Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bollinger and Ahmadinejad: Ad Hominem

I feel a need to respond to a few of the comments in my last post in addition to some aspects of Lee Bollinger's speech itself. What I dislike most about all sides of the issue is the overuse of ad hominem attacks.

It does not do any good, I think, to call Bollinger ignorant or a pawn of the media or whatever for his remarks yesterday. I think there are much better ways to go about discussing this issue. I do not moderate the comments made on my blog and I hope that I never have to do so, but I do ask that they evaluate the substance (or lack thereof) of what someone says and does rather than take the next step and disparage the person making those remarks (there are other places and times for such disparagements). I prefer open discussion, but resorting to ad hominem attacks usually has the effect of squelching discussion rather than promoting an exchange of ideas or information.

The question, however, is whether or not, in this case, Bollinger opens himself up for ad hominem attacks by doing the very same to Ahmadinejad? Firstly, I should state that the actual questions posed by Bollinger and the students at the forum were entirely fair given the information known from what Ahmadinejad himself has said and done in the past few years and rather recently and by the reports of international agencies. All world leaders should have to answer such difficult questions based upon their past statements and courses of action. On the other hand, the statements Bollinger made (basically to cover himself from the heat he has been receiving for inviting Ahmadinejad to begin with) were out of place in academic discourse (I'm not saying that ad hominem attacks do not occur in academic discussions, but that there is the ideal that they shouldn't). And so calling A. a "petty and cruel dictator," "ridiculous" (as my mom, who is not at all a fan of A. noted, this particular word seemed out of place in an academic setting), and, what I thought was most damning, saying that A. lacked the intellectual courage to answer the questions posed by B., all seemed out of place. By the way, B. was for the most part (although not completely) proven right on this last point, but it is not something people tend to say explicitly and not something you say before it happens (going to Jodi's point about preempting the speech). (The recent post on Kishkushim has a different perspective on this.) B.'s questions, I thought, seemed appropriate for critical engagement with very important international issues and concerns. His personal attacks created an atmosphere in which actual discussion became virtually impossible. On his side, I do not think that A., in his actual speech at least, really substatively engaged any of the current issues. His speech sounded like a sermon with the interwoven themes of light and darkness, science (practiced by those who are pure--I am not sure what that actually means), and God. It, too, seemed out of place, and it gave me the impression that A.'s speech was not really directed to those in the room or on the campus (but I doubt there are many people who thought it was). I do hope to have a full transcript of A.'s speech and the Q & A period afterwards so everyone can evaluate and dissect it themselves.

As for the protesters outside the campus and on the campus itself, I think that is a different issue and follows a different genealogy of discourse in which ad hominem attacks are not only allowed, but are actually the norm (although, again, I do not think I have ever seen two sides of a protest rally actually convince the other side or even desire open discussion at least in that particular setting--but, again, that is not really the point of a protest, is it?). Although the vehemence of some of the groups seemed, ultimately, counterproductive. It was a carnivalesque atmosphere (there were even bagpipes!).

Some may object to this post, saying that A. is a political figure with the reins of power in his hands, and so, as with all public political figures, he is fair game for such personal attacks (just as someone like Bush is), but, once again, I think that such language is out of place in the World Leaders Forum, in an academic environment, and, I hope, on this blog.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lee Bollinger and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia

Today, I sat out on Columbia's quad and watched as the speeches by Lee Bollinger and then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were piped outside onto a megatron screen. The invitation to have the president of Iran speak as part of Columbia's World Leaders Forum, was and remains a highly controversial topic upon which everyone seems to disagree. I think that most (but as I found out today, not all) strongly oppose much of what Ahmadinejad has said and done, but the debate of whether or not Bollinger should have invited A. as a part of this larger forum revolves around the issue of free speech or to what degree we can maintaing free speech. And, in case you have not watched the news at all today, Bollinger made some very strong remarks about the Iranian President. But, instead of telling you about it, I will just show you. And, so here, for your ability to read and dissect, is the full transcript of Bollinger's opening remarks (pulled off of Columbia's website):

President Lee C. Bollinger's Introductory Remarks at SIPA-World Leaders Forum with President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Sept. 24, 2007

I would like to begin by thanking Dean John Coatsworth and Professor Richard Bulliet for their work in organizing this event and for their commitment to the role of the School of International and Public Affairs and its role in training future leaders in world affairs. If today proves anything it will be that there is an enormous amount of work ahead for all of us. This is just one of many events on Iran that will run throughout this academic year, all to help us better understand this critical and complex nation in today’s geopolitics.

