Thursday, June 19, 2008


Revisiting Pluto & Kovel

Inside Higher Ed and Scott Jaschik, who have done a generally very good job of covering this story since last fall, confirmed yesterday that the University of Michigan has terminated its distribution agreement with Pluto Press. It appears that the formal notice of intent I mentioned in my last post was given in recent weeks and the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday reported an effective date of December 31. Here is an excerpt from the IHE story:
Roger van Zwanenberg, chairman of Pluto, said that there was no doubt in his mind but that for political opposition to a book critical of Israel, his press and Michigan’s press would still be doing business. "What this tells you is that there are dark forces in America who would like to control the flow of ideas, and they are powerfully organized and they are very dangerous," he said.

Many American academic authors come to Pluto because of its independence of such forces, and he said that makes Michigan's move all the more disappointing. He said that Pluto planned to seek another American publisher to handle distribution in the United States.

The University of Michigan Press knew "from day one of our contract" that Pluto's peer review was not identical to that of a university press, van Zwanenberg said. So the "sudden hurdle" of having identical peer review to a university press was "a facade," he said, to hide the way the university "has not stood up for free speech."
Here's an excerpt from the CHE story:
... The Michigan press took fire last year for one of Pluto's books, Overcoming Zionism, by Joel Kovel, a professor of social studies at Bard College. The pro-Israel lobbying group StandWithUs spearheaded a vocal protest, attacking the book as "a polemic against Israel" and a "collection of propaganda, misquotes, and discredited news stories."

On its Web site, StandWithUs wrote that "hundreds of anti-West, anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda texts reach us exclusively via University of Michigan Press."

The unwelcome attention led the university to take the unusual step of drafting guidelines to govern its press's distribution and marketing agreements. The guidelines, announced in January, state that the press may consider entering into partnerships "with other scholarly publishers whose mission is aligned with the mission of the UM Press and whose academic standards and processes of peer review are reasonably similar."

Re-examining Relationships

The guidelines direct the press's director and executive board to review proposed distribution agreements to make sure they fit those criteria. Pluto Press's peer-review process, which involves sending book proposals but not completed manuscripts out to reviewers, apparently did not.

Few university presses maintain formal guidelines for such distribution and marketing agreements, treating them more as business deals than as intellectual partnerships ...

Philip Pochoda, the Michigan press's director, declined to comment on Tuesday on the severing of ties with Pluto. But Kelly Cunningham, director of the university's office of public affairs and media relations, confirmed that the distribution agreement had been terminated, effective December 31.

The press's board reached the decision "after careful examination," she told The Chronicle. In an e-mail message, Ms. Cunningham said the board had "determined that the Pluto Press mission and procedures are not reasonably similar to UM Press as specified by the guidelines and therefore do not meet the requirements to continue as a distribution client."

The press also has distribution agreements with the American Academy in Rome and two of the university's scholarly centers. Those agreements were vetted by the board and were found satisfactory, Ms. Cunningham said.

Limitations of a Small Press

The impending breakup did not come as a shock to Pluto Press, according to its chairman, Roger van Zwanenberg. The Israel lobby "didn't like the book," he said. "They are unremitting, and the end result is that we're more trouble than we're worth."

Pluto sends every proposal out to half-a-dozen scholars in the relevant field. But small commercial presses like his cannot afford to do the kind of peer review done at subsidized university presses, Mr. van Zwanenberg said.

Were the new guidelines crafted so as to disqualify Pluto? No one has said so publicly. But as Mr. van Zwanenberg sees it, "The hoops that the University of Michigan Press created were only for university presses." ...

"For a tiny overseas publisher to have this sort of effect in the United States is quite astonishing," he said, "and it reflects powerful forces who are deeply antagonistic to free speech when it comes to issues around Israel and Palestine."
I do want to take minor exception to something Mr. Jaschik said in the IHE piece, referring to this blog, he wrote:
A blog that has defended Pluto is arguing that the "Zionist thought police" inflamed the situation, leading the university to adopt procedures that assured that it would have no choice but to cut ties to Pluto. And that blogger didn't even think Overcoming Zionism was that thoughtful a book in its critique of Israel.
In fact, I would say that the book was thoughtful, even courageous, in its way and for very many people, if read critically, helpful and thought provoking. My criticism is of some of the thoughts that Dr. Kovel expressed in the book and I also meant to point out that, notwithstanding the merits of the book, it was disappointing that such a flawed book should be the catalyst for Pluto to lose its sole American distributor.

