The fight for academic freedom
By: Kamal Abuarquob and Ryah Aqel
Students Allied for Freedom and Equality applauds the University of Michigan Press for deciding to maintain its contractual arrangement with Pluto Press. Unfortunately, open academic debate is not valued by all.
The external push against the press by some pro-Israel organizations began with Pluto's publication and the University Press's distribution of Bard College Prof. Joel Kovel's book, "Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine." Though the book proposes a vision for peace, some have unfairly attacked it for the suggestion that Israelis and Palestinians should be treated as equal citizens in a state for both peoples. Kovel will be speaking about his experience in this struggle for open academic debate tonight at 8 p.m. in the 4th floor amphitheater of Rackham Auditorium.
Critical academic debate, which is needed now more than ever, is threatened because institutional supporters of Israel cannot tolerate views critical of Israel's policies and practices. This is antithetical to the mission of the University and its press, which seeks to offer "books that contribute to public understanding and dialogue about contemporary political, social, and cultural issues."
The principles of academic freedom have become increasingly difficult to uphold of late. Nobel Peace Prize-winning former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, leading political science scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt as well as Desmond Tutu, the anti-Apartheid legend who also won the Nobel Peace Prize, among others, face baseless accusations of anti-Semitism and bitter criticism and censure for taking positions critical of Israel.
For too long, pro-Israel activists have accused those who recognize Palestinian suffering and question Israel's system of discrimination of "hate speech" or anti-Semitism. The goal is clear: to make criticism of Israel's policies taboo. Nothing could be worse in the academic arena than taboos, especially with regard to important political conflicts and issues central to American foreign policy.
In light of the controversy surrounding Kovel's book, three members of the University Board of Regents - Andrea Fischer Newman (R-Ann Arbor), Laurence Deitch (D-Bingham Farms) and Andrew Richner (R-Grosse Pointe Park) - wrote a letter to the University Press calling on it to drop all distribution deals with non-University affiliated publishers. Such an irresponsible action is appalling. The letter indicates that damage to the University's reputation should be the primary criterion for a decision. However, the regents must be careful not to ignore the true mission of the University in favor of business and public relations.
The decision by the University Press to maintain its contract with Pluto Press is an important one given all the pressure it has faced. It bolsters the principle of open debate against those who oppose it and seek to present Israel as a state beyond critique. The latest offensive by those unwilling to stand by the University Press's decision should be discarded as counterproductive to the University's mission and the responsibilities of the press.
Several pro-Israel organizations - The Anti-Defamation League, Zionist Organization of America and B'nai B'rith International - spoke at a recent regents meeting and urged the board to take action against the University's partnership with Pluto Press. They did not cite directly from Kovel's book, and there is no proof they had even read it.
Instead, the groups critical of the University Press focused on the specter of anti-Semitism. For example, the ADL's regional director cited her organization's study on anti-Semitic attitudes in America. Yet she did not even try to show how Kovel's book is anti-Semitic.
To be sure, anti-Semitism is a problem - as all prejudice is. However, it is being used to broadly attack a book and a publisher who clearly stand for equality. Kovel's book proposes a vision of peace in Israel/Palestine in which Jews and Palestinians are equal. Deeming those sentiments hateful is as disingenuous as calling Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr. anti-White bigots for daring to demand equality in oppressive societies.
Because the statements and letters in the pressure campaign do not substantiate the claim of anti-Semitism with actual analysis, it is safe to conclude that this is a politically motivated campaign aimed at shielding Israel from criticism. The Board of Regents should protect the academic organs of this institution from baseless, political attacks. Otherwise, academic freedom loses.
Kamal Abuarquob is an LSA senior. Ryah Aqel is an LSA sophomore. They are members of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.