Before speaking directly to the current President of Iran, I have a few critically important points to emphasize.

First, since 2003, the World Leaders Forum has advanced Columbia’s longstanding tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate, especially on global issues. 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. 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.

Second, to those who believe that this event never should have happened, that it is inappropriate for the University to conduct such an event, I want to say that I understand your perspective and respect it as reasonable. The scope of free speech and academic freedom should itself always be open to further debate. As one of the more famous quotations about free speech goes, it is “an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” I want to say, however, as forcefully as I can, that this is the right thing to do and, indeed, it is required by existing norms of free speech, the American university, and Columbia itself.

Third, to those among us who experience hurt and pain as a result of this day, I say on behalf of all of us we are sorry and wish to do what we can to alleviate it.

Fourth, to be clear on another matter - this event has nothing whatsoever to do with any “rights” of the speaker but only with our rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves.
We do it in the great tradition of openness that has defined this nation for many decades now. We need to understand the world we live in, neither neglecting its glories nor shrinking from its threats and dangers. It is consistent with the idea that one should know thine enemies, to have the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil and to prepare ourselves to act with the right temperament. In the moment, the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self- restraint against the very natural but often counter-productive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear. In this lies the genius of the American idea of free speech.

Lastly, in universities, we have a deep and almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth. We do not have access to the levers of power. We cannot make war or peace. We can only make minds. And to do this we must have the most full freedom of inquiry.

Let me now turn to Mr. Ahmadinejad.


Over the last two weeks, your government has released Dr. Haleh Esfandiari and Parnaz Axima; and just two days ago Kian Tajbakhsh, a graduate of Columbia with a PhD in urban planning. While our community is relieved to learn of his release on bail, Dr. Tajbakhsh remains in Teheran, under house arrest, and he still does not know whether he will be charged with a crime or allowed to leave the country. Let me say this for the record, I call on the President today to ensure that Kian Tajbaksh will be free to travel out of Iran as he wishes. Let me also report today that we are extending an offer to Dr. Tajbaksh to join our faculty as a visiting professor in urban planning here at his Alma Mater, in our Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. And we hope he will be able to join us next semester.

The arrest and imprisonment of these Iranian Americans for no good reason is not only unjustified, it runs completely counter to the very values that allow today’s speaker to even appear on this campus.

But at least they are alive.

According to Amnesty International, 210 people have been executed in Iran so far this year – 21 of them on the morning of September 5th alone. This annual total includes at least two children – further proof, as Human Rights Watch puts it, that Iran leads the world in executing minors.

There is more.

Iran hanged up to 30 people this past July and August during a widely reported suppression of efforts to establish a more open, democratic society in Iran. Many of these executions were carried out in public view, a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party.

These executions and others have coincided with a wider crackdown on student activists and academics accused of trying to foment a so-called “soft revolution”. This has included jailing and forced retirements of scholars. As Dr. Esfandiari said in a broadcast interview since her release, she was held in solitary confinement for 105 days because the government “believes that the United States . . . is planning a Velvet Revolution” in Iran.

In this very room last year we learned something about Velvet Revolutions from Vaclav Havel. And we will likely hear the same from our World Leaders Forum speaker this evening – President Michelle Bachelet Jeria of Chile. Both of their extraordinary stories remind us that there are not enough prisons to prevent an entire society that wants its freedom from achieving it.

We at this university have not been shy to protest and challenge the failures of our own government to live by these values; and we won’t be shy in criticizing yours.

Let’s, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.

And so I ask you:

Why have women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?

Why in a letter last week to the Secretary General of the UN did Akbar Gangi, Iran’s leading political dissident, and over 300 public intellectuals, writers and Nobel Laureates express such grave concern that your inflamed dispute with the West is distracting the world’s attention from the intolerable conditions your regime has created within Iran? In particular, the use of the Press Law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system.

Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?

In our country, you are interviewed by our press and asked that you to speak here today. And while my colleague at the Law School Michael Dorf spoke to Radio Free Europe [sic, Voice of America] viewers in Iran a short while ago on the tenets of freedom of speech in this country, I propose going further than that. Let me lead a delegation of students and faculty from Columbia to address your university about free speech, with the same freedom we afford you today? Will you do that?


In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a “fabricated” “legend.” One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers.
For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.

