Referring to the Holocaust as a “present reality” he asked, “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?”
At another point, Mr. Ahmadinejad asserted, “I am trying to uphold the rights of European scholars.”
Perhaps he should have been aware that casting himself as a stout defender of Holocaust deniers was unlikely to win him many friends.
Mr. Ahmadinejad met with a somewhat warmer reception when he complained about superpowers aiming to control access to nuclear technology and when he sought to uncouple the issue of Palestine from the suffering of the Jewish people.
“If [the Holocaust] 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 said.
The fact that these remarks were met with a smattering of applause said a lot about the audience’s willingness, at least, to listen.
The event itself underlined that extending freedom of speech even to those whom we detest need not be an exercise in naiveté. Instead, the holes and deficiencies in Mr. Ahmadinejad’s arguments were thoroughly exposed on Monday afternoon.
And there was another welcome consequence. Mr. Bollinger, in his introduction, challenged Mr. Ahmadinejad to let Columbia students and faculty visit an Iranian university and speak in the same spirit of freedom that had been offered to him.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Mr. Ahmadinejad rose to the challenge. “You are officially invited,” he said at the end of his speech.
The Iranian president might yet learn something about freedom after all.