President Lee Bollinger of Columbia, in a dramatic speech broadcast around the globe yesterday from Morningside Heights, delivered an oratorical haymaker to President Ahmadinejad, attacking his record on human rights, Israel, and terrorism in remarks that will likely overshadow anything the Iranian might say during his diplomatic rounds in America.
In systematic fashion, Mr. Bollinger, who was being closely watched in New York and beyond because of criticism that he had blundered by inviting Mr. Ahmadinejad in the first place, rebuked the Iranian president for calling for the destruction of Israel, for funding terrorism, for fighting a proxy war against America within the borders of Iraq, for persecuting women and homosexuals, and for flaunting the international community in the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Mr. Bollinger called Mr. Ahmadinejad's stated denial of the Holocaust "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated." His remarks were made all the more dramatic by the fact that the Iranian leader was seated only yards away, in a corner of the stage where he listened as an interpreter translated Mr. Bollinger's words.
"Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," Mr. Bollinger said, after challenging the Iranian to admit a delegation from Columbia to speak at an Iranian University.
Mr. Bollinger's remarks were met with a rant from Mr. Ahmadinejad, who called his remarks "an insult to the knowledge of the audience here" and a "vaccination" of the event.
It is unclear whether Mr. Bollinger's performance is enough to redeem his reputation as the president of Columbia in the eyes of Jewish leaders and elected officials who have called for his resignation in the last week after he extended the invitation to the Iranian leader.
"I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for," Mr. Bollinger said. "I only wish I could do better."
Mr. Bollinger's remarks drew praise from some officials even as they continued to criticize his decision to host Mr. Ahmadinejad on campus.
"He turned what could have been an embarrassment for higher education into something quite positive," the president of the New School, Robert Kerrey, said in an interview yesterday. "He turned a difficult situation into something that at the margin was positive for him. He did not allow the moment to pass." Mr. Kerrey said he would never invite Mr. Ahmadinejad to the New School.
"I wasn't impressed. It was a charade," the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said. "He didn't know beforehand that he was a petty and cruel dictator? He shouldn't be president of Columbia if he didn't know beforehand. I'm not sure he should be president."
Many audience members expressed some disappointment, if not surprise, that Mr. Ahmadinejad evaded answering almost every question posed to him by the dean of Columbia's School of Public and International Affairs, John Coatsworth, who read questions from index cards that were filled out by students and faculty members in the audience.
When asked if he sought the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, Mr. Ahmadinejad said many Jews live in Iran peacefully and with security. "We love all nations. We are friends with the Jewish people," Mr. Ahmadinejad said. When pressed for a "yes" or "no" answer, he prickled. "You asked the question and then you want the answer the way you want to hear it — that isn't really a free flow of information," he said.
When asked why his government was providing aid to terrorists, Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran was the victim of terrorism.
Speaking for more than 30 minutes with no notes in front of him, Mr. Ahmadinejad said he was calling for additional research into well-documented facts about the Holocaust because he was an academic and believed that researching a phenomenon was never done. "Do you ever take an absolute in physics?" he asked.
He said women in Iran enjoy the "highest levels of freedom," and that Iran does not have the "phenomenon" of homosexuals like in America.
In response to a question about basic human rights in Iran, he pointed to capital punishment in America, and drew cheers from the audience. Mr. Ahmadinejad also said his government was seeking to acquire enriched uranium not for nuclear weapons, but to provide fuel to power plants. He categorized politicians that want to develop atomic bombs as politically "backward, retarded."
"Besides two countries, we are ready to have friendly relations with all countries in the world," Mr. Ahmadinejad said. He named the "Zionist regime" and the "apartheid regime of South Africa" as the two exceptions to the rule. He also complained that he was barred from the World Trade Center site, where he wanted to pay his respects.
Mr. Bollinger in his opening remarks predicted that Mr. Ahmadinejad would not have the "courage to answer these questions," but said it was still the duty of the university to ask them.
"This event has nothing to do with the rights of the speaker," Mr. Bollinger said. "We do it for ourselves, in the tradition of openness that has defined this country for decades."
Students and Jewish leaders said they had mixed reactions to Mr. Bollinger's comments and to Mr. Ahmadinejad's speech. "Bollinger was not respectful," a freshman at Columbia studying political science, Isaac Lara, said. "I couldn't believe what he said to his face, especially after inviting him here."
"I thought the question and answer section was farcical," Adam Davis, who is pursuing a master's degree in political science, said. "Ahmadinejad used this against us. He returned and evaded all questions."
"This was not free speech — this was free manipulation," the vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, said. "Why is this a meaningful experience?"
Many Columbia students who did not have tickets to the event skipped classes yesterday and congregated on the steps of Low Library for a full day of speeches from members of student groups on campus, expressing their views about democracy on campus. Outside the university gates, hundreds gathered in a rowdier protest of Mr. Ahmadinejad's talk.
Mr. Coatsworth yesterday defended the intellectual worth of the forum. "He was not successful in defending his positions or even in explaining himself with clarity," Mr. Coatsworth said in an interview. "The students learned what kind of a person President Ahmadinejad is, and how he sees the world and how difficult it's going to be for the U.S. to deal with him in the future."
Mr. Ahmadinejad is scheduled to appear at the U.N. General Assembly today. Yesterday, at a rally in front of the U.N., the foreign minister of Israel, Tzipi Livni, called on the U.N. to live up to its founding promise of "Never Again" and to not welcome Mr. Ahmadinejad to speak. "We are here to tell the world, to demand from the world, to wake up before it's too late," Ms. Livni said.