It is fashionable among Americans to deride Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Columbia President Bollinger did in what I'm assuming was supposed to be an introduction. Instead he insulted Ahmadinejad by saying, "Mr President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." Some introduction!
Actually, Ahmadinejad is an intelligent man who came from a poor background and got his university education (including a PhD) and his start in the world from excelling on his university entrance exams. His rise to the top of Iranian society is a rags to riches story in which he got where he is due to innate talent and not political connections. He seems to truly want to engage in a dialog with the American people, but the American people, for the most part, are having none of it. They want to see the world in black and white terms. Everyone is either on our side or they're our enemies. This attitude can never bring about peace in the world or a resolution of the world's pressing problems.
Ahmadinejad has been widely criticized and reviled for making two statements: 1) that the holocaust never happened and 2) that the state of Israel should be wiped off the map. There is some doubt whether he made these statements in such stark terms. According to aljazeera.net what he said at Columbia was this:
Ahmadinejad rejected accusations that he has denied the Holocaust actually happened, but argued for more research to be conducted on the subject.
"I'm not saying that it didn't happen at all," he said. "I said, granted this happened, what does it have to do with the Palestinian people?"
Ahmadinejad has a point, but the real point is this: to deny something happened in the past or even to deny the earth is round, for example, is not something to be fought over. Everyone is free to believe what they want no matter how ridiculous unless their belief threatens an imminent negative action toward someone else. To believe the Holocaust never happened is not in and of itself a threat to the Jewish people or anyone else. One could quibble about the exact number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Some might say it was seven million; some might say it was 5 million. But so what? Is this something to fight over? I don't think so.
As for Ahmadinejad's other supposed quote - that Israel should be wiped off the map - there seems to be doubt he ever said that - at least in such stark terms. According to npr.org:
For instance, the view that the Holocaust either did not happen — or that it has been blown out of proportion — is not uncommon in Islamic countries. Many Islamic countries, including U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, do not recognize Israel. Ahmadinejad has been quoted as saying that Israel should be "wiped off the map," but some scholars say he was mistranslated while quoting the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who actually said "the regime that occupies Jerusalem should vanish from the pages of history."
Ahmadinejad claims not to be an anti-semite, but that the Jewish state of Israel has usurped Palestinian lands and is, therefore, illegal. It's certainly a debatable point, at least, to anyone who doesn't fervently believe that God gave the land in question to the Jews. What's holding up progress in resolving the situation is that too many people on both sides, including the Palestinians, fervently believe that God gave the land to them and no one else. This is the extremist position, one that will brook no compromise.
Here's what Ahmadinejad said at Columbia regarding the Jewish people:
We are friends of all the nations. We are also friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews in Iran living peacefully with security ... in our constitution and our laws and the parliamentary elections for every 150,000 people we get one representative in the parliament. For the Jewish community one-fifth of this number they still get one independent representative in the parliament... What we say is that to solve this 60-year problem, we must allow the Palestinian people to decide about its future for itself.
So to clarify Ahmadinejad's position, I think it's fair to say that he doesn't hate the Jewish people. He just thinks the Jewish state was formed in such a way as to deprive the Palestinians of their legal rights, a common position among Muslims in the Middle East and one which should at least be understood and heard in a respectful manner. The disrespect shown to Ahmadinejad in his appearance at Columbia by President Bollinger and others served no useful purpose. It didn't help the cause of peace, resolution of the Israel-Palestine problem or reconciliation among peoples of the world with different views from our own.