The year is 1933. You’re a Columbia student. Nicholas Murray Butler, our prized president, decides to invite Nazi Ambassador Hans Luther to speak on campus in the spirit of free discourse. Do you stand idly by?
In fact, Butler did host a reception for the Nazi diplomat, with little resistance from the student body. Those that did speak up paid the price. Robert Burke, a student who organized a small mock book burning and peaceful protest outside Butler’s residence, was expelled—a shameful offense against the free discourse Butler claimed to promote.
Today, the return of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to New York and the Columbia sphere has set the campus astir and evoked comparisons of University President Lee Bollinger to Butler. Last week, the Iranian mission invited and disinvited CIRCA students to dine with Ahmadinejad—instead, he dined with SIPA students.
But the events of 1933 were as traumatic as they are now misapplied. Understandably, people less discredited than neo-cons have made the connection between Columbia providing Nazis with a platform in 1933 and one to Ahmadinejad in 2007. The president of Iran has questioned the scale of the Holocaust, explicated numerous times that he wants Israel wiped off the map, and committed human rights atrocities.
But banning public figures from campus has implications about what a university ought to be. An American university is not representative of the American government. In fact, it is not even an opinionated entity. It is a microcosm of and preparation for the real world to which Ahmadinejad is a viable threat.
Banning Ahmadinejad may be reasonable as an isolated act, but it might trigger a long fall down a slippery slope. How can we qualify the point at which a public figure becomes ban-worthy on campus? Once their governments have reached a certain death toll? Denied certain sensitive historical truths such as the Holocaust? If so, we should not have invited President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the World Leaders Forum because Turkey has still neglected to take responsibility for the Armenian genocide.
I love the fact that Columbia was the home of Edward Said, a controversial literature professor and Palestinian activist whose view of American foreign policy was beyond cynical. If I were at the University of Chicago I would jump at the opportunity to take a class with Bill Ayers, former member of the Weather Underground, an anti-war terrorist group from the ’60s. Had I gone to Princeton, I would not be able to graduate in good conscience without taking a class with historian Cornel West, a man who recently called President Obama “another black mascot” of Wall Street oligarchs. My desire to engage with these people is not attached to any support for their past words or actions. Quite the contrary—I would relish the chance to challenge them. They make our universities the controversial hotbeds of debate they are rather than the boring—or worse, propaganda-based—monoliths they could be.
In this sense, exposing students to a reprehensible foreign dictator at an age in which they have enough of a reified core value system to not be impressed by him might be productive. It would increase student awareness of Ahmadinejad’s intentions to harm our staunch ally, Israel, and to ostensibly use his nuclear program to leverage power. His hateful rhetoric might galvanize them to support the Green Revolution in Iran to overthrow his revolutionary guard.
It was in Neville Chamberlain’s power and purview to stop Adolf Hitler. He did not, and his historical legacy is justly that of a naïve appeaser. But a university does not have such power or responsibility.
As a Jew, I am particularly ashamed of the warm welcome given Hans Luther in 1933. And although I am especially sensitive to Ahmedinejad’s anti-semitic rhetoric, this case is different. Unlike Butler, Bollinger publicly disclaimed the content of Ahmadinejad’s speech before giving him the pulpit in 2007. In stark contrast, Butler said that Hans Luther was a representative of “the government of a friendly people” and “entitled to be received with the greatest courtesy and respect.”
Ahmadinejad’s dinner might prove to be a formative experience for some of the students involved. These students could very well be the craftsmen of future U.S. foreign policy. In deciding whether to engage in deterrence or a surgical strike in the face of an impending nuclear Iran, getting a sense of Ahmadinejad’s elusive character at dinner may prove essential to our country’s safety. For the Iranian President, the dinner is a footnote that holds no bearing on his ascension to international prestige and power. As long as we have no illusions about the erratic hate-monger and repressive ruler he is, I say, let them break bread.
Jesse Michels is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in history. He is a member of the debate team, CUSP, intramural basketball, and dodgeball. Politics as Pertinent runs alternate Tuesdays.