Before a capacity crowd at Rackham Amphitheatre last night, Joel Kovel, author of the controversial book published by the University Press “Overcoming Zionism,” emphasized the importance of protecting critical voices in discussion involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“There is an absolute need for critical voices and not allowing us to succumb to pressures that are trying to stifle open discussion,” said Kovel, whose lecture was sponsored by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a pro-Palestinian group.
Kovel discussed what he believes is the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is also the focus of “Overcoming Zionism”, the creation of a single, secular, democratic state.
Although Kovel, who is a professor of social studies at Bard College, said he’d faced significant resistance and intimidation from pro-Israel organizations like Stand With Us regarding his book’s message, he told those in attendance that he felt the momentum shifting away from the “oppressive” Zionist groups.
“I think that (Zionist groups) have overreached themselves and got caught up in promoting a hideous war in Iraq and they’re paying for it,” Kovel said. “The debacle of Iraq may yet prove to be the opening point for a profound reassessment of the Zionist lobby.”
The University of Michigan Press currently distributes Kovel’s book as part of its distribution contract with the London-based left-wing publisher Pluto Press.
Although the University halted distribution of the book in August, citing “serious questions” raised by “members of the University community,” it resumed distribution of the book a month later.
The University Press is currently facing pressure from several pro-Israel groups – including Stand With Us and the Anti-Defamation League – and several members of the University Board of Regents to terminate its distribution contract with Pluto.
Andrew Dalack, co-chair of SAFE, said his organization brought Kovel to speak at the University in order to counter misinformation circulating on campus regarding Kovel’s beliefs and the message in “Overcoming Zionism.”
“As an organization dedicated to bringing intelligent information on all sides of this conflict to the campus community, we felt his voice was wanted and desired here on campus,” Dalack said.
Jonathan Calt Harris, director of the Michigan chapter of Stand With Us, a pro-Israel organization, described Kovel’s comments as typical of the anti-Zionist perspective.
Although Kovel received several standing ovations during his lecture, Harris attributed the author’s support to an overly sympathetic and anti-Zionist audience.
“I think he got what we all expected, even though there was no real substance in his speech,” Harris said. “It was pretty much a rambling narrative – like his book.”
Nick Israel, the Midwest campus coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America, said in an e-mail interview that no matter how much support Kovel received at the lecture, the distribution of his book by the University Press directly contradicts the University’s commitment to diversity.
“We cannot allow our campus to become a safe haven for what UM Press Director Phil Pachoda characterized as ‘hate-speech’ when describing Kovel’s book,” said Israel, who graduated from the University earlier this year.
Naomi Goldberg, a Public Policy School graduate student, said Kovel’s lecture was “amazing” and “brave,” but she said was disappointed by the actions of some student groups in the audience.
In particular, Goldberg said those University students in attendance wearing “Michigan Zionist” shirts in the University’s colors blatantly misrepresents Jewish students at the University who might not be Zionist.
“By wearing these shirts, they’re saying you’re either on this side with us or you’re not,” Goldberg said. “They make it appear as if there’s no room for discussion.”