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.