The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York drew two major protests on Monday.
Early in the day, protesters spilled out of a United Nations courtyard to protest Ahmadinejad’s scheduled appearance at the U.N. on Tuesday.
A roster of influential Jewish and Israel advocacy groups sponsored the rally at the U.N. Political luminaries including Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and several New York representatives addressed short speeches to an enthusiastic crowd.
“I never thought a man would arise who we could compare to Adolf Hitler,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, “but this is a man who brags about being another Hitler.”
Alluding to the argument that Ahmadinejad’s speaking engagements were protected by freedom of speech, Nadler said, “I know what the First Amendment says. It says you can’t stop anyone from inviting him. But that doesn’t mean you have to invite him!”
Many of the protestors at the U.N. came as part of delegations from Jewish and Zionist organizations, some came from several states away.
Shortly afterward, a huge, though less cohesive crowd gathered around Columbia University, where Ahmadinejad spoke Monday afternoon. The campus was only accessible to those with Columbia IDs, and police had blocked off several blocks of Broadway, so protesters gathered across the street. A group of demonstrators holding signs with messages like “work for peace in the Middle East — eliminate ‘Israel’” got into a screaming match with anti-Ahmadinejad protestors. Traditional Israeli songs blasted by a nearby group drowned them all out.
Protestor Rena Schaum, 58, wore a kerchief on her head and carried an American flag.
“There is a limit on academic freedom, and the limit is immorality,” Schaum said. “[By inviting Ahmadinejad to speak], Columbia is showing itself to be morally bankrupt.”
Some people at the rally, including students and alumni from Columbia and Barnard, aimed to present an alternative point of view. Tammy Shapiro, 25, director of the Union of Progressive Zionists, handed out questionnaires that encouraged protestors to think critically about American policy toward Iran.
“I think the best way to challenge someone is not to silence them but to ask them question,” Shapiro said. “I think we should be out here protesting, but we should be protesting Ahmadinejad’s human rights violations, not his right to speak.”
Inside Lerner Hall, on the Columbia campus, Ahmadinejad was introduced by Columbia President Lee Bollinger, who likened the Iranian leader to a “cruel dictator” and criticized his past statements about Israel and the Holocaust.
Ahmadinejad gave a lengthy talk that began by striking back at Bollinger.
“Of course, I think that he was affected by the press, the media and the political sort of mainstream line that you read here, that goes against the very grain of the need for peace and stability in the world around us,” Ahmadinejad said.