Undermining the academic debate
By Will Youmans on 10/24/07
Just a few years after graduating from the University in 2000, I was sitting in a sunny café typing away madly at what would become my first publication. The editor of an anthology about the state of civil rights for Arabs and Muslims had invited me to contribute a chapter.
After rushing to make my first real deadline, going through the tedious exchange of drafts with editors and reviewing the careful dissection of my footnotes, I reviewed the final proof with relief. In 2004, my first published writing came out in a book titled "Civil Rights in Peril: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims."
Over the years, I've heard from professors and students around the country who say that the book was a valuable and timely resource about an understudied subject. It was the first book to analyze critically the post-Sept. 11 climate for Arab Americans. Graduate students at Georgetown University read the book for a class on Arabs and Muslims in America. Hearing from some of them was very gratifying.
I am proud that the University of Michigan made this book possible - in more ways than one. My University education and the late-night cramming at the UGLi gave me the ability to research and write long papers quickly. More important, the book was published by Pluto Press and distributed nationally by the University of Michigan Press.
The reason I write about this is not just to tell you about one of my proudest moments. It is to share with you the importance of Pluto Press and its current arrangement with the University of Michigan Press.
For the past four years, the University press has distributed Pluto's books, which tend to be critical, current and thought provoking. Many of the books argue viewpoints excluded from the mainstream debate in this country. As the invasion of Iraq illustrates, the result of these lopsided debates is disastrous policy.
Pluto's publications fit perfectly with the University Press's mission to distribute "books that contribute to public understanding and dialogue about contemporary political, social, and cultural issues." The book I wrote a chapter in is a perfect example.
Pluto, an independent publisher based in the United Kingdom, is now under fire for publishing a book suggesting that legalized equality between Palestinians and Israelis is necessary for peace. The book, "Overcoming Zionism," by Bard College Professor Joel Kovel, has caused a backlash because it questions the moral basis for Israel's status as a Jewish state, and because it questions Zionism, the nationalistic movement that defines it as a state for one people.
Supporters of Israel are outraged at Kovel's suggestion that the Jewish state practices "state-sponsored racism," which unjustly prioritizes Israeli Jews over Palestinians. He suggests that a one-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians as equal citizens under the law is the only workable one.
For proposing an imaginative, principled solution aimed at a lasting peace, the attacks against Kovel have been awfully personal and hyperbolic. One blogger called the book "racist hate speech," as if equal coexistence is a hateful concept. The pro-Israel organization that initiated the campaign against Pluto Press implied that Kovel was a self-hating Jew, selectively interpreting his words to show "he is apologetic to his readers for his own Jewishness."
In response to this outside pressure, the University Press's executive board developed "deep reservations" about the book and briefly halted its distribution. Later, the board decided to continue distributing the book, affirming its commitment "to academic freedom and open debate among differing views."
However, now the University press is re-evaluating its 4-year-old contract with Pluto because of the politically motivated backlash against Kovel's book. The press has reached its decision but has yet to reveal it.
Among the supporters of Kovel and his book is the noted historian Howard Zinn. Zinn also supports the publisher: "Pluto is a valuable and unique intellectual resource, publishing progressive books of a consistently high quality." He warned that ending the agreement with Pluto "would be a serious blow to the principles of pluralism, academic freedom and free speech."
These principles are especially important for those with unpopular or marginalized views. The University Press should continue to help the public have access to these views so they can be considered and debated. Sound public policy, as the debacle in Iraq now shows, requires the airing of a broad range of critical views.
Will Youmans is a doctoral student in communications.