Columbia Daily Spectator: About 3,000 Students Shirk Duties To Watch Lightning Exchange on Screens
ZOA in the news
September 25, 2007

About 3,000 Students Shirk Duties To Watch Lightning Exchange on Screens

September 25, 2007

by Anastasia Gornick, Jacob Schneider, and Laura Schreiber
Columbia Daily Spectator

As a war of words carried on in Roone Arledge Auditorium on Monday, factions of pro-Israel and anti-war activists shouted across barricades on a block-long stretch of Broadway.

On campus, the mood was more reflective, with student groups taking turns presenting their takes on Columbia’s controversial invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a speak-out organized by the ad hoc Columbia Coalition. During the speech, the crowd on the South Lawn far outnumbered that on the streets, as thousands of students crowded around a giant-screen video truck to watch Ahmadinejad’s speech.

While the Columbia Coalition was nominally apolitical, demonstrators appeared to be mostly divided into two camps. There was a pervading pro-Israel sentiment as members of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel sang and danced on Low Plaza, clad in specially-ordered black T-shirts. The other major presence was a large contingent of anti-war protesters.

The off-campus protest was much smaller than the 10,000 people predicted by administrators, but the protesters compensated for it by being loud and boisterous. Several dozen New York Police Department officers stood guard around a barricaded crowd concentrated at the intersection of Broadway and 116th Street. NYPD estimates of the actual crowd came in at under 1,000. The police did not close Broadway, as had been expected, but corralled the crowd behind metal barricades on Broadway’s outermost lanes and closed off sidewalks for a block in each direction from Lerner Hall.

Students across campus skipped classes or made time between them to watch speakers from campus groups comment on President Ahmadinejad’s presence on campus and the policies of the Iranian government. A hush fell when the big screen came to life, beaming the speeches in Roone Arledge to students on the South Lawn. According to Rosemary Keane, assistant vice president for Student and Administrative Services, between two and three thousand students and faculty assembled to watch.

Viewers cheered the image of John Coatsworth, acting dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, and one spectator on the lawn raised an Iranian flag. When University President Lee Bollinger appeared, the crowd hollered its support, and his comments addressing free speech drew warm cheers.

Earlier in the day, Iranian flags dominated the small knot of protesters outside the Broadway gates. Numbers and tempers swelled with busloads of pro-Israel demonstrators who arrived later in the afternoon.

In halting English, Iranian immigrant Jamshid Sayas said he did not oppose the University’s asking Ahmadinejad to speak but wanted it to be clear that the president did not speak for all Iranians. “Politics should be separate from religion,” he said. “We don’t need a Muslim fanatic for Iran.”

Pro-Israel protesters screamed at Holocaust deniers, and a small crowd gathered around a woman holding a sign supporting Bollinger’s decision to host the Iranian president, jabbing their fingers at her while shouting “Nazi” and “Shame.” Discussion deteriorated, and screamed arguments broke out on corners up and down the barricaded blocks of Broadway.

Pro-Israel supporters also vented their anger at an Iranian-American City College student holding a sign reading “American-Iranian Friendship Committee.”

“Where’s your burka?,” a woman screamed over and over again.

“I think you’re showing a little too much skin,” another man yelled. “If you were dressed like that in Iran, you would be raped.”

CUNY architecture student Mahdi Hosseinzadeh held photographs of his imprisoned friends and said that he had taken a class taught by Ahmadinejad while a student at Iran University of Science and Technology. Although he described the president as a “good teacher,” he said that he objected to his policy of imprisoning political dissidents.

“My friends are in President Ahmadinejad’s prison,” he said. “They are imprisoned for being part of an Iranian student movement. When Ahmadinejad took them first, they put them in jail for no reason–then they come up with political reasons.”

The largest group of off-campus demonstrators came to protest Ahmadinejad’s past threats against Israel, including a large group from the Zionist Organization of America. Many said that by giving Ahmadinejad a platform, Columbia was giving credibility to hate speech.

“Free speech does not include hate,” Yeshiva University student Eric Israeli said. “For a university that claims it’s neutral–that it doesn’t follow one political party or one theology–it’s completely off the mark” to host Ahmadinejad.
Holocaust survivor Lyubov Bistreff, 77, said she came to protest against Ahmadinejad’s revision of history. “He cannot deny it [the Holocaust] because I am a witness … I remember everything. Why does he deny this? This is history, this is history.”

Maria Insalaco, Joy Resmovits, Ivette Sanchez, and Lydia Wileder contributed to this article.

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