Speaking of flaws, I would like to now expand on my critique of Overcoming Zionism. On Tuesday I read Assaf Kfoury's review of the book for the first time. Although I would say that he is more positive about the book than I am, he makes some points that I think complement my own. Below are a couple of excerpts:
Two comments on the first eight chapters:

(1) Kovel is primarily engaged in an internal American debate and, more specifically, an American Jewish debate. Many of his references are to people, politics, and history that will resonate with this audience. The tone is set from the very beginning, in the Acknowledgments section, where Kovel thanks some 50 friends and collaborators, many of whom are progressive participants in American Jewish affairs. Kovel mentions that it is after an invitation from Michael Lerner that he began this book project by writing articles and essays for Tikkun magazine.

How many Palestinians or Arabs are included in this group of about 50 friends and collaborators? Exactly two, Edward Said and Samir Amin, both living and working in the West. The decision to go beyond the Tikkun articles and turn them into a book "was sparked by Edward Said's encouragement." How many Palestinians or Arabs are among the hundreds of authors Kovel cites in the whole book? By my count, only five: W. Khalidi, N. Masalha, J. Massad, N. Rouhana, and M. Younis. This does not diminish Kovel's contribution in any way -- his courage to confront Zionist shibboleths in America is commendable -- but also defines its scope and limitation.
In the next excerpt from Kfoury's review I have interspersed some of my own comments and, except for section headings, all emphasis is mine.
... To this suggestion [of "a Two-State solution based on an equitable and fair division"] Kovel counterposes several objections, starting with his own personal objection: He dislikes any state for any singular kind of people because "life has taught [him] that people do better when they are mixing and mingling in conditions of a rich diversity" (p. 217). Many will sympathize with the sentiment, but how relevant is it in countering the facts on the ground? What we may personally like or dislike will have little bearing on the eventual outcome of the Zionist experiment and its impact on the Palestinians. Or, if we want to act on this sentiment, we should only try to prevent the US from continuing to underwrite this experiment, and let its victims decide for themselves the benefits of living in a mixed society and how to achieve it. ...

It is here that [Kovel] mentions One-State for the first time: "The One-State option is a demand for Israel to cease being a Jewish state ..." (p. 219). Once more there is a fallacy: A One-State in all of historic Palestine does not necessarily imply it will cease to be a Jewish state -- i.e., a state that does not institutionally empower its Jewish citizens and discriminate against the others -- even if the others are not ethnically cleansed and become more numerous than the Jews.

VFPD: Indeed, this is precisely my criticism of Kovel when he writes, "... the South African Communist leader Joe Slovo insisted on a 'sunset clause' for the new state in which no civil servant (needless to say, white) was to be fired when the ANC took over" (243) and, on the same page, "Further, there is no expectation that the authorities of the new state will be exclusively or even predominantly Palestinian." But I don't think this is a fallacy on Kovel's part--this is a model, even a goal. Kovel seems to be openly advocating for the maintenance of the Jewish apartheid bureaucracy, leadership, and economic power.

In comparison to Kovel, Ali Abunimah, in
One Country, does not quote Slovo though he does note that the during the transition from apartheid the African National Congress (at the behest of Slovo?) "agreed to honor all existing civil service contracts, assuring white administrators and middle managers of their personal security in the immediate future" (p. 151). It is possible, even likely, that Kovel and Abunimah are talking about the same thing here but the context suggests a difference in perception. Abunimah cites it as an example of reassuring the White South African minority amidst "economic and social transformation" (p. 150). Kovel seems to be talking about and even advocating maintaining the status quo. Moreover, in contrast to Kovel, while he gives it short shrift, Abunimah at least acknowledges, in South Africa, lingering "Economic and social inequalities" (p. 158) and resentment over perceived White resistance to "faster economic change that would reduce the vast economic inequalities" (p. 159).

