Columbia Students vs. Ahmadinejad

Columbia student Jacob Snider successfully mobilizes a group of courageous voices against the Iranian despot.

On September 10th, an article was published in the Columbia Spectator, Columbia University's student newspaper, announcing that 15 members of the Columbia International Relations Council and Association (CIRCA) would be attending a private dinner with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was supposed to take place on September 21st, while the Iranian despot was in New York to deliver a speech before the United Nations General Assembly. CIRCA vice president of academics, Tim Chan, CC ’14, noted that the prospect was well received by group members. “Everyone was really enthusiastic,” Chan said. “They’re thrilled to have this opportunity.” Other Columbia students, notably Jacob Snider, David Fine, Eric Shapiro, and Sam Schube, were far less enthusiastic. They mobilized against the event, and after Iran's mission to the United Nations rescinded the invitation to CIRCA due to the adverse publicity, the group held a rally protesting the Iranian tyrant anyway.

"A group of like-minded friends and I decided to initially protest a private off-the-record dinner between [CIRCA students] and Ahmadinejad," explained rally organizer Jacob Snider. "The rally was organized by me and three other kids, but it began with me and David Fine. He and I became co-organizers at the ground level."

Snider explained that after reading the news of the dinner in the Spectator, he was compelled to act:

I sat with [the news] for a couple of hours. I played in my jazz ensemble and after playing I was walking on campus and looking around, and I saw people having normal conversations, and it just wasn't sitting well with me. [The dinner] was under the [campus] radar, but all over the national radar.

Snider then contacted his friend David Fine. "In the Cabinet of my life, he's my Attorney General of History," Snider quipped. He explained how the counter-event grew from their exchange:

I called and asked him if he'd heard about the dinner. He said yes and thought it was ridiculous, but he didn't know what was going on or what to do about it. I said "consider me your ally and let's do something together." At first we were just going to put up fliers, but then we said "let's turn this into a thing."...We used the power we had at our disposal and did something.

That something turned into a rally in which the original name, “Just Say No To Ahma(dinner)jad” gave way to “Just Say No to Ahmadinejad” after publicity over the student backlash raised Iranian hackles, and CIRCA students were disinvited. Fox News originally reported that Columbia president Lee Bollinger would attend the dinner and that the university itself had sponsored it. This apparently was not the case, but the news prompted the Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center in Tel Aviv to send a letter to Bollinger condemning the invitation and threatening legal action. “Hosting Ahmadinejad at a banquet is not merely morally repulsive: it is illegal and likely to render Columbia University and its officers both criminally and civilly liable,” said the letter from the center, which has another office in New York.

In 2007, Bollinger had in fact invited the Iranian president to speak at the university, despite much controversy. “It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas, or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas,” Bollinger said at the time. “It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.”

And while Bollinger was critical of Ahmadinejad in his opening remarks, calling him a "reprehensible and dangerous figure who presides over a repressive regime," there were times during the speech when Columbia students applauded the Holocaust-denying Iranian president.

Reflecting on the 2007 event, Snider conceded that there was a "distinct difference between an open forum, or a public sighting or speaking, versus a private dinner." He continued:

When Ahmadinejad came to Columbia in 2007, he was part of the World Leaders Forum, which is a real event. There was a lot of national attention then as well. The interesting thing is, in the moment when he was addressing folks...Ahmadinejad made a complete fool of himself.

This, in fact, raises and important point as to why opposing the private repast was necessary. "Whereas the speech in 2007 did, in the majority of its moments, reveal, to educated students and the rest of the world, that Ahmadinejad is an illogical madman," Snider explained, "the dinner didn't even afford those moments. It only could have acted as fuel for propaganda." Co-organizer Eric Shaprio agreed. "You have dinner with family and friends. You don't have dinner with hated world leaders and people who commit crimes against their own citizens."

When the CIRCA invitation was revoked, the group of protesters decided that this was not the time to abandon the campaign. "Once we realized the dinner had been canceled, we moved to continue the rally under the premise of a more general protest of the human rights violations that take place every day in Iran -- perpetrated by Ahmadinejad," said Snider.

He further noted that Columbia University has a special role to fill with respect to international relations. "Columbia University is a unique place," Snider observed. The close proximity to the United Nations and frequent opportunity to associate with world leaders -- good or bad -- creates a "larger burden of responsibility to bear," he said.

Part of that responsibility is making people aware of the fact that, even if the dinner had taken place, it did not represent the only voice of the undergraduate community at CU. "We didn't want [the CIRCA students] to be the sole undergraduate voices of Columbia." Though much of the national attention was directed at the students who would meet with Ahmadinejad, "they did not speak for all of the students," Snider said. "We wanted to contribute to the conversation."

Fellow protest organizer Eric Shapiro echoed that sentiment, noting that "the real nuance here is that we felt as Columbia undergraduate students, we had a particular voice that we wanted heard."

Those attending the rally heard from former Iranian political prisoner Shirin Nariman, who addressed the crowd that had gathered in front of East Campus. “When I was 17, I had a 13-year-old friend who was arrested and killed," she said. "This is the oppressive Iranian regime, and we need to reject such a regime and their representatives, which is Ahmadinejad." She then honed in her opposition on the dinner and the focal point of the rally. “It’s morally wrong. It shouldn’t be done,” Nariman said. “Many people were killed for a dictator to come to power. Is this what Columbia wants to associate with?”

The two other rally organizers also spoke. Sam Schube noted that "we’re here because we hold the modest, but at the same time really grand hope that we might use our voices to draw attention to those who are silenced, and those who refuse to remain silent in the face to unimaginable hardship.” David Fine explained that the rally "reminds Columbia and New York that although the terror of Tehran may be allowed to visit our city, though he may be allowed to sleep in our hotels, and eat in our diners, he will not do so as a welcome guest. Rather he will be greeted as the tyrant he is…"

The rally closed with a moment of silence.

Jacob Snider was proud of what he and his fellow organizers accomplished. "People have noticed," he beamed. "They came up to me and said they know we four students got together and said something." Noting the reality of student apathy, Snider was moved by the recognition and the knowledge that other students had been reached by the group's message. He concluded:

I think it's good for the spirit of saying what you believe. Apathy could be best defined in this situation as believing in something but being too passive to put those beliefs into action. I think I speak for the group when I say that we wanted to put our beliefs into action, not just go back to class and "say yeah, well...."

Indeed. The success of this counter-campaign demonstrates that a few courageous voices, who make the effort to be heard, can become a powerful tool for truth.