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  Vol. 3  /  April 2004                      A JOURNAL OF POLITICS AND THE ARTS      


Tom Paulin: Poetaster of Murder

Edward Alexander

If your interlocutor can’t keep Hitler out of the conversation, ...feverishly turning Jews into Nazis and Arabs into Jews – why then, I think, you may well be talking to an anti-Jewist.

Conor Cruise OBrien,
The Jerusalem Post, July 6, 1982


We are fed this inert / This lying phrase / Like comfort food / As another little Palestinian boy / In trainers jeans and a white teeshirt / Is gunned down by the Zionist SS / Whose initials we should / – but we don’t – dumb goys / Clock in that weasel word / Crossfire.

Tom Paulin, Killed in the Crossfire”,
The London Observer
, February 18, 2001.

George Orwell once posed the question of whether we have the right to expect common decency from minor poets. The prominence of Tom Paulin, whose verse fluctuates between political doggerel and free verse of the sort that reminded Robert Frost of “playing tennis with the net down”, in the literary, cultural, and academic life of contemporary Britain, makes that question as compelling as ever it was. Paulin is a lecturer in nineteenth and twentieth-century English literature at Oxford University’s Hertford College, an institution whose famous past members include William Tyndale, Thomas Hobbes, and Charles James Fox. He is a regular on the BBC2 arts program Newsnight Review and a nearly inescapable presence on that network’s literary/cultural programming, including TV criticism and “The Late Show”. (As a sign of respect for his cultural authority, one British rock band has named itself “Tompaulin.”) His increasing influence in progressive circles in Britain – this despite (or perhaps because of) his involvement in IRA politics – helps to explain why England’s “learned classes” are in the forefront of European efforts to paint Israel as the devil’s own experiment station, the major obstacle to world peace. 

As a literary critic, Paulin’s chief distinction has been the aggressive politicizing of literature. He has viewed the work of D.H. Lawrence through the prism of “post-colonialism”, a pseudo-scholarly enterprise whose primary aim is the delegitimization of Israel; he thought Emily Dickinson an important poet because she criticized “mercantile values”; in an essay on T.S. Eliot he sternly warned that “Hate poems are offensive” and took it upon himself to accuse a host of critics (including Denis Donoghue) of “complicity” in Eliot’s anti-Semitism because they had discussed his poetry without mentioning it. In this failure to recognize that although politics may be “in” everything, not everything is politics, and that to see politics everywhere empties politics of meaning, Paulin was not much different from countless other academic insurrectionaries in the English departments. But when he found that the excitement of showing oneself politically superior to writers of the past was transitory, Paulin turned to “action”.

Perpetually intoxicated – by the sound of his own extremism – Paulin persuaded himself that an Indian student for whom he served as “moral tutor” at Hertford College had been discriminated against by an Israeli professor of Islamic philosophy and Arabic at Oxford’s Oriental Institute. In October 2000 the student, one Nadeem Ahmed, went to court to charge Fritz Zimmermann (of St. Cross College) with “discouraging” him, calling him “stupid”, and being “biased”. Since Paulin belongs to that sizable community of academics who would be rendered virtually speechless if deprived of the epithet “racist,” he leapt into the fray, making 200 phone calls (none to Zimmermann) on behalf of his protege, to proctors, deans, and his numerous friends in the news media. He made a particular point of alleging that Zimmermann was “bunged off to Israel to get out of the way”. When Judge Playford, QC, of Reading County Court, dismissed the case on April 23, 2002, he made a point of saying that “Dr. Zimmermann was not in any way motivated by race,” that “neither Mr. Ahmed nor Mr. Paulin honestly thought there was any racial element in the complaint,” and rebuked Paulin for “mischievously” making “cryptic” phone calls threatening to charge various university officials with “racism” and to initiate “legal action and unfavourable publicity”. The judge also pointed out that Paulin’s abstruse research into Zimmermann’s ethnic and national identity was flawed: Zimmermann was neither Jewish nor Israeli, but a German Gentile.

The court’s judgment was, as it happened, handed down about ten days after Paulin made his most ambitious bid for world fame (and perhaps martyrdom at the hands of the implacable Jews).

