Why I ... think Harvard University should stand up to Tom Paulin

November 22, 2002

The decision by Harvard University's English department to cancel a November 14 reading by Tom Paulin came suddenly and was reversed as suddenly. Apparently no one at Harvard knew about his remarks on Israel or about Killed in the Crossfire , the poem he had published in The Observer . In fact, few people had heard of him at all.

This worried me. I didn't like the idea that Paulin could come to read from his latest work and that people like me could attend in good faith, only to find out later that they might have preferred to protest, perhaps by absenting themselves. Ignorance did not seem a good reason to let Paulin slip in, read unchallenged and slip out.

Over the weekend, I brought his comments to the attention of the English department in email messages to the chairman, and in a long phone call to the professor who had originally invited Paulin. The professors were shocked at the disclosures about Paulin. I suggested two possible routes: one, withdrawing the invitation (I considered this the more radical and unlikely option); or two, informing the people on the original email list about Paulin's remarks so that they could make up their own minds about whether to attend. Neither of these actions was taken. The next day, friends contacted the press and I sent a letter to students and some faculty, in which I suggested that they could write to the English department and stay away from the reading. On Monday the press picked up the story and the department was flooded with letters. On Tuesday, to my surprise, the department cancelled the event, scheduled for two days later. On November 20, the department announced that it would reinvite Paulin.

I am not a member of the English department and don't know how the first decision was reached, but I can still defend it. The Morris Gray reading might be distinguished from an ordinary seminar where a visiting speaker puts forth views and participates in open debate. Had Paulin come specifically to discuss issues in the Middle East, I would have opposed cancellation. But Paulin was invited at the discretion of the department, as an honour, to give a named lecture. He would have read from his new work, The Invasion Handbook , and the subject of his inflammatory remarks would probably not have been raised. At a private university, it is perfectly legitimate to withdraw an invitation if circumstances dictate. Paulin doesn't have a right to be invited to Harvard, any more than I have a right to be invited to Oxford. He continues to have the right to speak and to publish generally, and readers continue to have the right to read his poetry.

Some in the press have described Paulin's remarks as "stupid", and therefore excusable. But surely a public person, a poet whose business is words, is not being "stupid" when he calls in the media for the shooting of Jewish settlers and uses terms such as "dumb goy", "weasel" and "Zionist SS" in a poem on the Israeli army. This is not private but public speech, not stupid but vicious. Hate speech is uttered with intent, not in error, and flattens discussion rather than encouraging it. Paulin's remarks, at a time of growing violence against Jews, crossed the line between argument and incitement. Most democratic societies, even the most open, have laws against that.

Because of the debate over cancellation, Paulin's reinstatement will, I expect, be noisier than his original reading would have been - a good thing. He is a fine poet whose work is learned, subtle and often even sympathetic toward Jews. I wonder that such a writer does not recognise the complexity of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, but has instead used hateful, simplistic invective from the lexicon of anti-Semitism in his public statements. He has a golden opportunity to explain himself now and to apologise for the pain his remarks have caused.

Rita Goldberg is a literature lecturer at Harvard University.


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