A Book on Hold

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, Sept. 11, 2007

Many university presses in the United States distribute books for publishers from other countries — and vice versa. The University of Michigan has recently discovered that such an arrangement can land a university in the middle of a controversy over a book neither written by one of its professors nor published by its press.

The University of Michigan Press last month halted distribution of Overcoming Zionism, which argues that the creation of Israel was a mistake and urges adoption of the “one state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Israelis and Palestinians would form a new country, without a Jewish character. The book was written by Joel Kovel, distinguished professor of social studies at Bard College. The publisher is Pluto Press, a British outfit that describes itself as having a left-wing focus and that publishes books by and for scholars in the social sciences. The University of Michigan Press is the American distributor for Pluto.

Michigan halted distribution last month after “serious questions” were raised about the book by “members of the university community,” according to Kelly Cunningham, a university spokeswoman. Cunningham said that the faculty committee that oversees the press has been reviewing the matter, as well as the relationship between the press and Pluto. An announcement will be forthcoming, perhaps this week, she said. Cunningham stressed that “the expression of diverse points of view on this and other issues is one of the most deeply held values is the university.”

There are signs that Michigan may be getting ready to resume distribution of the book. The author and a senior official at Pluto said that they had been informed that the review of the book had concluded and that distribution would resume. Phil Pochoda, director of the press, declined to comment. But when asked what would happen if someone called the press to try to order the book, he said that while it wouldn’t be shipped immediately, an order would be taken. Cunningham said that the university was not prepared to announce whether the book would again be distributed.

The controversy comes at a time of intense debate on many campuses in the United States about the Middle East and professors’ views about Israel.

Several pro-Israel blogs have been publishing criticism of Overcoming Zionism, calling it full of “hate speech,” and questioning why the University of Michigan would have any role in its distribution. The Michigan chapter of Stand With Us, a pro-Israel group, has issued a statement calling the book an “unscholarly propaganda text” and complaining that it could not get press officials to say why it was being distributed.

A blog sympathetic to Kovel — Dissident Veteran for Peace — has printed what it says is an e-mail from Pochoda, the press director, to Kovel, explaining why distribution was halted. Pochoda declined to comment on the e-mail, but Kovel said it was accurate. The e-mail reads: “Because it is a distributed title for Pluto Press, no one at UMP had read Overcoming Zionism prior to the Stand/With/Us diatribe. I and others read it after that assault, and had fully expected to gear up for, at least, a free speech defense. Though I had no trouble with the one-state solution your book proposes nor with a Zionist critique, per se ... I (and faculty members I asked to read the book, as well) were apalled [sic] by your reckless, viscious [sic], and unmodulated attack on Zionism and all Zionists.

“For us, the issue raised by the book is not free speech but hate speech. Perhaps such vituperative and aggressive rhetoric works for the barricades, but it cannot be countenanced or underwritten by the university or the university press, even in this peripheral, distributed capacity. Even worse for me, as a result of your book, the university is in the process of reassessing our relation as a whole to Pluto (and that has been a four year relationship that I have cherished, both personally and professionally). While that review goes on (and I am only marginally involved), we have ceased shipping Overcoming Zionism.“

In an interview, Kovel called his work “a very carefully reasoned book” and said it was “most certainly not hate speech.” He said that the ideas he supports are “not part of the American discourse, but are much discussed around the world.” To get a flavor of Kovel’s language in talking about Israel, this is a Q&A he did with Briarpatch Magazine about his new book (an interview Kovel said was reflective of his views).

He said things like this: “There are a lot of people who consider themselves to be on the left and also Zionists. It is a contradiction, however, to advocate the cause of universal justice while still supporting the Zionist project of conquest. This is an untenable position that must be ideologically and politically combated because it weakens both the overall struggles of the left and the struggle against Zionism.” And this: “I understand the desire to smash Zionism, for after all, Israel is an abomination and has caused endless suffering to innocent people. I believe, however, that humanity is capable of escaping these endless cycles of violence. The desire to lash out against those who have oppressed us is understandable, but it is a dead end.”

Anne Beech, managing director of Pluto Press, defended the book and its publication, saying “he’s a scholar of standing — not a ranting madman.”

In Britain, Beech said the book has received some criticism and some praise, but has not been the source of major controversy. “To be honest, the cultural differences between the U.K. and the U.S. are so profound that we’ve been astonished at the intemperate criticism of this book. You don’t have to accept the argument in full, but I would unreservedly support Joel ’s right to express his carefully thought out opinions,” she said.

She noted that she was at a conference over the weekend where some American scholars were on a panel discussing the pro-Israel lobby in the United States and they remarked about how it was “so nice to be able to discuss this issue without being shouted down,” as they said would have been the case in the United States. “I feel sorry for publishing colleagues and academics who have to contend with this manic pressure.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal group, has also called on Michigan to resume distribution. In a letter sent last week to Mary Sue Coleman, the university’s president, the center questioned why a review “based upon the content of the writing” of Kovel’s book would take place when the press had agreed to distribute Pluto’s works. “We are sure you appreciate the gravity of such a decision for one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the country, particularly at this juncture in our history when outside pressures threaten a full and open discussion of one of the major foreign policy issues of our day.”

Laurie A. Brand, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California who heads the academic freedom committee of the Middle East Studies Association, said she had not read Kovel’s book but had recently been informed that Michigan had suspended distribution. “It does sound very disturbing,” she said.

Whether the book is good or bad, she said, “let him publish it and let people talk about it,” and if people condemn it or ignore it or praise it, that would be their choice, Brand said. “But what we should not do is to try to prevent its arrival on the market.”

Jonathan Schwartz is a blogger who has been urging people to demand that Michigan stop distributing the book. A Michigan alumnus, Schwartz publishes Anti-Racist Blog: Exposing Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism on American College Campuses. In an interview, Schwartz rejected the idea that he was encouraging censorship. “I’m a free speech advocate. People can say whatever they want to, and I’m not saying that nobody should distribute it or that it should be banned from libraries,” he said.

“But for the University of Michigan to be associated with racist hate speech is not a good idea,” he said, adding that he would feel the same way about anti-black or anti-Asian books. He stressed that while Kovel had a right to be published, the university didn’t need to help him in any way.

“It seems like the university did not know what it was distributing,” Schwartz said. “I personally have my opinion about the book, but what’s most telling is the letter from the director of the university press. So why, if after reading it, would he distribute it? The university is not obligated to distribute a book like that. Look at the director’s own words.”

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