Move to bar anti-Israel views as anti-Semitic fails at Harvard

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Thu Nov 21 03:56:12 MST 2002

The attempt by Harvard University officials to stigmatize opposition to
Israel as anti-Semitism hit a snag in this case.  Now the meeting for this
Irish poet, who expressed completely justified hatred of the savage
oppression of the Palestinians, needs to be defended against rightist
Fred Feldman

Poet Who Spoke Against Israel Is Reinvited to Talk at Harvard
Citing concerns about freedom of speech, Harvard University's English
department has renewed an invitation to the Irish poet Tom Paulin to give a
lecture, just a week after he was disinvited for expressing strongly
anti-Israeli views.

The new invitation, approved in a vote on Tuesday night, drew sharply
differing responses from faculty members and students at Harvard, which has
been troubled by heated debates and demonstrations about Israel in the past
year. Some expressed relief, saying the university had crossed the line by
disinviting a poet because of his political views. Others were outraged and
said the decision would lead to renewed protests.

"I hope that those who choose to attend the planned reading will respect the
rights of those who wish to hear the speaker," Harvard's president, Lawrence
H. Summers, said yesterday in a statement
Mr. Paulin's invitation was rescinded on Nov. 12 after students, faculty
members and alumni expressed outrage about comments Mr. Paulin made to an
Egyptian newspaper in April. He said Brooklyn-born Jews who had settled in
the West Bank "should be shot dead," adding, "I think they are Nazis,
racists; I feel nothing but hatred for them."

Mr. Paulin did not respond to messages left at Columbia University, where he
is a visiting faculty member this fall, but he has said that his views have
been distorted and that he does not support attacks on Israeli citizens
under any circumstances.
Mr. Summers released an approving statement after the invitation was
rescinded. But the decision to disinvite Mr. Paulin prompted a rebuke from
three professors at Harvard Law School: Alan M. Dershowitz, Laurence H.
Tribe and Charles Fried.
In a joint letter published in The Harvard Crimson, they wrote that
rescinding the invitation simply because it would be divisive was a "truly
dangerous" precedent.

Mr. Paulin is likely to accept the invitation, said James Shapiro, a
professor at Columbia who knows him. Faculty members at Harvard expressed a
variety of responses to the English department's decision.

"The purpose of a university is to see a variety of points of view," said
Patrick Cavanagh, a psychology professor who signed a petition calling for
Harvard to divest from companies doing business in Israel. "Here's a man
who's a wonderful poet, and if his politics are more controversial, that's
really beside the point."
Jay M. Harris, a professor of Jewish studies, called the invitation
unconscionable. "Nobody is stopping him from exercising his First Amendment
rights," he said. "But an invitation from Harvard is different. We wouldn't
invite David Duke to speak."
For some, Mr. Paulin's political statements is complicated by his history of
linking literature and politics. Mr. Paulin, who grew up in Belfast, has
criticized the poet Philip Larkin as racist, and in a review several years
ago wrote approvingly of a book that criticized T. S. Eliot as anti-Semitic.

For some of Mr. Paulin's defenders, remarks like that prove that his
rhetorical attacks on Israel are not anti-Semitic. Others say Mr. Paulin had
simply invoked a standard that could and should be used against him.
"You can't say both things at the same time without there being a paradox,"
said Rita Goldberg, a lecturer on literature at Harvard, referring to Mr.
Paulin's earlier critiques of anti-Semitism and his comments about Israel.

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