You should know that Columbia is a world center of Jewish studies and now, in partnership with the YIVO Institute, of Holocaust studies. Since the 1930s, we’ve provided an intellectual home for countless Holocaust refugees and survivors and their children and grandchildren. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history. Because of this, and for many other reasons, your absurd comments about the “debate” over the Holocaust both defy historical truth and make all of us who continue to fear humanity’s capacity for evil shudder at this closure of memory, which is always virtue’s first line of defense.

Will you cease this outrage?


Twelve days ago, you said that the state of Israel “cannot continue its life.” This echoed a number of inflammatory statements you have delivered in the last two years, including in October 2005 when you said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

Columbia has over 800 alumni currently living in Israel. As an institution we have deep ties with our colleagues there. I personally have spoken out in the most forceful terms against proposals to boycott Israeli scholars and universities, saying that such boycotts might as well include Columbia. More than 400 college and university presidents in this country have joined in that statement. My question, then, is: Do you plan on wiping us off the map, too?


According to reports by the Council on Foreign Relations, it’s well documented that Iran is a state sponsor of terror that funds such violent group as the Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran helped organize in the 1980s, the Palestinian Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
While your predecessor government was instrumental in providing the US with intelligence and base support in its 2001 campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, your government is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming, and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces.

There are a number of reports that also link your government with Syria’s efforts to destabalize the fledgling Lebanese government through violence and political assassination.

My question is this: Why do you support well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East, destroying lives and civil society in the region?


In a briefing before the National Press Club earlier this month, General David Petraeus reported that arms supplies from Iran, including 240mm rockets and explosively formed projectiles, are contributing to “a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support.”

A number of Columbia graduates and current students are among the brave members of our military who are serving or have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They, like other Americans with sons, daughters, fathers, husbands and wives serving in combat, rightly see your government as the enemy.

Can you tell them and us why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq by arming Shi’a militia targeting and killing U.S. troops?


This week the United Nations Security Council is contemplating expanding sanctions for a third time because of your government’s refusal to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. You continue to defy this world body by claiming a right to develop peaceful nuclear power, but this hardly withstands scrutiny when you continue to issue military threats to neighbors. Last week, French President Sarkozy made clear his lost patience with your stall tactics; and even Russia and China have shown concern.

Why does your country continue to refuse to adhere to international standards for nuclear weapons verification in defiance of agreements that you have made with the UN nuclear agency? And why have you chosen to make the people of your country vulnerable to the effects of international economic sanctions and threaten to engulf the world with nuclear annihilation?
Let me close with this comment. Frankly, and in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions. But your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do. Fortunately, I am told by experts on your country, that this only further undermines your position in Iran with all the many good-hearted, intelligent citizens there. A year ago, I am reliably told, your preposterous and belligerent statements in this country (as in your meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations) so embarrassed sensible Iranian citizens that this led to your party’s defeat in the December mayoral elections. May this do that and more.
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.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

God Responds to Nebraska Legislator's Lawsuit

The AP has an article about a Nebraska legislator who placed a lawsuit against God for inciting terrorism, causing death and destruction upon the earth's inhabitants, etc. Evidently, God has responded to the suit, saying the Nebraska legislature does not have jurisdiction to file such a claim. And no, I am not kidding!! See the press article here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Barnard Tenure Controversy Continues

On Monday, I was told to read the Times (that would be the New York Times for all you Londoners), because one of my professors was in it, contributing to (or commenting on) the Tenure controversy surrounding Barnard Anthropology Professor, Nadia Abu El-Haj's book, The Facts on the Ground. You can read an AP report here.

It is coming down to a debate between academic freedom (for those on Abu El-Haj's side) versus shoddy scholarship (for those against).

I have been avoiding reading the book for some time now so that I can plead ignorance, but it appears this tactic will no longer work.

For those of you in the NYC area, Alan Segal will be giving a lecture on what we can know from biblical archaeology on Monday, Sept 17 at 7 p.m. in 304 Barnard Hall. It will, to be sure, be an extremely turbulent event.

UPDATE: The event was hardly eventful. Some very prominent Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) professors were there, such as Gil Anidjar. On the whole, it was an under-attended lecture and a rather respectful and collegial interchange.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sabbatical Year!!!

