Free speech threat over critical book on Israel
by David Castle
October 11, 2007
A controversy in the United States over a new book from a British publisher has raised questions over free speech on contentious political subjects. Progressive publisher Pluto Press has been attacked by a pro-Israel lobby group, Stand With Us (SWU), by whom it has been described as publishing “anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda”. In particular, SWU have targeted a new book by Bard College Professor Joel Kovel, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine (OZ), which it claims is “a polemic against Israel” and “laced with contempt for Judaism”.
Pluto Press is distributed in the United States by the University of Michigan Press (UMP), and SWU have claimed that Kovel’s book, and much of Pluto’s list, is of no scholarly merit and therefore unsuitable for distribution by an academic press. SWU and numerous supporters have been pressurising the university to cease their relationship with Pluto, and for a brief period UMP suspended distribution of OZ. UMP are currently re-examining their relationship with Pluto in the wake of SWU’s attack.
Pluto vehemently refutes the accusations made by Stand With Us. Pluto publishes from within many traditions of radical scholarship – Marxist, anarchist, feminist, green, and others – which while often marginalised within the academy, represent vital, critical strands of academic debate. Although their loss might satisfy some on the political right, it would certainly narrow the terms of academic discourse, and weaken intellectual endeavour as a whole. Many prestigious scholars have published with Pluto; Joel Kovel himself is a widely respected radical thinker, author of a classic text of eco-Marxism, The Enemy of Nature, and editor-in-chief of the eminent journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism.
Overcoming Zionism itself is certainly partisan in the sense that it argues that the present Zionist Israeli state is illegitimate and should be replaced by a new, secular democratic state for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Kovel argues his case through a well-documented critique of the history of Zionism and the modern Israeli state. Of course, many will disagree with Kovel’s argument. The question is, is it unscholarly? Kovel argues forcefully for a particular point, and takes a stance in a political conflict – should this be out of bounds for academic writing? The fact is that many academic texts argue unreservedly for certain principles – the benefits of the free market (in Economics), or for flexible working practices (in Management) or for international law based on principles on human rights (in Law). But within today’s political climate, these principles are so widely accepted as to be utterly uncontentious. Kovel’s sin is to argue for something that is not only unpopular, but regarded by many as beyond acceptable discourse.
The reason that Kovel’s argument is so controversial is not for any scholarly reason – the reason is purely political. The pro-Israel lobby is an extremely powerful force in US politics – highly organised, very well funded, with influence in the heart of government – and through persuasion, chastisement and not a little bullying, the lobby has managed to establish in many people’s minds that criticism of Israel and Zionism is no less than anti-Semitism – that is to say, that criticism of the actions of a state and a political ideology is equivalent to an attack and denigration of a whole people. It is a dangerous line of argument, because if extended to any state and people it would mean that criticism of any state other than one’s own should be considered a racist attack. Indeed, in the case of Israel, being Jewish does not seem to give you any more right to be critical of the state that claims to be your homeland, as Kovel himself has found out.
The controversy surrounding Overcoming Zionism is only one example of what happens when an academic crosses the line of acceptable discourse set by the Israeli lobby. Campus Watch, another lobby organisation, is in the business of identifying scholars who are critical of Israel and attempting to discredit them. It is widely accepted that Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, lost his permanent position at De Paul University as a result of pressure from the lobby. There is currently a similar dispute over tenure for Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, who has written a book about how archaeology is deployed to support political ends – specifically, to demonstrate the veracity of Israel’s supposed origins in a Biblical past, a claim at the heart of Zionism.
Israel is at the heart of today’s conflicts in the Middle East. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians enrages fellow Muslims across the world, and incites animosity towards both Israel and its main sponsor, the US. If it is not possible to discuss Israel freely within the US, how can the US come to develop a considered and just policy in the Middle East?
In the face of the controversy surrounding Overcoming Zionism, a group of scholars, campaigners and lawyers have established the Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, which aims to defend the principle of free speech on debate over Israel. The Committee asks for your support - you can find them at www.codz.org.
Finally, for all that is currently being said about the book, both in favour and against, it is clear that few people have actually read it. I would encourage you to do so, and make up your own mind on what constitutes racism, propaganda and reasoned critique.
David Castle, Commissioning Editor, Pluto Press