The last chapter of Kovel's book is meant to lay out a broad agenda for how to achieve the envisioned One-State. But it doesn't, and it can't realistically, do this. The chapter starts with the story of Ahmad, a Palestinian who was born in 1948, spent 17 years in Israeli prisons, and has lived through the repeated dislocations that his community had to endure as a result of Israeli policies. By itself, the story is a welcome counterpoint to the preceding chapters, which relegated Palestinians and Arabs in general to mostly nameless participants. ...

What kind of One-State does Kovel envision? It is not a binational state nor any of the states projected by other One-State proponents. Kovel's proposed unitary state will be different still: It will be what he calls "secular-universal," in which Israelis and Palestinians will somehow merge into a single nationality in some distant future (p. 229). How will this be achieved? The idea to foist a brand new name, "Palesrael," on the newly-minted country is rather presumptuous;[7] it is not a new name that will mobilize Palestinians and Israelis to act together. To be sure, there are general guidelines for political action in the last section of the chapter, but notwithstanding the section title "The Practices of One-State," these neither follow from nor imply a One-State option. Indeed, to "speak the truth about Israel" (p. 232), or to "deprive the Zionist state of what it needs" (p. 233), or to "support the Palestinian right of return" (p. 236), are pursued by many activists who do not make it a priority to raise the One-State banner -- or, for that matter, the Two-State banner either.

VFPD: It is significant to me that in one of the most important statements of the Palestinian people in recent years--the 2005 call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel--Palestinians conspicuously refrained from calling for either a one or two-state solution and focused instead on three simple demands: An end to occupation, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and implementation of the Right of Return under UN GA Resolution 194. Kovel is aware of the boycott option (see pp. 233-235) but he does not condescend to mention the 2005 call or anything Palestinians might have to say about.

Where To From Here

One-State is now an escapist fantasy, whatever form one would like to give it. Some may think that, though perhaps a fantasy now, it will nevertheless be an effective slogan for mobilizing and unifying supporters of Palestinian rights. But it won't even be that, as it will probably be more a dividing than a rallying call for all those who are working against Israel's expansion and settlement project. ...

Two-State is the other side of this false alternative. Two-State is stigmatized by the failed Oslo Accords, a discredited Palestinian leadership, and an "international community" that never enforced its own UN resolutions on Palestine. To insist on debating the two options -- as if much is at stake on settling the question now, or as if there is no other alternative to these two options for anti-settlement activism -- will be gratuitously obscuring the priorities. There is plenty that can and should be done to help the besieged Palestinians without any prior commitment to One-State or Two-State. ...
Well said, Dr. Kfoury. I encourage folks to read the entire review. Moving on, on Tuesday, I took issue with a quote from page 245 of Overcoming Zionism. I want to now more fully quote it:
The real history of Zionism has been a working out of the 'invisible hand' that has shaped history toward the end of accumulation and has placed the Anglo-Americans at its helm, their Israeli junior partner by their side, attacking here, spying there, doing the dirty work as needed. This is the secret of the so-called Israel, or Zionist lobby. Not a Jewish lobby as antisemites would have it, but a dynamic and very unholy gathering of those power-Jews who hitch their wagons to the star of empire: Democrats, Republicans, phony intellectuals, all stripes of opportunists exulting in their admission to the inner chambers of power.
Notice what Kovel has done here. Even as he calls them "power-Jews," Kovel has subtly distanced, though not completely exonerated, them from culpability in the crimes of Capital and Empire. The "power-Jews" are outside, they are not of the "star of empire." No, that is represented by the goyim--the Learned Elders of Anglo-America. Jews have merely "hitch[ed] their wagons" to it.

By Kovel's lights, the "power-Jews" are not at the helm, they have only entered the "inner chambers of power" they don't actually reside there or run the show. Thus, Senators Lieberman, Boxer, and Feinstein; former Defense Secretary Cohen; Attorney General Mukasey; Homeland Security chief Chertoff; Justices Breyer and Ginsburg; Federal Reserve boss Bernanke; billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Larry Ellison--to name just a few--these poor saps are victims. They have been hoodwinked and bamboozled into thinking that they were in the club when the real string-pullers, the secret cabal that rules the world are the goyishe "Anglo-Americans."

In closing, I'd like to quote my friend Henry Herskovitz, founder of Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends. He jokingly questioned why I was "so easy" on Dr. Kovel on Tuesday. From his vigil report of March 22, 2008:
Jewish Supremacism?

