How to give Jews a bad name. Again

As debate around the power of the Zionist lobby heats up in the US with the recent release of the incendiary book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, we now have yet more evidence of fundamentally dangerous and undemocratic elements within the Jewish community. First this:

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.”

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).

It now appears that common sense has prevailed, for now at least:

The book is back, but the publisher may not be.

The University of Michigan announced late Tuesday that the University of Michigan Press would resume distribution of Overcoming Zionism, a book that calls the creation of Israel a mistake and that prompted several pro-Israel groups to complain to the university about its role in making the available a book they characterized as “hate speech.” The University of Michigan Press stopped distribution last month, following those complaints, and setting off complaints of censorship by others. Michigan was not the publisher, but distributed the book for Pluto Press, a British publisher specializing in leftist social science for an academic audience. The author of the book is Joel Kovel, distinguished professor of social studies at Bard College.

In a statement released by the university, the press Executive Board (a faculty body) said that while it “has deep reservations about Overcoming Zionism, it would be a blow against free speech to remove the book from distribution on that basis. We conclude that we should not fail to honor our distribution agreement based on our reservations about the content of a single book.”

The statement continued: “Such a course raises both First Amendment issues and concerns about the appearance of censorship. As members of the university community dedicated to academic freedom and open debate among differing views, the Executive Board stands firmly for freedom of expression, and against even the appearance of censorship. In this instance, both legal and value considerations lead us to the decision to resume distribution of the book.”

I havn’t read the book in question. From my understanding, however, the author calmly and rationally takes apart the myths of Zionism and calls for a one-state solution. Hardly revolutionary stuff. In fact, if such debates can’t happen in the US, as this controversy seems to suggest, then the thesis, put forward by Mearsheimer/Walt, is proven right yet again. Why are so many Jews utterly afraid of openly discussing the rights and wrongs of Zionism?

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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