He told an interviewer for the Cairo weekly paper, Al-Ahram, that he abhorred Brooklyn-born Jewish “settlers” and believed “they should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.” He added, for good measure, that he had quit the Labor Party because Tony Blair presides over “a Zionist government” and that he had “never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all”. Since the preferred form of Arab Jew-killing at the time of the April 2002 interview was suicide bombing rather than “shooting dead”, Paulin indicated that, of course, he could “understand how suicide bombers feel”; his only objection to this particular form of murdering Jews was a strategic one: guerrilla warfare, he suggested to Palestinian Arabs needful of advice on the subject, would be more effective because direct attacks on civilians might create a sense of solidarity among Israelis.  

Paulin’s unambiguous incitement to raw murder was clearly in violation of British law. The Terrorism Act 2000, section 59, states: “A person commits an offence if he incites another person to commit an act of terrorism wholly or partly outside the United is immaterial whether or not the person incited is in the United Kingdom at the time of the incitement.” Once upon a time – and this long before there was such a thing as the Terrorism Act – incitement to murder was a serious offense in England. For example, in 1881 Johann Most was tried in Britain merely because his newspaper, Freiheit, exulted (after the fact) in the assassination of the Czar. Most was found guilty of libel and incitement to murder, and sentenced to 16 months of hard labor – a sentence deemed “merciful” because Most was a foreigner and “might be suffering violent wrong”. (The episode lurks in the background of Henry James’ novel, The Princess Casamassima [1885-86].) In fact, Most should have been kept in jail much longer; after finishing his term, he moved to America, where he was imprisoned for inciting the assassin of President McKinley.

But Paulin uttered his call for the murder of Jews living in Judea and Samaria with complete impunity. Oxford University said it was launching an investigation into his comments; and the Board of Deputies of British Jews threatened to prosecute Paulin in accord with the provisions of the Terrorism Act. Exactly why the British Home Secretary left the matter to be pursued (not very tenaciously, as it turned out) by private parties remains a mystery. Can one imagine a prominent British figure calling for the shooting “dead” of any other ethnic or national group – Pakistani Muslims, let us say, or Palestinian Arabs – and escaping prosecution, to say nothing of dismissal by his assorted employers, ranging from Oxford University to the “respected” (but not very respectable) BBC?

For decades, and especially since the June 1967 war, it has been a necessary if wearisome task to point out that a person need not directly advocate the murder of Jews in order to qualify as an anti-Semite. Yet here was somebody explicitly advocating that certain Jews be shot dead; and endless foolish debates ensued, on both sides of the Atlantic, about whether it was permissible to label the advocate an antisemite, or whether incitement to murder constituted “hate speech”, or whether Paulin should be invited (or disinvited or reinvited) to deliver a lecture or to recite his wretched poems.

Indeed, Paulin himself made it clear that he was not to be labelled an anti-Semite merely because he had advocated killing Jews and denying Israel the “right to exist”, as if it were his privilege to decide whether the Jews or the Jewish state had a “right” to exist. Paulin not only declared himself a “philo-Semite”, thereby confusing those who do not know that in Paulin’s circles this is far more likely to mean love of everything Arab than of anything Jewish. He also took to the welcoming pages of the venomously anti-Israel London Review of Books in January 2003 with a 133-line poem called “On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card”. Here he spews forth, along with numerous incoherent and apoplectic utterances on the Crusades, on Joseph de Maistre, on the Enlightenment, on Christian fundamentalism, his extreme dissatisfaction with being called an anti-Semite: “the program though / of saying Israel’s critics / are tout court anti-Semitic / is designed daily by some schmuck / to make you shut the fuck up.” Without quite intending to do so, the terminally obtuse Paulin, in his most touching and beautiful language, thus confirms the assertion that “criticism of Israeli policy” is almost always a leftist euphemism for “advocating destruction of Israel and murder of its citizens”.