Readers are invited to examine the email exchange between Joel Kovel and Dan McGowan here. In that exchange, and due in part to our claiming that Joel will not hold the Jewish community accountable for their support of Israeli genocide (see Report 02-16-08), Joel has accused this writer and Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends of, among other things, being "wrong-headed" and "objectively anti-Semitic", and of "making destructive generalizations." If Joel's issues were merely personal or tactical then we wouldn't be so concerned, but he has resorted to what Jeff Blankfort aptly refers to as "the first refuge of scoundrels"--the charge of anti-Semitism. Consider this passage from Joel: "Once the question of Zionism and its injustices moves into the zone of 'Jewishness' as the problem, then we are in the swamp of anti-Semitism ... How does Henry manage to do this? In a twofold gesture: by demonstrating in front of places of worship; and by making it plain that he would do this anywhere and everywhere Jews congregate"

On the latter issue, Joel is simply incorrect and he would have been quickly apprised of this if he had simply asked instead of assumed. JWPF has never protested anywhere simply because "Jews congregate" there. We protest at Jewish institutions that have turned into bastions of Zionism. Zionism is the issue and not 'Jewishness,' as Joel would have it. We would not protest in front of any institution, Jewish or otherwise, that had disavowed Zionism or never embraced it in the first place. For example, we would not protest the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta Rabbis.

On the former issue, we protest in front of a "place of worship" that has publicly and repeatedly identified itself with Zionism and the Jewish apartheid state of Israel. This writer for many years celebrated Yom Kippur at Beth Israel, until he was no longer allowed to buy tickets there. The fact is that Jews are freely wallowing in the swamp of death and injustice that is Zionism, and they do it as Jews while Joel either does not, or will not see this. Joel's statement ignores the reality that it's Jews themselves who erase the line between themselves and Zionists. Remember, it's Beth Israel that (a) flies the flag of a foreign government, (b) prays for the soldiers of the IDF, and (c) takes its children on pilgrimages to the Zionist state, capturing photographs of them with smiling IDF soldiers, and continues their indoctrination into nationalist support for Israel. See " Beth Israel - House of WARship" for photos and details. There are carloads of Jews who drive into the synagogue waving an Israeli flag, several yarmulkes are embroidered with this foreign flag, and one flashy red convertible even sports an Israeli license plate.

And Jewish-initiated linkage of Jews and Zionism is nothing new. As Peacemonger points out, in 1942, 757 Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Rabbis, claiming to "represent[s] the largest number of rabbis whose signatures are attached to a public pronouncement in all Jewish history," declared Zionism to be " an affirmation of Judaism" and "not a secularist movement." They continued: "It has its origins and roots in the authoritative religious texts of Judaism. Scripture and rabbinical literature alike are replete with the promise of the restoration of Israel to its ancestral home. Anti-Zionism, not Zionism, is a departure from the Jewish religion." More recently we recall the words of Elliott Abrams: "Where is it possible to find a group of Jews who are committed to Israel, and whose children are likely to honor that commitment? The answer is, in a synagogue on the Sabbath."

With his specious "swamp of anti-Semitism" charge, Joel Kovel has cast himself in with the Jewish elites identified by Norman Finkelstein when he wrote in Beyond Chutzpah:
"Wrapping themselves in the mantle of The Holocaust, these Jewish elites pretend and, in their own solipsistic universe, perhaps imagine themselves to be victims, dismissing any and all criticism as manifestations of "anti-Semitism." And, from this lethal brew of formidable power, chauvinistic arrogance, feigned (or imagined) victimhood, and Holocaust-immunity to criticism has sprung a terrifying recklessness and ruthlessness on the part of American Jewish elites. Alongside Israel, they are the main fomenters of anti-Semitism in the world today."
Why is it that Joel, and at least 20 other Jews ostensibly dedicated to the peace movement, cannot bring themselves to hold the organized Jewish community accountable for their undeniable support of Israel? A pattern forms from this growing collection of data points, and suggests to us that a Jewish chauvinism, a Jewish supremacism is controlling the emotions that do not permit the suffering of Palestinians to trump tribal bonds between these activists and the Jews of Beth Israel. And we can only imagine that it is Joel's Jewish tribalism which allows him to benignly describe Beth Israel - this documented center of nationalist support for a genocidal state - as "place[s] of worship" and a "shul". Evidently, every one of those BIC congregants whom Joel could have challenged (had he stood with us) supports Israel's claimed right to exist as a Jewish state in Palestine: The rabbi wrote " ...there is one general statement which I can make on behalf of the congregation--Beth Israel Congregation affirms without any hesitation or equivocation the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state". And not a Jew within or without the congregation ever publicly stood up and said "the rabbi doesn't speak for me."

