Israel critique on campus

'Overcoming Zionism' sparks conflict at University of Michigan.

Overcoming zionism 224 (photo credit: )
Overcoming zionism 224
(photo credit: )
The target is professor Joel Kovel and his new book, Overcoming Zionism. The campus is the University of Michigan. But the controversy is all too familiar. On the one side are those who say universities have become centers for anti-Israel rhetoric. On the other are those who claim pro-Israel forces are stifling debate and limiting academic freedom. s Since the publication of The Israel Lobby by professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the argument has intensified. Two back-to-back conferences that took place last month made clear just how divided the camps are. A conference at the University of Chicago, "In Defense of Academic Freedom," brought together a slew of scholars who say pressure from pro-Israel groups is taking a heavy toll on scholarship critical of Israel and on debate at university campuses. The conference was inspired in part by the recent decision by DePaul University not to grant tenure to Norman Finkelstein, a critic of Israel and the author of The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. Finkelstein's tenure process, which included a virulent campaign by Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz to deny him the status, became one of the most publicized. Finkelstein was recommended for tenure by the his department and the tenure committee, but the dean overrode them. Some fear this incident has set a precedent for future tenure processes becoming hostage to outside politics. A few days after the Chicago conference, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a pro-Israel group, hosted its own conference, "Israel's Jewish Defamers." The group largely targeted Jews who compare Israel to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. "What we are addressing today is criticism rooted in outright, demonstrable falsehood or wildly extreme, out-of-context distortion," JTA quoted Andrea Levin, CAMERA's executive director, as saying in her introductory remarks. The latest bout of academic warfare has taken shape at the University of Michigan - home to one of the largest Jewish student bodies - where many are up in arms over the handling of Kovel's fiercely anti-Israel book. The university, which has a contract to distribute books from left-wing British publisher Pluto Press, has been strongly criticized for distributing the recently-published Overcoming Zionism. In his book, Kovel argues that the creation of Israel was a mistake, and advocates for a "one-state" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which Israelis and Palestinians would form a new country that isn't Jewish. The controversy led the university to temporarily halt distribution of the book and to review the relationship with the British publisher. But last week, Michigan announced it would renew its contract to distribute Pluto Press books. The university has defended its decision, saying the relationship with the British press was one of commerce, not scholarship. "Distribution agreements are undertaken strictly as business relationships and have historically been a small part of the UM Press's business," said a statement announcing the unanimous decision. "Currently, the press distributes for five publishers. As is the case with all such commercial arrangements, books distributed on behalf of clients are not edited, reviewed or produced by the UM Press, and they do not bear the imprimatur of the press or of the University of Michigan." Still, Michigan said it would review the way such relationships were set up. Typically university presses don't have explicit guidelines for distribution agreements, "but the recent controversy surrounding the contract with Pluto Press has underscored the need for them," the statement said. Fundamental to that, Michigan said, is "the principle of freedom of expression." Following the university's decision, the campus newspaper published an editorial supporting it: "There is no doubt that some people will have objections to Kovel's contentions, but is there any reason besides complacency and cowardice that those contentions should not be presented into the debate? While people may not agree with the content of the book, it does add to the debate, and it is exactly the type of book the university press should print." But the decision to continue ties with Pluto Press has outraged some Jewish and pro-Israel groups. At the heart of the controversy is Stand With Us - Michigan, a local chapter of the national group. The local chapter got wind of the book from a local blogger, and in August brought it to the university's attention. Jonathan Harris, the Christian Zionist director of the Michigan chapter, told The Jerusalem Post by phone last week that the book was "an anti-Zionist screed that tries to prove Zionism is a horrible, racist ideology that brings about only bad." The director of the University of Michigan Press, Phil Pochoda, expressed similar sentiment in an e-mail to the author, which was leaked. "The issue raised by the book is not free speech, but hate speech," wrote Pochoda. "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." Despite this, the university press resumed distribution of the book. In an op-ed to be published next week, Harris questions "why UMP would make the choice to promote and distribute Pluto books when they have 'no scholarly merit' and do not meet UMP's standards." Betsy Kellman, director of the Michigan regional chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview on Friday that she was "shocked" by the university's decision to continue its ties to Pluto Press. "ADL has often said you can be critical of Israel, but at some point you cross the line and it turns into anti-Semitism," said Kellman. "This book is holding Israel to a very different standard than other countries, and that's where ADL steps in." Kellman said she was upset that the decision was made behind closed doors. "Open this up for discussion and debate it on campus - don't just slip this through," she said. "Bring it out in the open, because I'd like to see the reasons you decided to keep Pluto Press." The $1 million the university makes from its contract with the press cannot be the real reason, suggested Kellman: "This is one of the best-endowed universities in the country; $1 million a year is small revenue." On the other side are those who believe the incident at Michigan is a perfect example of pro-Israel groups trying to quash debate. Not least of these is the author himself. Kovel, a professor at Bard College in New York, said he tried to get his book published in the US, but publishers "wouldn't touch it." "This is definitely not an isolated case," he said. "Very powerful institutions in our country take it upon themselves to defend Israel at all costs, and in doing so, they frequently cross the line of a constitutional right to freedom of speech." Their efforts have been growing, Kovel said, "because there have been increasing challenges to the Zionist lobby." Neve Gordon, a tenured professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a visiting professor at the University of Michigan this year, said the terms of debate in the US were much narrower than in Israel. "What is going on here is an attempt to stifle critical voices," said Gordon. "My assumption is that I disagree with what Kovel says in the book, but so what? I disagree with many books. Many people are writing things that are outrageous - that's what academic freedom is about." Gordon said the allegation that Middle East Studies departments on university campuses are one sided, is false. "To claim Jews are the underdog on campus is not correct," said Gordon. He said he was amazed to see how many Jewish students had come to campus from high school prepared to be "ambassadors for the Zionist perspective." Kellman, meanwhile, insists the incident has nothing to do with academic freedom or the First Amendment. Her office near Dearborn, Michigan - home to one of the largest Arab populations in the US - places her in an unusual position. Dialogues between the local ADL chapter and the Arab and Muslim populations are not uncommon, she said. "I listen to criticism of Israel all the time," said Kellman. "We strongly believe in the First Amendment and are all for diversity of views, but this book deals with anti-Semitic canards and has nothing to do with academic integrity."