Columbia’s choice – and ours

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Columbia University disgraced itself this week beyond repair.


Defending his decision to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to his campus, Columbia's President Lee Bollinger said he would confront the Iranian leader with a series of "sharp challenges" to his "alleged" support for terrorism, genocide, Holocaust denial, involvement in killing American servicemen and women in Iraq and human rights abuses during his speech on Monday.


John Coatsworth, the Dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, expanded on Bollinger's theme of the school's limitless devotion to debate saying, "If Hitler were in the United States and wanted a platform from which to speak, he would have plenty of platforms from which to speak in the United States. If he were willing to engage in a debate and a discussion, to be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him." With these blithe little embraces of public debate, Columbia's leaders have destroyed their once august institution of higher learning.


Columbia was rightly condemned from all quarters for its decision to host Ahmadinejad. The hypocrisy of the university which justified its invitation to Ahmadinejad in the name of free speech and then barred protesters who wished to exercise their right of free speech by opposing Ahmadinejad's presence at Columbia from entering the campus has properly been pointed out. So too, the irony of Columbia's decision to roll out the welcome mat for a man who has in recent months closed 15 universities, imprisoned some 3,000 students, hundreds of professors and banned books he claims advance "infidel" values, has been duly noted.


Moreover, Iran's position as the most active state sponsor of international terrorism, its role in directing the war in Iraq, and Ahmadinejad's own suspected role in the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Teheran and the subsequent illegal internment and torture of 51 American hostages held for 444 days has also been reasonably noted by critics of the university's move.


IRAN'S PERSECUTION of homosexuals and its oppression of women – both intensified since Ahmadinejad took office two years ago – have been rightly contrasted with Bollinger's decision in 2005 to maintain Columbia's policy of banning the military's ROTC officer training program from the campus due to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexuality.


Some critics of Columbia's decision have placed the university's invitation to Ahmadinejad in the context of the university's longstanding and well-documented animus toward America and toward the State of Israel. This is the same university, they note, that gives tenure to professors who harass pro-American and pro-Israel students who dare to question their classroom rantings. This is the same university that refuses to host people who hold conservative views on issues like immigration.


Finally, opponents of Ahmadinejad's invitation to speak on campus have condemned Bollinger for providing a prestigious platform to a leader who denies the Nazi Holocaust, pledges to carry out a new Holocaust of Jewry, and is seeking the means to carry out this genocide by developing nuclear weapons.


For these actions, Columbia's critics argue, Ahmadinejad should have been denied a platform at Columbia.


WHILE ALL of these criticisms are accurate, many of the actions and hypocrisies they highlight are not unique to Columbia. Indeed, they describe the standard operating procedures in effect on most major American campuses today. Many major universities have given tenure to anti-American and anti-Zionist professors. Many major universities proscribe debate in classrooms and attempt to bar conservative speakers from their campuses.


Many major universities in the US bar ROTC from their campuses and yet act as apologists for regimes like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt that outlaw homosexuality and treat women like chattel. And many major universities give platforms to speakers who represent racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-American and anti-Semitic regimes. Just last year Harvard University invited former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami to address its students and faculty.


To date, with some justification, supporters of Columbia have dismissed or set aside these criticisms of the university as partisan criticism in legitimate policy debates. In their view, Columbia, like other universities, has a perfect right to advance a far-Left world view. It is the job of the university's critics, including alumni and students, to seek to influence the school's behavior by selective contributions or by inviting conservative speakers to give lectures on campus. Both Columbia's detractors and defenders basically agreed that Columbia's position and criticism of its position are part and parcel of the workings of a functioning institution and of a functioning democratic society.


But Columbia's decision to host Ahmadinejad on campus was not of a piece with its previous moves. The problem with the decision was not that it exposed Bollinger and his colleagues as hypocrites. Nor was the principle issue their obvious left-wing political bias. Whether or not Ahmadinejad, who denies the Nazi Holocaust and is gunning for a new one has a right to express his views is similarly not the main issue raised by their move.


THE PROBLEM with Columbia's action, the reason that there can be no moral justification for the university's decision, is because by inviting Ahmadinejad to campus, Columbia has made the pros and cons of genocide a legitimate subject for debate. By asking Ahmadinejad challenging questions, Bollinger has reduced the right of the Jewish people to live to a question of preferences.

No doubt, Bollinger prefers to see the Jewish people remain alive. But this is beside the point. The point is that by debating the issue with Ahmadinejad, Bollinger just put the right of the Jewish people to exist on the table.


Here it is important to note Ahmadinejad's uniqueness. It is true that in supporting the annihilation of Israel, Ahmadinejad is no different from his terrorist underlings Hassan Nasrallah, Khaled Mashaal and Farouk Kaddoumi. Moreover, Ahmadinejad's desire to wipe the largest concentration of Jews on earth off the map simply because it is Jewish is shared by all of his colleagues in the Iranian regime and most intellectuals and religious leaders in the Arab world.


But still there is a difference between Ahmadinejad and all the others. Through his words and his deeds, Ahmadinejad has become the symbol and the leader of the growing international movement which supports and engages in activities to advance the destruction of the Jewish people. Through his words and his deeds, Ahmadinejad has become the poster boy for genocide.


