In About-Face, English Dept. Re-Invites Anti-Israeli Poet

Dept. fears cancellation sent wrong message about free speech

Concerned about the message it was sending on free speech, the English department yesterday renewed the invitation it cancelled just one week ago to Tom Paulin, an award-winning Irish poet who has expressed violently anti-Israeli views.

English department chair Lawrence Buell said the department’s faculty met last night for two and a half hours and voted to re-invite Paulin. The vote, which was unanimous apart from two abstentions, marks a reversal of an earlier decision by a smaller group of English professors to cancel the speech.

A main factor in the decision, Buell wrote in an e-mail, was 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.”

University President Lawrence H. Summers, who said in a speech two months ago he is concerned that anti-semitism is on the rise in “progressive intellectual communities,” had conversations with English department faculty before Paulin’s invitation to deliver the annual Morris Gray Lecture was first cancelled.


According to The National Review, Summers said privately he was “horrified” that Paulin, who has called Israel a “historical obscenity,” had been invited to campus.

Facing protests from students, alumns and faculty, Buell announced last week that Paulin would not be coming to campus after all.


Then, last night, the department decided to re-invite Paulin.

“The meeting was patient, it was passionate, and it went to the heart of everything this—or any university—stands for,” said Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Jorie Graham.

Paulin, a renowned poet and Oxford lecturer who is currently teaching at Columbia University, has said that Brooklyn-born Jews who move to Israeli settlements in disputed territories “should be shot.”

His re-invitation is sure to ignite protest on campus.

“If this fellow is coming back to Harvard, we will be out there to give him the reception he deserves,” said Max P. Davis ’04, a member of Harvard Hillel’s Social Action Committee. “If he comes back and has his free speech, I’m sure I’ll have mine as well.”

Professor of English and American Literature and Language Peter M. Sacks cited a need for diverse ideas and viewpoints at Harvard as underlying the department’s decision.

“We felt that we wished to affirm our Constitutional and intellectual commitment to a vigorous and independent willingness to encounter and if necessary debate divergent points of view,” Sacks wrote in an e-mail, “and we therefore decided to renew the invitation.”

Buell also noted that the members of the English department who initially helped decide to cancel the talk “might have acted under a sense of pressure.”

At the time of the original decision, more than 100 students, alumns and faculty members were protesting anti-Israeli views expressed by Paulin.

Alan J. Stone, Harvard’s vice president for government, community and public affairs, said that as of last night, he was not aware of the English department’s decision, and that Summers had no comment.