Michigan resumes distribution of Kovel book, Overcoming Zionism

Inside Higher Education reported that the University of Michigan Press announced that it would resume distribution of Bard professor Joel Kovel’s book, Overcoming Zionism, but will re-examine its relationship with the book’s left-wing publisher Pluto Press:

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.”

At the same time, the board tried to distance itself from the book and its publisher. “Had the manuscript gone through the standard review process used by the University of Michigan Press, the board would not have recommended publication. But the arrangement with Pluto Press is for distribution only; the UM Press never intended to review individually every title published by Pluto (or any other press for which it holds distribution rights). By resuming distribution, the board in no way endorses the content of the book.”

In addition, the board announced that Pluto’s decision to publish Overcoming Zionism “brings into question the viability of UM Press’s distribution agreement with Pluto Press. The board intends to look into these matters and decide, later this fall, whether the distribution contract with Pluto Press should be continued.”

The decision prompted Pluto Press chairman Roger van Zwanenberg to say:

…that he found the statements about the “deep reservations” on the book and the questions about his press to be “less reassuring.” And he questioned whether these statements are consistent with academic freedom.

“These so called ‘deep reservations’, stem from what is acceptable scholarship and what is unacceptable,” he said. Tenure and academic freedom should protect the tradition of “critical scholarship” and assure that “unpopular scholarship can thrive,” van Zwanenberg said. Pluto has always worked within the “critical scholarship” framework, he said, publishing Marxist and anarchist theorists, among others, and such well known figures in American academe as Noam Chomsky.

The initial announcement that the University of Michigan Press decided to cease distribution after a campaign initiated by the local chapter of Standwithus prompted JewishConscience writer Dr. Mark Braverman to send U of M Press director Phil Pochoda this letter:

Dear Dr. Pochoda,

I was shocked to read your note to Joel Kovel and by your decision to cease shipping Overcoming Zionism. What are you doing??? You are free to disagree with Dr. Kovel’s ideas and even with his style, but to engage in de facto censorship – despite your apparent commitment to free speech – I am frankly, to use your word, appalled. Dr. Kovel’s analysis is indeed radical in that he does not hold back or attempt to strike a “balanced” position with respect to the sins of Zionism. Indeed, his analysis is clearly intertwined with his Marxist perspective. In that sense, he is, in fact, “on the barricades” in seeing Zionism as inextricably involved in capitalism and its connection to colonialism and economic imperialism. Surely you would not act in this manner toward the work of a scholar because his or her work was based on or informed by a political or philosophical orientation with which you disagree or find distasteful.

As to your characterization of his “attack” on Zionism, I do not see Dr. Kovel’s book as vicious. I see it as an expression of his horror at what Zionism has produced in modern-day Israel, and as the anguished cry of a Jew who is deeply saddened by and outraged at what is being done in his name. As another Jew who has read widely on the subject, has lived in Israel, and has visited Israel and the Occupied Territories in recent years, I feel that horror and that outrage, and greatly appreciate that Dr. Kovel has applied his prodigious talents and impressive intellect in undertaking the work represented by Overcoming Zionism.

Dr. Pochoda, I wonder if you have visited the West Bank — not under the guidance of the Israeli government or its Jewish-American sponsors but really visited — and seen the Occupation. If you have not, I would respectfully ask that you withhold your indignation towards Dr. Kovel’s passionate and uncompromising critique until you have seen what we have seen, and, as a Jew, felt what we have felt. Perhaps then your outrage will be directed, not at Jews like Dr. Kovel who have undertaken to witness and to protest, but at the defenders and implementers of Israel’s morally and legally indefensible policies toward the indigenous people of Palestine.

Sincerely,

Mark Braverman, Ph.D.

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