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Michigan Severs Ties to Controversial Publisher

June 18, 2008

In September, the University of Michigan Press faced intense criticism from pro-Israel groups -- and questions from some regents -- over its distribution of a book called 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. Michigan wasn't the publisher, but it distributed the book under a deal with Pluto Press, a leftist British publisher with extensive lists on the Middle East and international affairs.

Some critics of the book demanded that Michigan stop distributing the book, which it briefly did, and cut ties to Pluto immediately. The university declined to do so, and resumed distributing the book, citing both contractual obligations to Pluto and concerns that halting distribution because of content would raise issues of academic freedom. By the end of this year, however, Michigan will no longer be distributing the book or have any ties to Pluto Press.

Michigan says that this is because of appropriate new rules about the press role in distributing books it hasn't itself vetted. But Pluto sees the new rules as window dressing that gave the university an excuse to satisfy Pluto's critics while avoiding the appearance of doing so.

The Michigan-Pluto relationship is typical of the deals struck by many university presses in the United States with foreign publishers of academic work. By handling distribution and some publicity for overseas publishers, American publishers earn some revenue and build ties to the international publishing world. Many presses have a number of such relationships and they aren't much remarked upon, but they mean that someone looking at the University of Michigan Press Web site would find books from Pluto, including Overcoming Zionism. That book, by Joel Kovel, a Bard College professor, set off letter-writing and e-mail campaigns to Michigan leaders demanding that ties to Pluto be cut.

While Pluto publishes many serious scholarly works -- by professors from all over the world -- it is different from American university presses in that Pluto has an explicitly radical agenda. Among those who publish with Pluto are Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, bell hooks, and Ariel Dorfman. The Middle East books include many that are sharply critical of Israel and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

When Michigan decided not to call an immediate halt to its Pluto ties, it announced a review of procedures for distribution relationships with other presses. That review resulted in new guidelines adopted in January stating that Michigan will consider such relationships only with a publisher “whose mission is aligned with the mission of the UM Press and whose academic standards and processes of peer review are reasonably similar to those of the UM Press.” The university said it would apply these new standards when existing contracts expire, as is the case with Pluto right now.

When the guidelines came out, many in publishing assumed Pluto was destined to be kicked out of Michigan's universe because its publishing program seeks to advance political goals, while Michigan publishes books with political goals, but has a peer review system based on scholarship. But in an interview Tuesday, Peggy McCracken, an associate dean at Michigan who is chair of the executive board of the press, said that politics wasn't the issue. She said that because Pluto doesn't have peer review on the Michigan model, it would be inappropriate to keep the ties. She said Pluto uses peer review on proposals and chapters, but not the finished manuscript.

"The issue is review procedures," she said.

Asked if critics of Overcoming Zionism had now achieved their goals, McCracken said that was not the case. "The initial decision of the executive board of the press was that it would not make a decision based on a particular book," she said. McCracken added that "certainly the free and open exchange of ideas is th foundation of everything we do at the university."

McCracken said that the executive board of the press -- made up of faculty members -- made the decision that Pluto did not qualify. She declined to say whether the vote was unanimous. McCracken said she received more than 800 e-mail messages with advice on the matter.

Roger van Zwanenberg, chairman of Pluto, said that there was no doubt in his mind but that for political opposition to a book critical of Israel, his press and Michigan's press would still be doing business. "What this tells you is that there are dark forces in America who would like to control the flow of ideas, and they are powerfully organized and they are very dangerous," he said.

Many American academic authors come to Pluto because of its independence of such forces, and he said that makes Michigan's move all the more disappointing. He said that Pluto planned to seek another American publisher to handle distribution in the United States.

The University of Michigan Press knew "from day one of our contract" that Pluto's peer review was not identical to that of a university press, van Zwanenberg said. So the "sudden hurdle" of having identical peer review to a university press was "a facade," he said, to hide the way the university "has not stood up for free speech."

Sanford G. Thatcher, director of the Penn State University Press and president of the Association of American University Presses, said he valued the work done by Pluto and other presses. But he said that Michigan's experience may suggest the down sides for university presses of relationships with such publishers.

"On a practical business level I would weigh the potential political fallout heavily in deciding whether to distribute a foreign press's titles, especially after what happened at Michigan," he said. "Most people simply are not aware that distributed titles are not vetted by the distributing press in the same way its own titles are, so there is always the danger that Michigan experienced of having its own reputation for high standards of peer review sullied by association."

Some of the pro-Israel blogs that first raised questions about Overcoming Zionism are praising Michigan for its latest decision. These blogs describe Pluto's Israel-related publishing as anti-Semitic and say that the University of Michigan shouldn't have played any part in helping those books find readers.

A blog that has defended Pluto is arguing that the "Zionist thought police" inflamed the situation, leading the university to adopt procedures that assured that it would have no choice but to cut ties to Pluto. And that blogger didn't even think Overcoming Zionism was that thoughtful a book in its critique of Israel.

 

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