Agreement with British publisher under attack over anti-Zionist book
By Andy Kroll, Daily Staff Reporter on 11/16/07
In a letter delivered yesterday to the University of Michigan Press executive committee, three members of the University Board of Regents urged the press to end all distribution agreements with third-party publishers, including London-based publisher Pluto Press.
The University Press's contract with Pluto has been under fire for its distribution of "Overcoming Zionism," a book written by Bard College Prof. Joel Kovel. Some on campus, including the Michigan chapter of the pro-Israel group Stand With Us, claimed the book was anti-Semitic propaganda.
Pluto was originally founded as a socialist press. It publishes dozens of left-wing titles.
University Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R-Ann Arbor) read the letter aloud at yesterday's Board of Regents meeting in the University's Alumni Center.
"We simply assert that the money which the Press receives from distributing Pluto press books is outweighed by the reputational damage to the University from publishing books over which the University faculty or staff has no editorial control," the letter said.
The letter - co-signed by Fischer Newman, Laurence Deitch (D-Bingham Farms) and Andrew Richner (R-Grosse Pointe Park) - responds to the University Press executive committee's decision last month to continue its distribution deal with Pluto.
"Overcoming Zionism" argues that Zionism has created an apart heid-like racist state in Israel and that a single, secular, democratic state is the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The University Press halted distribution of the book in August, citing "serious questions" raised by "members of the University community," only to resume distribution a month later.
Although copies of Pluto's books distributed by the University Press do not bear the University's logo, the three regents argued in the letter that the University is endangering its reputation by continuing the agreement.
According to the letter, Pluto's revenues made up between 4 and 5 percent of the University's Press's total revenues in the fiscal years 2005, 2006 and 2007 - not enough to warrant the "potential for profound reputational damage."
Although the Board of Regents has the power to terminate all University contracts, the letter states that it chose not to do so out of respect for the University Press's executive board. To terminate a contract, a majority vote on the eight-member board is needed. Only three regents signed the letter.
In an interview after the regents' meeting, Deitch said the rationale for terminating the Pluto contract focuses solely on the University Press's lack of review authority and has nothing to do with issues of free speech.
"The University Press, through its relationship with Pluto Press, has elected to profit from books over which it has no editorial control and which press officials have said that it would never publish based on its own editorial standings," Deitch said. "That being the case, I simply don't think we ought to be in that business."
Several representatives of groups opposed to the University Press' contract with Pluto also voiced their concerns during the public comments of the meeting yesterday about the University's continued relationship with Pluto.
Donald Cohen, the director of the Great Lakes Region of B'nai B'rith International, a Jewish service group, said the University Press should reevaluate its contract with Pluto because of the "strong political overtones" of the University's relationship with Pluto.
Cohen cited a July 2004 University Press release that described Pluto as a renowned independent publisher "known for some of the best in critical writing across the social sciences and humanities, with a spotlight on Middle East politics and terrorism."
Betsy Kellman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, said the University was condoning anti-Semitism by continuing to distribute Pluto's books and called for the termination of the Pluto contract.
"You are in a unique position to promote diversity and prevent the furtherance of anti-Semitism and all kinds of bias, rather than further these awful hate-filled references," Kellman said.
Representatives of Pluto Press and the University Press could not be reached for comment.