Updated: Nov. 21, 2002
Harvard's English department had invited Tom Paulin, the Oxford poet who has called for the slaughter of U.S. Jews in Israel's disputed territories, to deliver its annual Morris Gray Lecture on November 14, 2002. Less than 24 hours after an article I wrote assailing the invitation appeared in The National Review Online, the lecture was canceled.
Here's the announcement from Lawrence Buell from Harvard's English department:
By mutual consent of the poet and the English Department, the Morris Gray poetry reading by Tom Paulin, originally scheduled for Thursday, November 14th, will not take place. The English Department sincerely regret [sic] the widespread consternation that has arisen as a result of this invitation, which had been originally decided on last winter solely on the basis of Mr. Paulin's lifetime accomplishments as a poet.
Now Harvard has reversed its decision and reinvited Paulin. Buell cites the "widespread concern and regret for the fact that the decision not to hold the event could easily be seen, and indeed has been seen -- both within Harvard and beyond -- as an unjustified breach of the principle of free speech within the academy."
This, of course, is nonsense. As long as he's in America, Paulin is entitled to exercise his right of free speech, but Harvard is under no obligation to provide him a forum, let alone honor him with an award. In its coverage of the cancellation last week, the Harvard Crimson reported, somewhat ungrammatically, that "the English department says that they were unaware of Paulin's views when they decided to invite him last winter." Now they are aware of his views and have invited him anyway. All the cant about free speech notwithstanding, one cannot escape the conclusion that Harvard's English department views the advocacy of anti-Semitic violence as a respectable point of view.
Here’s what all the hullabaloo is about:
Earlier this year Paulin, who lectures in 19th- and 20th-century English literature at Oxford University, told the influential Egyptian paper al-Ahram Weekly that what he described as "Brooklyn-born" Jewish settlers should be "shot dead." He said: "They should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them." He added: "I can understand how suicide bombers feel... I think attacks on civilians in fact boost morale."
Paulin, who has regularly declared that Israel has no right to exist, and recently resigned from Britain's ruling Labour party on the grounds that Tony Blair was heading a "Zionist government," is no doubt entitled to his opinion. But that Harvard University's English department, whose faculty members include such luminaries as Nobel-prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, had decided to single Paulin out for honor and provide him with a platform from which to influence the young, is another matter altogether.
While in general, formal boycotts (even of those who espouse hatred and murder) are undesirable, this invitation was not appropriate. As one dissenting faculty member told me yesterday, "We don't have to invite the Ku Klux Klan to tea either."
THE ZIONIST SS?
However, this is not just the equivalent of, for example, Harvard inviting a mathematician who happens to belong to the Ku Klux Klan, to give a lecture on mathematics. Paulin's political and racial views are integral to at least parts of his work. One poem he wrote demonizing Jews, titled "Killed in Crossfire," was published by The Observer, the highly regarded British Sunday sister paper of the Guardian as their poem of the week in February 2001. (In the poem, Paulin suggested that the Israeli army, whom he refers to as the "Zionist SS," deliberately gunned down "little Palestinian boys.")
Like many bigots, if we take Paulin at face value, he seems to genuinely be in denial about his own prejudice. "I am a philo-semite," he declared in an interview with the Daily Telegraph earlier this year.
Yet even the Guardian -- certainly no friend of Israel -- has run editorials accusing Paulin of anti-Semitism. In a piece titled "Can Tom Paulin be serious?" (Guardian, April 17, 2002) Rod Liddle implies he is referring to Paulin when he uses the Arabic description for a "naive, deluded, self-righteous, egregious bigot."
Liddle adds: "The Paulin business shook me out of my Wasp-ish complacency. I'd been inclined to dismiss as paranoid repeated complaints from British Jews that there was a new mood of anti-Semitism abroad: I was wrong. Paulin will undoubtedly claim that his remarks are not anti-Semitic, but merely anti-Zionist. He may even believe that himself. So might the others, generally from the left, who, when cross-examined about their opposition to what they call Zionism, reveal a dark and visceral loathing of Jews."
SILENT WHEN HEBREW UNIVERSITY WAS BOMBED
British and other academics have been conspicuous by their lack of criticism of Paulin, just as they were conspicuous by their lack of condemnation when the cafeteria at Jerusalem's Hebrew University -- the leading institute of higher education in the Middle East -- was blown up in July, and several students and academics killed.
As the Daily Telegraph reported, "Several Oxford fellows said yesterday that they had received emails from an American academic urging the English Faculty to replace Mr. Paulin, but they said they had deleted the message seconds later."
It is highly unlikely that Paulin's colleagues would have remained so silent had he incited people to murder blacks, homosexuals, or anybody else other than Americans and Jews.
Oxford University has taken no action against Paulin, not even a reprimand, even though Paulin is actually in violation of British law. The Terrorism Act 2000, section 59, states: "A person commits an offence if he incites another person to commit an act of terrorism wholly or partly outside the United Kingdom." The first such "act of terrorism" cited is murder. Moreover, the act states that "it is immaterial whether or not the person incited is in the United Kingdom at the time of the incitement."
Indeed, despite Paulin's views, his "star billing" continues to rise. So enamored of the "trendy" British poet and academic are the members of one reasonably successful British rock band (from the northern town of Blackburn), that they have called themselves "Tompaulin."
BBC television continues to invite Paulin as one of its regular commentators on the arts. (One can only guess at the BBC's reaction if his remarks had been directed at British Pakistanis rather than at American Jews.)
To al-Ahram, Paulin is that "rare thing in contemporary British culture, 'the writer as conscience.'" Some Europeans apparently agree. A. N. Wilson, a novelist and columnist for the Daily Telegraph and (London) Evening Standard, has leaped to Paulin's defense, and noted that "many in this country and throughout the world would echo his views on the tragic events in the Middle East."
Wilson, who also recently said he had "reluctantly" concluded Israel no longer had a right to exist, argued that Jews escaping Hitler (who Wilson says were lucky to have been allowed into a free country like Britain) should not be so "un-British" as to suppress Paulin's views or to "pretend that they are criminal merely because some people find them offensive."
With or without the Harvard lecture, Paulin is anyway enjoying a prominent post in American academia. He is teaching this semester at Columbia University.