Joel calls us wrong-headed. We call what we do correctly identifying the problem and holding the those publicly accountable for their brazen support of genocide. And we are saddened that he won't join us.
Full disclosure: I rewrote parts of and edited the above vigil report excerpt before it was first released in March.

See also: "Joel Kovel's Sad Smear of Ralph Nader: Another Marxist for Kerry" in CounterPunch (6/24/2004)

Last revised: 6/24/2008 (added comments on Abunimah's treatment of South Africa).

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Readers may attribute hurt personal feelings to my comment that VFPD was "too easy" on Joel, but the issue is larger than the personal slight committed by him.

Peace activists are different than the average citizen; they have assigned themselves a job that requires self-education, scrutiny of issues, and a willingness to decide between right and wrong, and to act. There are standards applied to those of us who choose to be in this "peace movement".

Those standards are raised much higher for peace-movement Jews who enter into the Middle East fray; specifically, I think they - as Jews - are most effectively positioned to hold the Jewish community accountable for their support of the Jewish state.

To me, it is obvious which US group is the most focused, powerful, wealthy, organized, effective, relentless, vengeful, etc. in its support of Israel. And that group is the Jewish community.

So when a powerful Jewish activist like Joel has the opportunity to challenge the Jewish community, and elects NOT to, there seems to me to be another agenda being followed. It may sound harsh, but if Jewish activists continuously give a pass to the Jewish community in regards to Palestine, they should get out of the business. The peace movement will fail in its mission, because those most responsible and able are, in the end, killing effective action by their unwillingness to confront those accountable. Cognizant or not, they are enabling the other team, if not outright playing for it.

Kovel is helping Israel supporters and enabling the Jewish community? You are deluded. Is there no level of anti-Israelism that is enough for you? I guess you have to tow the Herskovitz line to be a part of the "peace movement."
My arguments have already been written that support the claim that Joel enables Israel's most identifiable and highly motivated support group, aka the Jewish community. Other readers may well find fault with the reasoning, but would be advised to keep their focus and not drift into ad hominem remarks.

Clearly there ARE people that share my point of view, VFPD and Ilan Pappe just to name two. Whether they claissify themselves as "anti-Israel" is up to them, but their views are in fact enough for me.

And no, you don't have to tow any line of mine to be part of the peace movement. But if you are in the peace movement, are involved with issues concerning Palestinian rights, and are Jewish, i.e. a part of the oppressor class, and DO NOT accuse the oppressor class of intimate involvement with the genocide of Palestine, then you will not convince me that your "peace" work is sincere. And that you should be trusted to lead the "movement".
Jews = the oppressor class? You are something else. I think you are delusional.

If you don't like Israel fine. Don't blame the Jews and condemn them...unless you are willing to do that to other American minorities.

I don't see you blaming Chinese-Americans for atrocities in Tibet.

You aren't blaming Saudi-Americans for oppression of women.


That makes you a hypocrite and an anti-Jewish bigot. It is obvious. No wonder Kovel wouldn't protest/harass Jews with you on Saturdays.

You are not part of the peace movement Henry. You are subverting the peace movement with your hatred.

Henry, you are a barrier to justice and peace in Israel/Palestine. You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
To: Anonymous:

I have requested that you avoid ad hominem remarks, yet you persist.

You know who I am. I print my name because my logic, and the logic of our group, is sound. Our cards are on the table.

So, out with it: please identify yourself to the readers of this blog.

Whether you choose to or not, please know that Joel "protest[ed]/harrass[ed]" the Jewish Community Center's celebration of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in person on May 7, 2006. Guess that makes him an "anti-Jewish bigot" as well.
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