NEW YORK — Greeted by large protests and jabs from local politicians and U.S. presidential candidates, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced a public skewering Monday at the first stop of his three-day trip here: As he prepared to deliver a speech at Columbia University, the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, introduced the Iranian leader as a man who appeared to lack “intellectual courage,” had a “fanatical mind-set” and may be “astonishingly undereducated.”
“Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” Bollinger told Ahmadinejad from a lectern across the stage. He said that Ahmadinejad’s past denials of the Holocaust might fool “the illiterate and ignorant,” but that “when you come to a place like this, it makes you quite simply ridiculous.”
A leader known to live largely protected from criticism at home, Ahmadinejad appeared shocked and insulted. He chastised Bollinger for judging his speech before it had even begun and suggested that such a move was unforgivable in a university setting.
Ahmadinejad, who in the past has argued that Israel should be “wiped off the map,” repeated his assertions that the Holocaust should be researched “from different perspectives” and said Palestinians should not be “paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with.”
The war of words at Columbia was, in many ways, a herald of Ahmadinejad’s unwelcome reception in New York, a city both scarred by terrorism and at the heart of American Judaism. The controversy began even before the Iranian leader landed Sunday night for a three-day trip on the occasion of the U.N. General Assembly, which Ahmadinejad will address this afternoon.
“The Evil Has Landed,” declared the New York Daily News alongside a mug-shot-like photo of Ahmadinejad. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg minced no words. “I happen to find his views disgusting, disgraceful, abhorrent,” he told reporters Monday.
Several Jewish schools in the New York area gave their students a half-day off so they could attend a large anti-Ahmadinejad rally near the United Nations.
Thousands turned out, including some family members of Sept. 11 victims, outraged that Ahmadinejad had requested to lay a wreath at ground zero. The much-publicized request was denied by the New York Police Department, which publicly argued that the site – now in the midst of construction – is simply too dangerous for the Iranian leader.
But the appearance at Columbia proved to be the tense focus of Ahmadinejad’s day. Ahmadinejad enraged many by once again questioning the Holocaust. He also denounced the punishment in Europe of “a number of academics” who were “questioning certain aspects of it.”
When asked about women’s rights, Ahmadinejad said that women in his country are “more respected than men.” But he really brought down the house when responding to a question about repression of gays in Iran, home to a small but thriving gay community.
“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” he said. Above the guffaws from the crowd, he continued: “In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.”
But on Monday, another drama unfolded outside Columbia’s gates, where thousands of protesters gathered. There were Iranian exiles who opposed the current regime, Israelis who opposed Iran and Jews who opposed Ahmadinejad’s statements about the Holocaust.
One woman held a sign that read “Honk if you hate terrorists.”
And there were those who opposed Ahmadinejad but supported his right to speak.
“Let him speak – let him open his mouth,” said Pearl Atkins, 74, a Manhattan resident who lost relatives in the Holocaust. “This is America; people get their say here, not like in Iran. He only makes himself sound more stupid with every word anyway.”