and took pride in being labeled “anti-Semitic.”
Like the students, Cohen asked Columbia’s administration “to fully condemn the Prime Minister’s hateful views and past remarks, in his presence, when he comes to campus.”
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder issued a statement:
“Unfortunately, it comes as no shock that the same institution that hosted the Jew-hating president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be hosting the unabashedly anti-Semitic Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad,” Lauder said in a statement first given to the New York Post. “Columbia University should be ashamed of themselves.”