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Paulin's future at Oxford in balance after 'anti-Semitic' row

Under pressure: Students consider lecture boycott as protester confronts poet

By Robert Mendick
The Independent
28 April 2002

Tom Paulin

Tom Paulin, the distinguished poet and television pundit, sipped a glass of wine and chatted with his fans. Making a rare public appearance last Thursday since a series of injudicious comments incurred the wrath of British Jewry and his employers at Oxford University, Dr Paulin looked relaxed and at ease. He read extracts from his new book, including poems that deal with the suffering of Jews in Nazi Germany.

The peace at the Oxford bookshop did not last. Jamie

Simpson, an Oxford student and a self-proclaimed Zionist, accosted the poet and demanded an apology. Dr Paulin just shook his head. "This is a book signing. I can't talk about this now," he said. Mr Simpson was ushered away.

Dr Paulin looked startled. Such events are likely to become all too commonplace as pressure mounts for the poet to be thrown out of Hertford College and Oxford University.

The furore follows his alleged comments to an Egyptian newspaper that "Brooklyn- born Jews" who settle in the occupied territories should be "shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them".

His problems have been compounded by a judge's ruling that his actions as moral tutor in supporting an Asian student bringing a race discrimination claim against the university were "lamentable".

Meanwhile, the Board of Deputies of British Jews is calling for a £75,000 National Lottery grant to Dr Paulin to produce a major work of poetry to be withdrawn.

In a 35-page judgment, Judge Jonathan Playford said Dr Paulin made an "unattractive attempt to coerce two distinguished Arabists ... to secure favourable treatment for his protégé" by threatening them with "legal action and unfavourable publicity". The judgment is being pored over by the university's hierarchy as are the statements allegedly made to Al-Ahram newspaper.

In a terse statement the university announced it was looking carefully at the judgment and the implications of the judge's comments. It will not take kindly to being dragged through the courts while it is coming under increasing pressure from Oxford's sizeable population of Jewish students to act over the alleged remarks made to Al-Ahram.

Jewish students at Oxford are furious. There is talk of a boycott of Dr Paulin's lectures and picketing of the college. Elliott Goldstein, the society's chairman, said: "In my opinion somebody who is a blatant anti-Semite should not have a position of authority in a university."

Dr Paulin, 53, has said his views were "distorted", although he has failed to explain how. In a letter to The Independent on Sunday last week, he wrote: "I have been, and am, a lifelong opponent of anti-Semitism ... I do not support attacks on Israeli civilians under any circumstances."

The response of senior fellows and the pressure put on them by a concerted Jewish lobby will determine Dr Paulin's fate. Fellows at Hertford may be losing patience with the celebrity in their midst. "He is a weird guy," said one former tutor at the college. "He lives by the mouth and dies by the mouth ... He is not taken seriously here as an academic. Fellows are impressed by academic credentials rather than if you turn up on TV every five minutes."

It is not clear whether the college will stand by Dr Paulin. He is currently in the first year of a three-year sabbatical taken following the grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta).

Nesta, at least, is standing by him. The body is delighted by the first fruit of its grant – The Invasion Handbook, a series of poems about the Second World War. "This outstanding new volume of poetry in no way reflects anti-Semitic or racist views," said a spokeswoman.