NEW YORK – The Iranian ambassador to the United Nations sparked a furor Wednesday night when he said at a speech in New York that Palestinians are suffering today because of "atrocities" that happened in World War II, specifically against the Jews.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied that the Holocaust happened and has also called for the destruction of Israel.
When asked whether he believed six million Jews died in the Holocaust, Zarif answered, "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 students attending his talk, hosted Wednesday evening on campus by a Columbia University international studies group called Toward Reconciliation, loudly voiced their disagreement with his statements.
"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."
Columbia University did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The head of the American Jewish Committee said the link between Israel and the Jewish people didn't begin during World War II, but rather 3,000 years earlier.
"That's something that many Arabs and Iranians would like to conveniently forget," said AJC executive director David A. Harris. "But it's historically proven. And that underlies the claim of the Jewish people to a state, to a land with which they have been connected for over three millennia.
"This notion that a 'crime' was committed against the Palestinians by the so-called imposition of a Jewish state is utter nonsense."
The president of the American Task Force on Palestine denounced those who deny that the Holocaust happened, but said there is a connection between the plight of the Palestinians today and the establishment of the state of Israel after the Holocaust and World War II ended.
"What happened to the Jews in Europe is a crime that was committed by the Europeans against the Jews and there is no excuse, explanation or condoning. Never again," said Ziad Asali. "That should be a universal position, not just words spoken. The Palestinians and Muslims have nothing to do by denying the Holocaust.
"But there is definitely a relation between the persecution of Jews in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust and made them want to live by themselves and come to Palestine, and what happened to Palestine after that."
He said that the establishment of Israel caused a widespread Palestinian refugee problem because "they were in the way when the Jews of Europe found no place to be … But the question is, where do we go from here?"
Harris said the Israelis were willing to have two states, one Jewish and one Arab, established side-by-side after the war, and it was the Arabs who refused to compromise. He believes Zarif's comments underscore how far apart the two groups still are in establishing common ground.
"It shows how far we have to go to achieve peace in the region," he said. "[The Iranian ambassador] refuses to recognize Israel's legitimacy in any part of the land, whatever the borders, and he perpetuates this image of victimization of the Palestinians who refuse to take responsibility for their own fate."
Asali also spoke about victimization, saying it has been overplayed on both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate.
"What really bothers me about this discourse in general is it gives them the monopoly on victimization," he said. "History has been unkind to these two peoples, the Palestinians and the Jews who ended up becoming Israelis. We cannot redress the ills of history."
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."