President Bollinger ended his remarks to President Ahmadinejad at Morningside Heights yesterday with these words: "I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better." Well, a lot of us have often wished that we could do better. But we don't mind saying that, by our lights, Mr. Bollinger did pretty darned well. It may have been a mistake to welcome the Iranian demagogue to campus in the first place, but it will be a long time before any figure, here or abroad, gives such an eloquent rebuke to Mr. Ahmadinejad's face.
We don't have any illusions about what Mr. Ahmadinejad will take away from his visit to Morningside Heights. Looking cinereal he sat smirking in the shadows at stage rear during Mr. Bollinger's introduction. But the bursts of applause he received from what appeared to be a conflicted audience of Columbia's leftist student body and faculty will be broadcast at home, along with Mr. Ahmadinejad's sneering and lying responses on everything from the A-bomb to the Holocaust to the war his country is fighting by proxy against our own and Israel. That will be a gift to him that keeps on giving.
But Mr. Bollinger didn't aim to put much of a dent in Mr. Ahmadinejad. His aim was for a teaching moment at Columbia, and the university was certainly in need of one. Its students have been fed years of anti-Israel, anti-American, and anti-military rhetoric from Columbia's professoriate in Middle Eastern studies and other departments. One of its faculty members publicly wished for our defeat in Iraq and that there would be "a million Mogadishus." Its Jewish and Israeli students have been mocked by professors, a scandal that was opened up by a film made by the David Project which rocked Columbia several years ago.
Our basic advice to Mr. Bollinger from the start of the whole tragedy at Columbia has been that, when it comes to the war the Arabs are waging against Israel, he is eventually going to have to choose sides. We have long sensed that he is resistant to that advice, preferring instead, at least as we perceive it, to be a more neutral – we would say "morally equivalent" — educator. There was a glimpse of that in his remarks yesterday to Mr. Ahmadinejad, particularly the point where he spoke about how Columbians "have not been shy to protest and challenge the failures of our own government" to live by its values.
But it would be unfair to Mr. Bollinger to suggest that the past two years have been entirely a time of equivocation. He has spoken out forcefully against the move for disinvestment in Israel, as well as against the calls in Britain for a boycott of the Israeli academicians. And he has quietly moved to expand Middle Eastern studies in a way that, at least in theory, might make room for some professors who don't hate Israel (we'll see). The welcoming of Mr. Ahmadinejad has disappointed hopes that many had placed in his efforts.
But Mr. Bollinger spoke to some of the elements in which Jewish particularity is engaged, asserting that Columbia has become a "world center of Jewish studies" and, in partnership with the YIVO Institute, of studies of the Holocaust, which Mr. Bollinger called "the most documented event in human history." He spoke directly, as well, to Iran's assertion that Israel should be "wiped off the map," and noted that Columbia has more than 800 alumni living in the Jewish state. He noted that more than 400 college presidents have joined in his call against the proposed boycott of Israeli scholars and universities. "Do you plan on wiping us off the map, too?" Mr. Bollinger asked. He then addressed Iran's state sponsorship of terror, funding such groups as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
All will now be looking to see how Columbia follows through with the professors and instructors – or, for that matter, students – in its own ranks, which are riddled with apologists for the very terrorist organizations whom Mr. Bollinger named. Mr. Bollinger may have left Mr. Ahmadinejad smirking and unshaken, but if words have any meaning, he has put Columbia's own Middle Eastern studies programs on the spot. If his words have any meaning, he'll need to confront the students and faculty on campus who are mocking our own GIs, trying to force them into a retreat in front of Mr. Ahmadinejad's proxies of whom Mr. Bollinger spoke. The sad fact is that New Yorkers will have a hard time distinguishing between some of what Mr. Ahmadinejad said in response to Mr. Bollinger and what they have heard from some of Columbia's own teachers. It would be too much to say that Mr. Bollinger has been "mugged by reality," to use Irving Kristol's wonderful phrase. But it would not be too much to say "welcome to the fight."