Flip-Flop Not About Free Speech

What is most pernicious about the English department’s decision to re-invite poet Tom Paulin to Harvard is its representing that decision as a stand for freedom of speech. As a poet and a public agitator against Israel, Paulin has always enjoyed complete freedom of speech. He was free to publish and publicize his poem about a Palestinian child who, he alleges, was “gunned down by the Zionist SS” (the boy in question was probably killed by a Palestinian bullet and mendaciously turned into a poster-child of the Intifada). Paulin was free to to boast, “I never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all,” to advertise his sympathies for suicide bombers, to encourage terrorism, and even to incite to murder. The British government guaranteed his freedom of speech; the American government guarantees it while he is in this country. The Harvard English department can neither add to nor subtract from his right to say anything that he pleases.

The English department exercised its own freedom of speech by inviting Paulin to give an endowed lecture under its auspices. Precisely because Paulin is so very outspoken, no literate person could doubt what he stood for. The question at issue is therefore not free speech, but the faculty’s cultural taste and political priorities. Members of the English department decided to invite a speaker known for slandering the Jewish homeland: Had they not wanted a person so known, they would have invited someone else. If they then regretted their decision, they could have said so when they withdrew their invitation. Instead, they bowed first to one form of pressure and then to an evidently much greater one, trying to turn their flip-flop into a bold defense of principle.

Although members of the English faculty preen themselves in the Boston Globe for “standing strongly by the First Amendment,” their posture of defiance camouflages what is mere conformity with the prevailing norms of political correctness. The faculty would never have invited anyone who defames blacks, hispanics, women or homosexuals—the minorities currently under liberal protection. Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is quite the trend. The dramatization of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is currently primetime fare for much of the Arab and Muslim world, to the notable silence of the Harvard English department or any other Harvard department. Europe is enjoying a revival of the oldest hatred—though even some of Paulin’s British colleagues complain that he has gone somewhat overboard in his enthusiasm. And right here in America the latest form of campus protest is a unique petition campaign against Israel. No wonder inviting Paulin seemed like a safe call.

The choice was the English department’s to make, and may the shame of their endorsement follow them to the grave. But those who love freedom may also exercise their rights of free speech. All the hatred and calumny in the world cannot obscure the achievement of the state of Israel. The more others try to smear the citizens and aspirations of the Jewish state, the more its admirers are bound to proclaim its accomplishments. Israel has withstood thousands of terrorist attacks in the last two years—a situation Americans can hardly imagine—yet it sustains a democratic culture under conditions of siege that would long since have crushed and demoralized any lesser society.

Let those who value its justice, mercy and remarkable civilization sponsor tributes to Israel over the next several years, reminding all people of good will that democracy will prevail against even its most determined enemies. This is not a task for Jews only, but for everyone who prefers truth to falsehood, peace to terror. Free speech being one of democracy’s dearest privileges, we should use it to protect and honor those worthiest of our esteem.

Ruth R. Wisse is Peretz professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature.