ANN ARBOR —For four years, the University of Michigan’s publishing house has distributed books from the catalog of Pluto Press. Pluto’s books are critical, often challenging the ideas of those in power. Their catalog examines issues of Israel-Palestine, globalization, foreign policy, and many other topics.
The new book, “Overcoming Zionism,” questions the logic of Zionism, which established a Jewish state on a religiously-diverse Palestine. This largely European Jewish movement established the state by force against the will of the native inhabitants. This led to decades of conflict, created millions of refugees and caused a string of wars.
The author Joel Kovel, a respected academic who teaches at Bard College, sees Israel as an apartheid state reminiscent of South Africa. The natural result of Zionism’s success was a state for one people, at the expense of the other.
How can the region move past this conflict? According to the book’s description, “he argues that only a path toward single-state secular democracy can provide the justice essential to healing the wounds of the Middle East.”
Kovel challenges the reigning vision among the political elite in Israel, Palestine and the United States. They urge a peace process based on the establishment of two states. He says the two-state solution stands no chance because it is rooted in the same forces of thinking that caused the conflict in the first place.
Pro-Israel activists pressured the publisher to re-consider carrying the book. They referred to the book as hateful propaganda that was devoid of academic merit.
Michigan’s Press briefly stopped distribution of the book last month while the matter was reviewed. A UofM spokeswoman said that the faculty committee charged with managing the press reviewed the book.
After examining the book, the committee decided to go ahead and distribute the book because of both contractual obligations and to not block academic freedom. However, it stated this controversy caused it to reconsider whether they should continue to have a relationship with the independent British publisher. The Press will decide its future with Pluto on October 19.
The director of the University of Michigan Press allegedly sent an e-mail to Kovel saying that “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.”
He went on to call the book “hate speech.”
The director lamented that “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).”
The university publisher’s mission is to “contribute to public understanding and dialogue about contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.” The head of the Press argued that the book offered no positive contribution.
Many have rushed to defend Kovel and Pluto Press against political pressure they say is designed to shield Israel from criticism.
Howard Zinn, the prominent professor and author of “A People’s History of the United States,” wrote a statement expressing alarm at the possibility of the University ending its relationship with Pluto Press.
Pluto Press, he writes, offers an important “alternative viewpoint essential to discussion and debate of important social issues, such as those concerning Israel/Palestine and the Middle East.” If University stopped distributing Pluto Press, it “would be a serious blow to the principles of pluralism, academic freedom and free speech.”
Supporters of Israel are increasingly targeting universities and professors who are critical of Israel’s policies and practices. They appear intimidated by growing criticism of Israel, especially since Israel’s invasion of Lebanon last year. Books from ex-President Jimmy Carter and two conservative, prestigious political science professors have questioned U.S. support for Israel.
Last summer, pro-Israel groups successfully lobbied DePaul University to deny Norman Finkelstein tenure. Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard College, is facing a campaign against her in her bid for tenure. They briefly cancelled a talk by Nobel Prize-winning South African, Desmond Tutu (he was re-invited after a public outcry).
Another pressure campaign spurred the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to cancel a forum which was to feature the two political science professors, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt.