The atmosphere was somewhere between that of a political protest and a carnival on the Columbia campus as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech drew closer.
Opponents and supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s right to speak stood check by jowl on the steps of Columbia’s library as they waited for his scheduled 1:30 address, as a crowd of several hundred Columbia students gathered before a large truck-mounted video screen.
An NYPD helicopter hovered overhead.
Eitan Ben David, wearing a Hillel t-shirt bearing the Edmund Burke quote, “All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” said, “We should be marginalizing him, we should be isolating him.”
Mr. Ben David, a philosophy student, added, “I was shocked that they would go about doing this.”
Nearby, Jasmine Alagheband, an English major of Iranian descent who was wearing a placard expressing support for the Iranian people, said, “I feel we should get to know the Iranian people better.”
“I feel it is produced an atmosphere of hate within the environment of the campus,” she said.
During the speech itself, Mr. Ahmadinejad gave evasive answers to questions about the state of Israel and the Holocaust, but caused the biggest stir of all by denying that there were any gay people in Iran.
“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, unlike in your country,” he said, through a translator. “We do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who told you that we do have it.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad, at one point, sounded vaguely conciliatory: “We love all nations, we are friends with the Jewish people,” he said.
But he referred to the Holocaust only as “a present reality.”
He went on to offer an apparent defense of Holocaust deniers in Europe, asking, “Why is there not research that can approach it from different perspectives? There are researchers who want to approach it from a different perspective? Why are they sent to prison?”
The event was also marked by sharp criticism of Mr. Ahmadinejad by Columbia University president Lee Bollinger.
In his introductory remarks, Mr. Bollinger told the Iranian president, “You exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
Mr. Bollinger further charged that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust made him “ridiculous” and asked, “Will you cease this outrage?”
In closing his speech the Columbia president said, “I feel all the weight of the modern world yearning to express its revulsion at what you stand for.”
The audience applauded loudly.
Mr. Ahmadinejad did not take kindly to the remarks, saying at the outset of his speech, “I want to complain about this political statement against me.” He continued: “We [in Iran] respect students and allow them to come to their own judgment. We don’t think it is necessary to provide a vaccination of some sort.”
He also noted on several occasions during his speech that in Iran, “it is a tradition to respect those who are invited as guests.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad also sought to focus upon the Palestinian question. Referring to the Holocaust once more, he said, “If it is a reality, we still need to question whether the Palestinian people should be paying the price for it. The Palestinian people did not commit any crime.”
He also referred to the issue of Palestine as “an old wound” in the Middle East.
With regard to Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Ahmadinejad insisted, “Iran’s activities are peaceful.”
He added: “How is it that you have the right [to develop nuclear technology] but we can’t have it?”
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech was received a mixed, if generally polite, reception. His remarks on Palestine were received with a smattering of clapping. When he talked about the Holocaust, there was silence. And when he made his comments on homosexuals, the audience laughed.