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Pro-Israel Oppressors Cherished at Columbia University

In the fuss about Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York, a finer point was lost.  Columbia University and its current president, Lee Bollinger, have for some time each been a leader in the fields of foreign policy opportunism and service to global oppressors. In 1955, a mere two years after the CIA reinstated the Shah as absolute ruler in Iran, Columbia was the first U.S. university to help whitewash the coup with an honorary law doctorate awarded to the Shah.  Five decades later, the school’s administration was a pioneer again, as Bollinger heaped insult on an invited head of state, the president of Iran.

Echoing the Bush administration’s and Israel lobby’s shrill campaign to demonize the Iranian president, Bollinger called Mr. Ahmadinejad “ridiculous” and “a petty, cruel dictator” as he introduced the guest to a largely hostile campus audience of thousands in the auditorium and outside.  The distinction the Columbia’s administration must be detecting between the former and current Iranian leaders is that the Shah extended de facto recognition to Israel in 1955 but Iran’s current leadership severed Iran’s ties to the Jewish state and supports the Lebanese and Palestinian fighters who resist Israel.

The stark contrast between Columbia’s treatments of the Shah and of Ahmadinejad is not an isolated case.  It fits into the established pattern of Columbia’s behavior toward Israel.  Two years ago, Bollinger heartily welcomed Pakistan’s military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, on his campus the same week that the General told a cheering American Jewish Congress audience how Pakistan was preparing to officially recognize Israel.

Comparing for legitimacy, let us recall that the Shah and Musharraf each seized power in a military coup, whereas Ahmadinejad won an unmistakable electoral victory.  All three leaders are known for suppressing civil liberties, but Columbia University objects only to Iran’s president.

Among numerous notorious human rights violators indulged over the years by Israel, Apartheid-era South Africa is worth a special mention.  If Columbia or Bollinger ever expressed any public criticism of Israel’s military collaboration with the Apartheid regime, no record of such opposition is available.

But Bollinger was boldly in the lead recently in a nationwide campaign against Palestinian universities who needed protection from Israeli lawlessness.  He was the first president of an American university to speak out against a resolution adopted this summer by the largest federation of British educators, which called for a boycott of Israeli universities and academics.  According to New York’s Jewish Week, “His comments energized two major Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, both of which issued statements calling for other university and college presidents to follow Bollinger’s lead.”  Britain’s University and College Union recommended a boycott, it said, to protest Israeli government’s systematic suppression of academic freedom in occupied Palestinian communities.

While British educators are overwhelmingly in favor of cutting ties to Israeli universities, Columbia is expanding its collaboration with the same institutions.  As he received an honorary doctorate from New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 2005, Bollinger boasted that Columbia is “launching a new visiting professorship to strengthen ties between Columbia and universities throughout Israel by bringing Israeli scholars from all fields to campus each academic year.” 

Bollinger, a jurist who specializes in First Amendment rights, showed in May of this year how Columbia’s fascination with Israel trumps concerns for integrity in education.  That was when he bestowed an honorary law doctorate on Aharon Barak, who until recently played a key role as chief judge of Israel’s supreme court in justifying university closures, arrests of professors, and other injustices of the brutal occupation, now in its 40th year.

During the awards ceremony, Bollinger remarked in Barak’s honor, “As an admired jurist, educator, and scholar, you have contributed to a more universal definition of the role a judge plays in upholding a democratic society.  Your scholarship has added to the study and understanding of legal practices in Israel and across the globe, bringing the work of the judiciary closer to the realities of our society.”

Bollinger’s reference to “bringing the judiciary closer to the realities” is almost certainly a euphemism for legalizing torture and ethnic cleansing, as Harvard’s “realistic” Israel apologist Alan Dershowitz has advocated.  Before he took the helm at Columbia, Bollinger was the president of the University of Michigan, where, in 1999, he similarly honored Barak with a law degree.  Judge Barak was among the three investigators on the Kahan Commission, a government-appointed body in Israel which investigated Israeli army’s role in the murders of more than a thousand Palestinian civilians in short order in Beirut’s Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982.  The commission refused to charge Ariel Sharon or his lieutenants with war crimes, thus paving the way for then-defense minister Ariel Sharon to become Israel’s prime minister in 2001.

Columbia’s and Bollinger’s bias in favor of Israel and its lobby in Washington was on full display again as they bullied and abused president Ahmadinejad.  Bollinger acted like a lawless dictator on that occasion, as he sided with the militarist power elite of Israel and the US who consistently defy the will of the international community.  As Israeli/American plans for a military strike on Iran appear ready for execution, people of conscience must hold the University and Bollinger accountable for their assistance in the campaign to demonize Iran.


Based in Washington DC, Rostam Pourzal writes regularly on the politics of human rights.   MRZine has also published Pourzal’s “Market Fundamentalists Lose in Iran (For Now)” (3 August 2005); “Open Letter to Iran’s Nobel Laureate” (27 February 2006); “Open Letter to Iran’s Nobel Laureate: Part 2” (9 March 2006); “The Shah: America’s Nuclear Poster Boy” (25 May 2006); “Iranian Cold Warriors in Sheep’s Clothing” (20 May 2006); “MEK Tricks US Progressives, Gains Legitimacy” (12 June 2006); “What Really Happened in Tehran on June 12? Did Human Rights Watch Get It Wrong?” (18 June 2006); “Iran’s Western Behavior Deserves Criticism” (24 June 2006); “Iranian Anti-Censorship Crusader Accepts Censorship at Amnesty International” (19 July 2006); “An Israeli Attack Can Shatter the Relative Safety of Iran’s Jews” (28 July 2006); “Let’s Not Trivialize Discrimination in Iran” (22 May 2007); “With Defenders Like Nazanin, Who Needs Enemies?” (5 June 2007); “With Defenders Like Nazanin, Who Needs Enemies? Part 2” (18 June 2007); and “U.S. Intentions and Options in Iran: A Response to Stephen Zunes” (8 September 2007).



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