NEW YORK – Two days after a controversial Iranian ambassador outraged Columbia University students by saying Palestinians are suffering because of the Holocaust, the Ivy League school remained mum on the incident.
Columbia said Friday it wasn't commenting on the inflammatory appearance of Javad Zarif Wednesday night, during which Iran's ambassador to the United Nations got into a verbal scuffle with some audience members for statements he made about the Holocaust.
The university cited the fact that the event was sponsored by a student group — an international studies organization called Toward Reconciliation — as the reason for its silence.
Zarif sparked a furor Wednesday night when a student asked him whether he believed 6 million Jews were killed during World War II and he responded, "I believe a great atrocity was committed in the Second World War. The question that needs to be asked is what crime was committed by Palestinians in that atrocity?"
A number of those in attendance shot down the ambassador's remarks, and an animated exchange between the dissenters and Zarif ensued.
"Do I have a right to freedom of expression?" Zarif challenged. "I'm answering. If you want to stifle the right of people to freedom of expression, that's your problem, not mine."
He went on to say that "a large number of people were murdered" during World War II and "a large number of them were Jews. That's a crime … Genocide is a major crime, and we reject it … But what was the role of the Palestinians in that? … Palestinians have been suffering because of that, without having any role in it."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied that the Holocaust happened and has also called for the destruction of Israel.
A scheduled September appearance at Columbia by Ahmadinejad was canceled because of security concerns. Widespread student protests had been planned.
Zarif was also grilled on the reasons Iran and Syria continue to support Hezbollah, listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government and many European countries, rather than a pro-Western regime.
"Being pro-Western is not a great asset in our part of the world … The pro-West nature of the government of Lebanon may be very good for you in the U.S., but it is very bad for the Lebanese people," he said, generating more protests. "Hezbollah is the most popular movement, not only in Lebanon, but in the Arab world."
At one point during the exchange on Hezbollah and the issue of whether Iran is pushing a religious government in Lebanon rather than a secular one, Zarif took a swipe at FOX News — and many in the audience applauded.
"Nobody in Lebanon wants a religious government," he said. "Don't consume whatever is fed by FOX News."