As a result, what was said Monday at Columbia is of no consequence whatsoever. What matters is that by inviting Ahmadinejad to its campus, Columbia University announced that supporting or opposing the genocide of the Jews is a legitimate topic for discussion. In so doing, as an institution Columbia has taken itself beyond the pale of legitimate discourse. As an institution, Columbia has embraced depravity by renouncing the intrinsic sanctity of human life.


COLUMBIA'S supporters who have defended it over the years through mounting criticism, cannot look at Ahmadinejad's visit to campus as simply another policy dispute without themselves legitimizing the school's belief that genocide is a reasonable subject for debate. They cannot defend the school without themselves rejecting the basic principle of Western civilization – that human beings have an intrinsic right to live.


Given this, it is incumbent on all those affiliated with Columbia who adhere to this bas
ic principle to distance ourselves from the university. As an alumna of Columbia College, class of 1991, it is with great distress that I say it is time to disassociate with the school. This does not simply mean cutting off donations. It means understanding that the problem with Ahmadinejad had nothing to do with legitimate policy debates. It means recognizing and openly stating that by placing genocide on the debating table, Columbia ceased to be an institution that can be said to represent our values. It means stating publicly that we will not send our children to the school. It means stating openly that Columbia has abandoned the moral underpinning of civilization and has descended into the depths of evil. It means stating openly that Columbia is a depraved institution.


I DO NOT ENVY Columbia's students today. They worked very hard to get accepted to the school. They no doubt never wanted to be placed in the middle of all this. But they are in the middle and they too have a choice to make.


Will they demand the resignations of Bollinger, Coatsworth and Professor Richard Bulliet who engineered Ahmadinejad's visit or will they sit back and allow these men to get away with making the value of human life a debating topic? Will they rise up in indignation and disgust, or will they, through inaction say that these men, and the immorality they ascribe to remain authority figures for them? Will they say that there are some things worth fighting for and that fighting the views these men advance is more important than the tainted degrees they confer?


The times in which we live are difficult times. They demand an accounting from all of us. Do we uphold our humanity and defend life or do we sink into an easy silence as life's sanctity is called into question by well-heeled, smooth-talking servants of evil who hide their depravity by speaking eloquently of freedom of speech?


Columbia University has made its choice. Now it is our turn to choose.



Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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  • Donald Douglas 09/25/2007 at 4:47

    This is a powerful essay – indeed, one of the most penetrating analyses on moral right I’ve ever read.
    I still can’t help thinking that there remains a free speech issue here in that no matter how despicable an idea, airing a view makes the idea compete in the marketplace of ideas and values. As any truth-thinking person knows, the existential essence of the Jewish people – the fundamental matter of Jewish life – is not a matter for debate. Thus, for the world to hear Ahmadinejad once again state his views – that the Holocaust “needs more research” – the West will be able to continue to build the case it needs to topple the Iranian regime, which kills Americans in Iraq, supports the annihilation of Israel, continues apace in its nuclear development program, and massacres in citizens in a brutal campaign of massive human rights violations.
    There’s no redeeming value in what Ahmadinejad spouts, but his words are on record in the international court of public opinion. I’m convinced that we’ll hear and see more of Iran’s evil deeds, all the more evidence justifying preventing strikes in the state’s nuclear program, and ultimately the decapitation of the regime.

  • Gali 09/25/2007 at 17:19

    I am a right wing (not extreme) Israeli living in North America.
    I cannot disagree with you more.
    Living in North America one can only be amazed at how little international news people consume and how they form an opinion. Without a proper exposure, even by a manipulative and somewhat infantile (considering live in the year 2007, or over 5000 for Jews).
    Columbia University has (I believe) 12,000 graduates who currently live in Israel. To accuse it in anything but an attempt to bring to light, to shed even a portion of the true face of Ahmadinejad is of outmost importance.
    In Israel they dont allow the reading of Mein Kampf (spelling…). I never really understood this approach. It is a facinating book bad a smart person who happened to utilize his intelligence, energy, and instincts to pure evil activity. But one can only imagine what would have happened if Hitler was exposed to the world (albeit a naive world) with his real thoughts, motives, and intentions. By not giving these people a stage we will find that people will treat guys like Hitler or Ahmadinejad as little, unimportant figures, as individuals who pose no threat.
    Many people rejoiced in the insults that the President of Columbia shared while introducing this “petty” man. Does this still mean that Columbia is now an anti Israeli/Zionist entity?
    The paranoia of anybody that says something against Israel is sometimes absurd. Do i (or 7 other citizens) always agree with the policies of our even changing Government? do people in Israel always believe what they are told? Have you EVER heard a debate WITHIN Israel? (if you did, and it was done outside Israel you would likely to accuse them of worst crimes and racism than people who do it in the West).
    I suggest that you (and others) get a grip of yourself and let a full debate to occure in the open space. Eventually, reasonable, intelligent and logical people will form an opinion about the Middle East conflict, about good vs evil. And if they happen to be wrong, thats ok too, becuase reality will always bring them to the realisation of their mistake. May i offer the Israeli public again as an example? (see 4 Governments in 10 years, how quickly they changed after each event- negotiations –> failure of the negotiations –> violence –> attitude towards the true “peace” intentions of the Palestinians).
    Shana Tova


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