THE SOUND OF SILENCE
...Earlier this month, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad, took the stage at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum. Columbia students are fortunate to have access to a wide range of speakers, brought to promote the free exchange of ideas and create a thoughtful, intellectually-challenging environment. I was however critical of Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s invitation. Mohamad is a self-avowed antisemite. As an active member of the thriving Jewish community at Columbia, I felt that it was my responsibility to attend his speech, to ensure that his antisemitism would not go unchallenged. But when this avowed antisemite spoke, the response to his hate speech was shocking. It was shockingly silent.
When controversial speakers are brought to campus, they are reliably met with a barricade of student resistance. Not this time. Inside, just a regular audience of unfamiliar faces of nearly 200 students and faculty eagerly awaited the prime minister’s remarks.
The program began with a perfunctory, and quickly forgotten, acknowledgment of the prime minister’s controversial reputation. As the Q&A portion began, students quickly ran to the microphones to ask about issues of global concern. Eventually, a Jewish student rose to demand that Mohamad address his history of Holocaust denial and antisemitism. I watched as all eyes turned attentively to both the questioner and the prime minister, as Mohamad proudly declared, “[if] you cannot be antisemitic, then there is no more free speech.” He continued to deflect the question and avoided repudiating his past antisemitic comments, while asserting that Holocaust numbers, like any statistic, can be fabricated.
The response? Polite inaction. The moderator, Professor Lien-Hang Nguyen, did not challenge or question his hate speech. She sat there in deferential silence.
As one of the few Jewish students at Columbia who heard Mohamad speak, I was overwhelmed with crippling loneliness, watching Nguyen sit quietly while the Mohamad taunted us with his antisemitism. Indeed, the prime minister has the right to free speech, even antisemitic speech, but it is simultaneously our right and responsibility, to fight against it.
This is where the Columbia community is failing. The quiet acceptance of Holocaust denial and Jew hatred sends an alarming message that hate speech has a place in the university....