A Dialog with Columbia President Lee Bollinger

By: Paula R. SternBarnard/Columbia graduate, Class of 1982

Columbia President Lee Bollinger and his counterpart at Barnard, Judith Shapiro, are not interested in freedom of speech when it comes to those who oppose the tenure of Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu El Haj. In those cases, we Barnard/Columbia alumnae/i are “outsiders.” But outsiders were allowed to have a voice at Columbia last week when the university invited the President of Iran to speak. Ahmadinejad is well known for his remarks calling for the destruction of Israel and the denial of the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad is known to have the blood of American soldiers on his hands – for selling advanced weaponry used to target Americans and innocent Iraqis, for calling for the destruction of Israel. Bollinger called it an issue of freedom of speech, but that is an excuse. Ahmadinejad had a platform at the UN. He had a platform on 60 Minutes. He had a platform with the national press. He didn’t need a platform at Columbia and it is to Columbia’s endless shame that they rushed to give it to him.

There was no open microphone at the event – it appears that only dictators and anti-Semites have a platform at Columbia these days. So – following is a dialog that was denied:

Bollinger: Second, to those who believe that this event never should have
happened, that it is inappropriate for the University to conduct such an event,
I want to say that I understand your perspective and respect it as

If the perspective was reasonable – that it was inappropriate to invite him, he shouldn’t have been invited.

Bollinger: Fourth, to be clear on another matter – this event has nothing
whatsoever to do with any “rights” of the speaker but only with our rights to
listen and speak. We do it for ourselves.

Then why was there no open microphone to ask him questions? Why was he given the “right” to speak words that deny history, deny reality, that twist and corrupt…all on our ground, at a university that is supposed to be dedicated to honesty, scholarship, integrity and truth?

Bollinger: According to Amnesty International, 210 people have been executed in
Iran so far this year – 21 of them on the morning of September 5th alone. This annual total includes at least two children – further proof, as Human Rights Watch puts it, that Iran leads the world in executing minors. There is more. Iran hanged up to 30 people this past July and August during a widely reported suppression of efforts to establish a more open, democratic society in Iran. Many of these executions were carried out in public view, a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party.

And so we ask again…why give this murderer, this supporter of hatred a platform?

Bollinger: In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a “fabricated” “legend.” One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers. For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated. You should know that Columbia is a world center of Jewish studies and now, in partnership with the YIVO Institute, of Holocaust studies. Since the 1930s, we’ve provided an intellectual home for countless Holocaust refugees and survivors and their children and grandchildren.
The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history. Because of this, and for many other reasons, your absurd comments about the “debate” over the Holocaust both defy historical truth and make all of us who
continue to fear humanity’s capacity for evil shudder at this closure of memory,
which is always virtue’s first line of defense.

To give today’s Hitler a platform is to add insult and hurt to the thousands of survivors that remain, and the tens and hundreds of thousands in the next generation who continue to suffer from that dark and horrible period. You shame them and Columbia, by allowing this man a platform from which to continue his denial. Why give this Hitler a platform?

Bollinger: Twelve days ago, you said that the state of Israel “cannot continue its life.” This echoed a number of inflammatory statements you have delivered in the last two years, including in October 2005 when you said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Columbia has over 800 alumni currently living in Israel. As an institution we have deep ties with our colleagues there. I personally have spoken out in the most forceful terms against proposals to boycott Israeli scholars and universities, saying that such boycotts might as well include Columbia. More than 400 college and
university presidents in this country have joined in that statement. My question, then, is: Do you plan on wiping us off the map, too?

There are mere words, President Bollinger, mere words. The fact is that Columbia has several people on tenure, or up for tenure, that say and feel the same as Admadinejad. Nadia Abu El Haj spouts the same lies and denies Israel’s historical past in an attempt to undermine its legitimate place among the family of nations. You invite the devil, you condemn the evil, but you ignore the lies and hypocrisy that already lives at Columbia.

Bollinger: According to reports by the Council on Foreign Relations, it’s well documented that Iran is a state sponsor of terror that funds such violent group
as the Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran helped organize in the 1980s, the
Palestinian Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. While your predecessor government was instrumental in providing the US with intelligence and base support in its 2001 campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, your government is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming, and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces. There are a number of reports that also link your government with Syria’s efforts to destabalize the fledgling Lebanese government through violence and political assassination. My question is this: Why do you support well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East, destroying lives and civil society in the region?

Shouldn’t you have gotten the answer to your question BEFORE inviting this little Hitler to speak at Columbia? Before you denied your students the freedom of speech to question him?

Bollinger: In a briefing before the National Press Club earlier this month, General David Petraeus reported that arms supplies from Iran, including 240mm rockets and explosively formed projectiles, are contributing to “a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support.” A number of Columbia graduates and current students are among the brave members of our military who are serving or have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They, like other Americans with sons, daughters, fathers, husbands and wives serving in combat, rightly see your government as the enemy. Can you tell them and us why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq by arming Shi’a militia targeting and killing U.S. troops?

This, too, should have been asked BEFORE inviting this man to speak at Columbia. With blood on his hands, you have allowed this man to hurt and shame hundreds of Americans whose brave sons and daughters are fighting and dying in Iraq. This too will be your shame.

Bollinger: 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. I only wish I could do better.

We, too, wish you had done better.

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