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January 07, 2003

In the matter of Tom Paulin's opinions about Israel, why discuss their legitimacy when we can discuss their stupidity?
Tom Paulin's opinions about Israel

In the matter of Tom Paulin's opinions about Israel, why discuss their legitimacy when we can discuss their stupidity? Paulin is the distinguished poet who wrote in a poem called "Killed in Crossfire" in the London Observer on February 18, 2001, that

... 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

and told Al-Ahram Weekly of Cairo in April that "I have never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all" and that the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories "should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them." When he was asked last winter to read his poetry at Harvard, these unlyrical exclamations returned to haunt the luft-menschen and -frauen who invited him, there was pressure to rescind the invitation, a controversy ensued, first principles were strewn all over Harvard Yard, the poet withdrew, and everybody was left with a sensation of victimhood, which is to say that a good time was had by all. I would not have disinvited the man and his problem. If hate speech should not be restricted, then it should not be restricted even when it is me that it hates. The American way must be to take offense so as to give offense, to suck it up and then go after the substance of it, so that none of the mistake and the insult is left morally or intellectually standing. It is not all that hard to humiliate a person who believes that Zionism is Nazism, to make him seem like a perfect idiot. To question Paulin's legitimacy, by contrast, makes him seem only like a hero, which no doubt confirms him in his own image of his lonely, valiant, dissenting, visiting-professor self.

The view that Zionism is Nazism--there is no other way to understand the phrase "Zionist SS"--is not different in kind from the view that the moon is cheese. It is not only spectacularly wrong, it is also spectacularly unintelligent. I will not offend myself (that would be self-hate speech!) by patiently explaining why the State of Israel is unlike the Third Reich, except to say that nothing that has befallen the Palestinians under Israel's control may responsibly be compared to what befell the Jews under Germany's control, and that a considerable number of the people who have toiled diligently to find peace and justice for the Palestinians, and a solution to this savage conflict, have been Israeli, some of them even Israeli prime ministers. There is no support for the Palestinian cause this side of decency that can justify the locution "Zionist SS." Paulin's expression does not reveal him to be quite the "reader of almost fanatical scrupulosity" that Edward Said has found him to be, at least as regards the "reading" of history and morality. As for the reading of literary texts, in some of his critical writings Paulin has prided himself on his loathing for T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism, carrying his prosecutorial enthusiasm beyond hermeneutical plausibility. (Paulin is one of the most remorseless politicizers of poetical interpretation now at large: He reads Emily Dickinson for her "critique of mercantile values.") In his new book of poems, The Invasion Handbook, he has Eliot entertaining himself in a wordgame with a notorious anti-Semite that mischievously anticipates a place "far away to the east" whose name is a "rhyme for Ritz/no not Biarritz." This is unfair even to Eliot; but its indignation on behalf of the Jews is forever vitiated by "Zionist SS."

As for the Jewish settlers, I will not dignify Paulin's bloodlust with my own objections to their worldview: Even if they are wrong, he can go to hell. There is an old radical tradition that blesses writers who demand that people who fall within a particular political definition be "shot dead," that discovers conscience in an appetite for murder. Is there a significant distinction between being shot dead and being blown to bits? If, instead of remarking that the settlers should be shot dead, Paulin had remarked that they should be blown to bits, then his jihadism would have been even more plain. Anyway he told the Egyptian weekly that "I can understand how suicide bombers feel." I wonder if Paulin believes that there will be room for progressive writers in Sheik Yassin's Palestine. Pity the poet who is disinvited from there.

When I say that Paulin's hate speech hates me, I do not wish to melodramatize. I wish to suggest that Paulin may suffer from, how shall I say, an acute sensitivity to Jews. I find evidence of this condition in that odd and phonily self-lacerating epithet "dumb goys." The epithet is only half right. You would have to be dumb to see the SS in Israeli crossfire, but you would not have to be non-Jewish. There are many Jews who make the foolish analogy, and there are many non-Jews who denounce it. Paulin's phrase suggests that in his unlovely view the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially a debate between Jews and "goys." (A fanatical scrupulosity would have written "goyim.") He reifies me. I will not be reified.

There is also anecdotal evidence for Paulin's imbalance in this regard. In 1999, Nadeem Ahmed, a graduate student at Hertford College, Oxford, who was pursuing a master's degree in medieval Arabic philosophy, was asked to take exams in Arabic, along with two other students. He took the exams and he failed. Then he sued the university for racial discrimination. As it happens, Ahmed's "moral tutor" at Hertford was Tom Paulin, who rose to his student's defense and concurred in his student's analysis that he had been persecuted. And, as it happens, Ahmed's instructor was a man called Friedrich Zimmermann. When the university's lawyer asked Paulin at the trial in March why he had not taken his complaint to Zimmermann, Paulin weirdly explained that "I had heard on the grapevine that he was a very difficult person," and also remarked that Zimmermann had arranged a sabbatical in Israel "to get out of the way." Get it? The Jew harmed the Muslim and escaped to Israel. The university's lawyer showed that the sabbatical was planned long before the trial was scheduled. But Paulin's sinister insinuation lingers. I have no idea whether Nadeem Ahmed's exam was graded properly by Friedrich Zimmermann. But I do know that piety about oppression sometimes breeds fantasy. When you invent victims, you invent victimizers.

Pretty demagogic, huh I mean my suggestion that Paulin may not be mentally pure in his treatment of this question. Sinister insinuations, indeed. But what did the dumb goy expect? I cannot help myself. I am a smart Jew. I write for an organ of international Zionism. I think that Israel has a right to exist. I do not care to understand how suicide bombers feel. I am the man who stands between a good world and a bad world, though I would never stand between Tom Paulin and Harvard.