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 They mobilized against the event, and after Iran’s mission to the United Nations rescinded the invitation to CIRCA due to the adverse publicity, the group held a rally protesting the Iranian tyrant anyway.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.