Not a few readers now returned to Paulin’s February 2001 scribblings on Israel, quoted above, and noticed that their key phrase of ironically flattering self-mockery about being deceived by the wily Zionists came from none other than Hitler himself. In a passage from  Mein Kampf  familiar to every student of this subject, Hitler wrote: “While the Zionists try to make the rest of the world believe that the national consciousness of the Jew finds its satisfaction in the creation of a Palestinian state, the Jews again slyly dupe the dumb Goyim.” Did Paulin write “dumb goys” out of genuine illiteracy or out of a desire to conceal his source?

The publicity generated by the two British scandals in which Paulin became embroiled was, however, as nothing compared with what followed in America. In November 2002, Paulin, by this time a visiting professor in the English Department of Columbia University, was invited to be the Morris Gray lecturer at Harvard by its English department. At about the same time, rumors circulated that Columbia was considering a permanent appointment for him there – perhaps because its English department’s most famous member, the late Edward Said, had lauded Paulin for being a “reader of almost fanatical scrupulosity”.

Just how Paulin got himself invited to Harvard or Columbia in the first place remains a mystery. John Bradley, writing for the Arab News (November 18, 2002) suggested that “it was almost certainly [Seamus] Heaney himself who invited Paulin to give the lecture [at Harvard].” According to one student of Irish literary culture whom I consulted, “Heaney may have owed Paulin a large debt of gratitude: an old rumor had it that Heaney was in some sort of trouble with the IRA (for distancing himself from Irish politics) and needed a friend with bona-fide Irish credentials.”

But then English departments are notoriously susceptible to the lure of extremist political views, especially if they have the leftist stamp of approval on them.

At Harvard the dispute over Paulin became one about free speech or hate speech or (perhaps) the constitutional right of a British subject to have an endowed lectureship bestowed on him.

After a storm of criticism, the English faculty, with the blessing of Harvard president Lawrence Summers, rescinded its invitation to Paulin. But then Harvard’s civil liberties absolutists weighed in on behalf of Paulin’s “right” to lecture, and the English faculty reinvited him. Some urged that he should be encouraged to speak because they were confident that his egregious stupidity would expose him to deserved ridicule and keep him from wallowing in the (painless) martyrdom he sought.

The deeper significance of the Paulin affair was revealed, unintentionally to be sure, by Columbia’s James Shapiro, a professor of English, the author of a book on Shakespeare and the Jews, and one of the most ardent defenders of Columbia’s decision to embrace Paulin. Casting his mind’s eye over Paulin’s oral and written remarks about shooting Jews dead and destroying their country, Shapiro declared that these remarks “did not step over the line”. Apparently Shapiro’s dividing line is like the receding horizon; he walks towards it, but can never reach it. And so the real question – which was not whether or not Paulin should be reciting poems at Harvard or tutoring students (morally or academically) at Columbia but whether or not he should be in prison – was almost entirely ignored. Public discourse about Jews and Israel has now crossed a threshhold; the dividing line between the permissible and the possible has been erased. In the months following the Paulin affair, publications that had long been hostile to Israel did, in more “civilized” and literate form, what Paulin had already done in his unkempt Yahoo style: they moved from strident criticism of Israel to apologias for anti-Semitic violence and calls for the dissolution of the country. The liberal Berkeley historian Martin Jay in  Salmagundi (Winter/Spring 2003) merely blamed Jews for “causing” the “new” anti-Semitism; the liberal journalist Paul Krugman in The New York Times (October 21, 2003) went a step further by “explaining” (away) the Malaysian Mahathir Mohamad’s regurgitation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as “anti-Semitism with a Purpose”; and then the liberal historian Tony Judt outdid both of them in The New York Review of Books (October 23, 2003) by calling – no doubt to the general satisfaction of the readers of that Women’s Wear Daily of the American left – for the end of the State of Israel as the panacea for the world’s ills. Tom Paulin may have failed to get himself a permanent academic appointment in America, but he helped American liberalism to redefine itself, in this age of suicide bombing, as an accessory to murder.

*   Black’s Law Dictionary defines “accessory” as it is used in criminal law as follows:

Contributing to or aiding in the commission of a crime. One who, without being present at the commission of a felonious offense, becomes guilty of such offense, not as a chief actor, but as a participator, as by command, advice, instigation, or concealment; either before or after the fact of commission.