The English Department yesterday cancelled a reading by a controversial poet after more than 100 students, alumni and faculty protested his vehement anti-Israeli views.
Tom Paulin, a Northern Irish poet and lecturer at Hertford College, Oxford, was to deliver the annual Morris Gray Lecture tomorrow evening.
He had planned to read from and speak about his new book, “The Invasion Handbook,” the first installment of an epic poem about World War II.
The controversy that led to the event’s cancellation stems from the extreme pro-Palestinian views that Paulin has expressed in interviews and one poem.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly last April, the English-language edition of a leading Cairo newspaper, Paulin questioned Israel’s right to exist, and called the Israeli state “a historical obscenity.” The newspaper praised him as a voice of international support of the Palestinian cause.
Particularly offensive were his remarks about Brooklyn-born Jews who move to Israeli settlements in disputed territories. “They should be shot,” he told Al-Ahram. “I think they are Nazis, racists. I have nothing but hatred for them.”
According to English Department Chair Lawrence Buell, these views only appear once in his poetry.
In his poem “Killed in the Crossfire,” he describes a Palestinian boy being gunned down by the Israeli military, which he calls the “Zionist S.S.”
The English department says that they were unaware of Paulin’s views when they decided to invite him last winter.
“Mr. Paulin was invited solely on the basis of his accomplishment and standing as a major Irish poet,” Buell wrote in an e-mail. “From an artistic standpoint, his work, overall, seems to measure up to the standard of other Morris Gray poets.”
Though Paulin’s remarks and frequent British TV appearances have created controversy at Oxford over the past few months, little was known in the United States about his work and views.
Rita Goldberg, a lecturer on Literature who had been familiar with his work, began gathering a protest as soon as Paulin’s lecture was announced last week.
Goldberg sent out an e-mail to her students encouraging them not to attend the lecture, and asking them to contact the English department to protest the speech.
“Under rules instituted by the Rudenstine Administration, students are entitled to an environment free of racism, hostility and threatening speech,” she wrote. “An audience is oxygen to a poet, and the most effective way of showing your feelings is to deprive him of air.”
The controversy escalated after the Wall Street Journal published an article on Monday that described his anti-Israeli views and criticized Harvard for hosting him.
As word spread of the article and Paulin’s controversial views through the University via various e-mail lists, protest mounted against the lecture.
Between 100 and 120 people, mainly undergraduates, e-mailed and called the department to protest the reading, according to Buell. They decried Paulin’s views as hate speech, and said the Department should not give a forum to those who advocate violence and racism.
According to a Monday article on the National Review’s website, University President Lawrence H. Summers, who earlier this fall denounced anti-semitism in the form of anti-Israeli statements on college campuses, has said privately that he was “horrified” by the invitation. Summers has made no public statement.
The English department wanted to address the protester’s concerns, but was concerned about abridging free speech.
“Our initial reaction to the first protests was that rescinding the invitation might compound the problem by incurring counter-charges of censorship,” he wrote.
On Monday, without consulting Paulin, they decided that the event would continue, but that after the reading, there would be “a forum that challenged the speaker on the subject of the permissible limits of free speech,” Buell wrote in an e-mail.
Yesterday, however, the English Department and Paulin decided together to cancel the speech.
“We suggested cancellation when it became fully clear to us that Mr. Paulin’s visit was likely to produce undue consternation and divisiveness,” Buell said. “Let me add that Mr. Paulin readily and graciously agreed.”
The protesters said they are satisfied with the resolution.
“I think that the English department was genuinely unwitting, and that they acted responsibly in the situation,” Goldberg said.
Other students, however, felt that not allowing Paulin to speak was an affront to free speech, and would hinder on-campus dialogue about the conflict. Buell received a small number of e-mails protesting the cancellation.
“Even though he might have extremist opinions, I was disappointed by cancellation. I think it’s a matter of free speech.” said Erol N. Gulay ’05, co-founder of the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee.
“It is healthy to have a dialogue.”
“I think it is a shame he didn’t get to come,” said Theresa A. Botello ’03, an English concentrator. “It would have been interesting to see a point of view that you don’t get in the U.S.”
Joshua A. Barro ’05, a member of Harvard Students for Israel, disagreed.
“What he was saying was not part of intelligent debate about Israel,” Barro said. He added that Paulin was “not merely anti-Israel or anti-occupation of territories. What he was saying is settlers ought to be shot.”
Paulin is the recipient of several awards, including the Somerset Maugham award.
He has denied accusations of Anti-Semitism in a letter to London’s Daily Telegraph, and has said that he supports peace process in the Middle East.
“Elsewhere, he has spoken out against anti-semitism, for instance, unlikely though that may seem from what has lately been circulated,” Buell said.