The University of Michigan Press is supposed to be devoted to publishing books that “contribute to public understanding and dialogue about contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.” Sometimes that means defending controversial books, and it doesn’t get much more controversial than the Israeli-Palestinian debate.
Unfortunately, in deciding whether to continue distributing Bard College Prof. Joel Kovel’s book, “Overcoming Zionism” and whether or not to renew its contract with the book’s publisher, Pluto Press, the University Press undermined all of its supposed values. Although the University Press made the right decisions in the end, along the way it wavered on its commitment to protecting academic debate and cowered behind decisions that lacked any transparency.
Not everyone will or should agree with Kovel’s book. Printed by Pluto Press, a Leftist independent publisher based in Britain, “Overcoming Zionism” argues that the ideology of Zionism amounts to “state-sponsored racism,” which is incompatible with democracy. The book goes further to say that in order to achieve peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zionism must be rejected in favor of a secular, single-state, democratic solution.
As criticisms of the book surfaced, the University Press balked at defending its reasoning for distributing the book. Instead, last August, the press’s director, Phil Pochoda, decided to halt distribution, simply citing “serious questions raised by several members of the University community about the book.” In other words, some people objected to a controversial book, and the press, rather than defending the principles it exists to serve, simply backed down.
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? The book has received its fair share of support, too – from historian Howard Zinn, for example. 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.
A month after stopping distribution of the book, the University Press’s executive board actually reviewed the book and decided to resume distribution. However, the controversy surrounding this particular book continued and the University Press considered whether it should continue to distribute books printed by Pluto in the future. While the University Press did ultimately announce its decision to renew its contract with Pluto late last week, it waited several days before releasing its decision, continuing to hide from the controversy
The University Press should have never stopped the distribution of Kovel’s book in the first place, and the decision to continue distributing Pluto Press’s books should have never been questioned. For all the high-minded defense of academic debate, the true test is what we do under pressure, and the University Press proved unable to live up to its ideal.
When criticisms of this book emerged, the University needed to visibly defend the author’s right to make a well-informed but controversial argument. If the University Press feels that a certain book is so hateful that it must be censored, such a decision still should only be made after a careful review like the one in September – not simply by the knee-jerk reaction of any one person. Pochoda should never have been allowed to stop distribution without a reasonable explanation. Why should he be able to work against the values of our institution as a whole? His brash decision may have been a mistake, and it damages our University’s reputation as a staunch champion of free and open debate.
If the University Press hopes to uphold its own values and those of the institution it is named for, it will often have to defend controversial books. It can’t choose to selectively duck that responsibility.