University forced to back down on censorship of British poet
By Harvey Thompson,
30 November 2002
On November 12, Harvard University cancelled a poetry reading by
the Oxford based poet and critic Tom Paulin, following pressure
from the universitys pro- Israel student lobby. The student
body objected to remarks Paulin had made denouncing the state of
Israel and supposedly designating US Jewish settlers on the West
Bank as fascists.
Paulin, a published poet and lecturer at Oxford who is teaching
at Columbia University, New York this semester, is well known to
BBC television audiences as a regular critic on late night review
He was due to give the Ivy League universitys prestigious
Morris Gray poetry reading on November 14. But a few days before
the event was due to take place, a cancellation and a public apology
for Paulins invitation were issued.
In an official statement, the chair of the universitys English
department, Lawrence Buell, said, By mutual consent of the
poet and the English department, the Morris Gray poetry reading
by Tom Paulin, originally scheduled for Thursday, November 14, will
not take place. The English department sincerely regret 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 Paulins lifetime accomplishments as a poet.
In April this year Paulin was quoted in the Egyptian newspaper,
Al-Ahram Weekly, on the subject of American-born Jewish settlers,
as saying; I think they are Nazis, racists. I feel nothing
but hatred for them. He was also quoted as saying that such
territorially vicious elements should be shot dead.
Paulin refutes the veracity of the Egyptian report. He explained
in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, that his views had been distorted.
He said; I do not support attacks on Israeli civilians under
any circumstances. I am in favour of the current efforts to achieve
a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a separate interview for the BBC, Paulin had said; My
quoted remarks completely misrepresent my real views. For that I
In the Al-Ahram piece Paulin is reported as attacking liberal defenders
of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. He said he had utter
contempt for the Hampstead [fashionable middle class
district of north London] liberal Zionists who use this
card of anti-Semitism against Israels critics. They
fill newspapers with hate letters. They are useless people.
He clearly stated his position on the Zionists; You are either
a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, everyone who supports Israel is a
On the creation of the state of Israel, he went on to say; I
never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all ... In
my view the European culture carries a very heavy responsibility
for the creation of Israel... it is a product of both British and
Stalins anti-Semitism, but the British never faced their own
complicity in its construction.
Paulin said that he thought the majority of British people supported
the Palestinians. The problem, though, was that there is no way
of articulating this support. This sympathy is not translated
into force against the British government because it is not like
the anti-Apartheid movement which had a high profile here and Mandela
is a more engaging figure than Yasser Arafat, he said.
Paulin continued; I think protest and actions have to be
organised against the Israelis and their backers. There needs to
be a concerted high profile campaign to raise awareness of the people
in this country. He also said that the Palestinians had to
meet force with force. They have to be cunning and forceful.
Last year, Paulin resigned from the Labour Party after denouncing
the Blair government as a Zionist government. He explained
at the time, Sixty members of the Labour party went on friendly
visits to Israel. Blairs special envoy to the Middle East,
Lord Levy, has a son who works for the Israeli government, which
means that it is linked in all kinds of ways to the Zionist government
Paulin has also gone on record to describe Israel as an ahistoric
state ... a state created by the powerful nations somewhere else.
It is an artificial state.
The pro-Israel lobby drew attention to a line from one of Paulins
poems, Killed in the Crossfire, which was published in the Observer
newspaper last year. Writing during a particularly ferocious onslaught
by the Israeli state into the Occupied Territories, he sought to
capture the brutality of the Israeli army against Palestinian youth.
The line that so offended a 100 or so students and faculty members
went; Another little Palestinian boy/ in trainers jeans and
a white tee-shirt/ is gunned down by the Zionist SS.
One of the chief organisers of the student protest, Rita Goldberg,
who informed the English department of Paulins comments, said;
I was very reluctant to do this, but I think that Tom Paulin
has crossed the line. Free speech is one thing, hate speech is another
... I think anti-Semitism is on the rise, and Tom Paulin must be
quite confused about his relationship to Jews.
The undergraduate president of Harvard Hillel, Benjamin Solomon-Schwartz,
said he was gladdened by the universitys decision as he felt
Paulins comments had crossed the line between opinion and
The co-chairman of the Harvard Palestine solidarity committee,
Erol Gulay, while calling Paulins comments offensive
and extremist, went on to warn of the dangerous precedent
being set. Its a blow for academic freedom and free
speech said Gulay. Its bad for the free exchange
of ideas, which is what a university is all about. If he cant
come speak at a university, where can he speak?
One of Paulins Columbia colleagues, Jim Shapiro, said of
Harvards actions, I say this as somebody who is a Zionist,
who teaches Jewish studies, who has opposed petitions on my campus
for the university to divest from Israel. The idea of rescinding
an invitation because somebody has not passed a political litmus
test establishes a very dangerous precedent. Do I think that Tom
said a stupid thing? Absolutely, and I know few people who havent
said stupid things. Do I think Tom is an anti-Semite? I can say
from extensive discussions with him on the Middle East that he isnt.
These students have an absolute right to heckle Tom Paulin, but
they do not have the right to force the university to rescind the
In the last few days Harvard University voted to re-invite
Paulin to give his recital, barely a week after he was officially
banned. English department academics voted to overturn the decision,
with Buell having to perform the verbal u-turn; Out of widespread
concern and regret for the fact that the decision not to hold the
event could easily be seen, and indeed has been seenboth within
Harvard and beyondas an unjustified breach of the principle
of free speech within the academy.
For the past two years the Sharon government of Israel has led
a brutal and bloody war of attrition against a defenceless and impoverished
peoples. Not only have Israels actions failed to stir even
a ripple of protest from the major powers and most media outlets,
but it is backed to the hilt militarily and politically by the US.
At the same time Israel has continued, even stepped up, the provocative
building of new Jewish settlements on the Occupied Territories.
The land which was seized from the Palestinians is being used by
the government to house a highly privileged and ultra-reactionary
layer of expatriates. It was to this cosseted elite of religious
fundamentalists and right-wing extremists that Paulin was referring,
no doubt at the same time recalling the old Protestant ascendancy
in his native Belfast.
Paulins poem Killed in the Crossfire is worth examining in
We are fed this inert
This lying phrase
Like comfort food
As another little Palestinian boy
In trainers jeans and a white tee-shirt
Is gunned down by the Zionist SS
Whose initials we should
but we dont dumb goys
Clock in that weasel word
Paulin, in any case, is not a politician but a poet, who should
normally be allowed greater license in his use of terminology by
anyone not seeking to malign him as a racist.
Attempts are already being made to sweep the controversy under
the carpet. Following the re-invite Shapiro said, Nobody was
defending what Tom Paulin saideveryone was defending his right
to say it, and I think it took a few days for Harvards English
faculty to come to that conclusion. But they did, they acted impressively
and this is past history now.
Wishful thinking perhaps? The recent decision by Harvard will have
implications for Vermont University, which had also cancelled an
invitation to Paulin shortly after Harvards initial decision.
Moreover, an indication that this is not the end of the matter is
shown by the comments of Max Davis, a member of the pro-Israel group
at the university. He told the universitys Crimson newspaper
that he and his co-thinkers will be out there to give him
[Paulin] the reception he deserves. If he comes back and has his
free speech, Im sure Ill have mine as well.