In case any of you did not know, part of my research includes Sabbath traditions, and starting Wednesday evening at sundown is the sabbatical year. That's right--beginning with Rosh Hashanah, for an entire year, according the the biblical and rabbinic mitzvah (commandment), one should leave one's field fallow for an entire year. According to a newspaper article from the Alton Telegraph (that's Alton, Illinois, for you bi-coastal people) sent to me by my mother, this is causing some concern among Israelis about bankruptcy. Since, for most farmers, a profit margin is rather minimal, an entire year without any crops could put many, especially farmers and kibbutzes with small amounts of land, too far in the red to recover.

Interestingly enough, more moderate Israeli Rabbis have created a loophole: Jewish Israelis can sell their fields and orchards to non-Jews for the duration of the year. According to the article, "Under this arrangement, farmers can keep working the land because it's technically 'owned' by someone who isn't bournd by Jewish law."

Not surprisingly (for reasons I may lay out later), more ortho,dox (or "ultra orthodox") Rabbis oppose this policy, claiming it is a desecration of the Sabbath mitzvah. The alternative solution suggested by them is that the government set up a charity foundation for farmers for the upcoming year. They are also more willing to trade and gain produce from the Palestinian residents in the Gaza strip and the West Bank rather than abrogate the Sabbatical commandment: a rare circumstance of trade with Hamas-controlled territory (and not only that, but that very territory).

Thus, while the Sabbatical year may give many difficulties for Jewish Israeli farmers, it is an economic boon for Muslim farmers in Gaza, except border crossings are a bit more difficult now than seven years ago.

In ancient times, there is only minimal evidence that the Sabbatical year was ever observed (by the rule of prescription is not description), although the lack of observance was thought to have catastrophic effects. Indeed, the Chronicler blames the Babylonian exile on the failure to observe the Sabbatical year, and the 7o years of exile (Jeremiah) were to give the land its long overdue rest (2 Chron. 36:21-22), in turn relying upon Lev. 26:34-35.

Shanah Tovah!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Conference News: "Rome in Extremis: Outsiders and Incendiaries in the Greco-Roman World"

Justin Dombrowski, a friend of mine in Columbia's history department, is putting on a Conference on Sunday, Sept 30, called, "Rome in Extremis: Outsiders and Incendiaries in the Greco-Roman World." This is a joint venture between ancient history and classics at Columbia, and it includes speakers from the religion department, JTS, and others throughout North America. It looks like a very interesting conference, and I would encourage anyone who happens to be in NYC that weekend to attend. For more information, see Justin's blog, "Ad Fontes."

Here's the schedule:

8:30 a.m.

9-10:20 a.m.
Simon Ford (Oxford): “Quiet Riot, Imperial Responses to the ‘Religious’ Riots following the Council of Chalcedon”
Stephanie Bolz (Michigan): “The Christianization of Magic in the Legal Discourse of the Theodosian Code”


10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Joshua Ezra Burns (Yale): “Jewish Ethnicity, Christian Belief, and the Negotiation of Roman Civic Identity in the Provincial Near East”
Jenny Labendz (JTS): “Aquila and Bible Translation Among Jews and Christians”
Adam Gregerman (Columbia): “The Polemical Construction of the Jews as Outsiders in Early Christian Interpretations of the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple” Lunch 1:30-2:50 p.m.
Gus Grissom (U. Maryland): “Romanitas on the Red Sea: How a Legion ‘Romanized’ Ancient Ayla”
Justin Dombrowski (Columbia): “Were Rabbis Behind the Babatha’s Date-Crop Sale? A Re-examination in Light of Papyrological Data”


3-4:20 p.m.
Elizabeth Greene (UNC): “Between Romans and Barbarians” Representations of Auxiliary Soldiers in Rome”
Loren Spielman (JTS): “Playing Roman: Jewish Identity and Roman Games in Herodian Jerusalem”


4:30-5:30 Susanna Elm (UC Berkeley): Keynote Address

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Dying Gaul

Once again, I have been a bit derelict in posting as of late due to my many projects, the most important of which is my dissertation prospectus (of which some of you may have a copy and are proofreading at this very moment).

Instead of posting something substantive or related to recent developments in the study of religion or antiquity, however, I here present one of the most famous sculptures from ancient Rome, which, like many ancient Roman pieces of art, is actually a copy of a Greek original. It is the famous "Dying Gaul." It is an amazing piece of work, in which the vanquished foe is depicted with startling sympathy (one might compare, in stark contrast, the representation of vanquished nations at ancient Aphrodisias). I basically went to this particular museum in Rome just to see this statue.