[Marxism] Pluto Press controversy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 11 08:04:29 MDT 2007

Free speech threat over critical book on Israel
by David Castle
October 11, 2007

A controversy in the United States over a new book from a British 
publisher has raised questions over free speech on contentious political 
subjects. Progressive publisher Pluto Press has been attacked by a 
pro-Israel lobby group, Stand With Us (SWU), by whom it has been 
described as publishing “anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda”. In 
particular, SWU have targeted a new book by Bard College Professor Joel 
Kovel, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in 
Israel/Palestine (OZ), which it claims is “a polemic against Israel” and 
“laced with contempt for Judaism”.

Pluto Press is distributed in the United States by the University of 
Michigan Press (UMP), and SWU have 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 their relationship with Pluto, and 
for a brief period UMP suspended distribution of OZ. UMP are currently 
re-examining their relationship with Pluto in the wake of SWU’s attack.

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

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.

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 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, Commissioning Editor, Pluto Press

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