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."
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."
Jonathan Schwartz, a Michigan alumnus who has been blogging critically about the Kovel book at Anti-Racist Blog: Exposing Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism on American College Campuses, said he was disappointed in the university's decision to resume distribution of the book. The university press board "dodged the issue of the racist content of Mr. Kovel's book, and his incredibly offensive messages," Schwartz said. "The University of Michigan made a conscious decision to serve as the distributor of Mr. Kovel's anti-Zionist propaganda. It is shameful that Overcoming Zionism is being distributed with U. of M.'s imprimatur and complicity."
Kovel could not be reached Tuesday night.
Roger van Zwanenberg, chairman and commissioning editor at Pluto, said he found the decision about distribution of Overcoming Zionism to be "reassuring," but 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 University of Michigan Press always knew Pluto published scholars under this frame," he said. (Even a brief look at the Pluto Web site shows that the press makes no attempt to hide its views or the political nature of its authors.)
From Michigan's statement, van Zwanenberg said, it appears that "Pluto may be accused that a single volume does not come up to the standards of more traditional scholarship.
It would be shameful if this were to occur, as to be accused of something we never set out to achieve by a scholarly community serves no one."
Pluto books, he said, "add to the richness of publishing within any university arena."
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