Pluto threatened over Israel book

The publication of Joel Kovel's Overcoming Zionism has once again stoked controversy in the United States over academic criticism of Israel. David Castle, from the book's British publisher Pluto Press, argues that lobbying to silence criticism weakens the very academic debate the book's opponents claim to be defending.

October 16, 2007
5 min read

Pluto Press has been attacked by a pro-Israel lobby group, Stand With Us (SWU), which has described it as publishing ‘anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda’. In particular, SWU has targeted a new book by Bard College professor Joel Kovel, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine, which it claims is ‘a polemic against Israel’ and ‘laced with contempt for Judaism’.

Pluto Press is distributed in the US by the University of Michigan Press (UMP), and SWU has 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 its relationship with Pluto, and for a brief period UMP suspended distribution of Overcoming Zionism. UMP is currently re-examining its relationship with Pluto in the wake of SWU’s attack.

Radical scholarship

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 of human rights (in law). But within today’s political climate, these principles are so widely accepted as to be uncontentious. Kovel’s sin is to argue for something that is not only unpopular, but regarded by many as beyond acceptable discourse.

Pro-Israel lobby

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.

Open discussion

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 engaging in this debate 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 is a commissioning editor with Pluto PressUpdate (24 October 2007): The University of Michigan Press announced that it would continue its distribution contract with Pluto Press.

A statement said the board unanimously agreed to maintain its contract under existing terms.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’