Columbia University’s president Lee Bollinger was most impressive when I saw him speak last spring at a meeting organized by the American Jewish Committee. He has been outspoken in his opposition to academic boycotts of Israel and on the “Israel = apartheid” argument.
He may have misstepped in inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia the other day, but it was with the best of intentions: to challenge and expose the latter’s outrageous views on the Holocaust and Israel. Bollinger’s take-no-prisoners introductory remarks made this abundantly clear.
But while he and Columbia were in their rights to invite this guy– and I applaud Mayor Bloomberg’s dismissal of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s threat to punish Columbia financially – this may not have been wise. It gave Ahmadinejad a high-profile forum to espouse his odious views. Although this revealed his bigotry on homosexuality and his unwillingness to forthrightly own up to his antisemitism, Ahmadinejad expertly used Columbia as a platform to advance his propaganda assault against Israel.
“Why should the Palestinians pay for an event they had nothing to do with?” he stated to a round of applause, in responding to a query on the Holocaust.
While I certainly understand why this answer resonates with some, I wish to counter it. I do so not to deny the sufferings and injustices endured by the Palestinian Arab people in the wake of the Holocaust, but to provide some important historical details and to add moral texture.
Palestinian-Arab nationalist forces were uncompromising in their demand that Jewish immigration to the British Mandate of Palestine be ended, despite the fact that the Jews of continental Europe desperately needed a place of refuge from the looming Nazi onslaught. The most powerful Palestinian wartime leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was an active ally of Hitler; he fought for the establishment of a pro-Nazi regime in Iraq and after fleeing to Germany following the defeat of the Iraqi rebellion in the spring of 1941, made propaganda broadcasts for the Axis and against the Jews and recruited Balkan Muslims to the SS.
When the Palestinians rejected the UN partition plan of 1947, they launched an all-out assault on the Yishuv, the Jewish presence in Palestine, attempting to destroy it a full six months before Israel’s declaration of independence and the invasion of Palestine by regular armies from neighboring Arab states. They did not attack to implement a binational state in Palestine, mind you, but to extinguish Jewish autonomy in that country and perhaps the physical existence of Jews there.
Again, this is not to excuse the harsh treatment meted out by Jewish militias and then by the nascent Israeli Defense Force in the fighting of November 1947 through January 1949. Nor to excuse Israel’s uncompromising stance toward the refugees over the decades or to condone the second-class status that Arab citizens of Israel have lived under. But Israel was reacting to a traumatic effort to destroy it at its birth, one that came close to succeeding during the darkest days of the independence war in the first half of 1948. Neither side was pristine in their actions;
innocents suffered on both sides in their thousands.
If not for Iran’s strident hostility, and its active assistance to Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel would pose no military threat to Iran — a non-Arab country that it has never fought and that does not even border on any of Israel’s immediate neighbors. It is raw antisemitism that fuels Iran’s hatred of Israel and Ahmadinejad’s infuriating Holocaust denial.
Iran’s Jewish community of 25,000 is not persecuted in a wholesale way, but there is no question that its status is precarious. Prominent Jews have been imprisoned as “Zionist agents” and the community has shrunk precipitously from its peak of about 80,000 at the time of the Islamic revolution, 28 years ago.