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University of Michigan Press to Continue Publishing Joel Kovel’s “Overcoming Zionism” After Initially Dropping Book Due to Right-Wing Criticism

StoryOctober 29, 2007
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Last week the University of Michigan Press voted unanimously to continue distributing books from the London-based independent publishing house Pluto Press. The controversy began earlier this summer when the university press initially decided to stop distributing Joel Kovel’s “Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to an important victory in the battle for free speech here in the United States. Last week, the University of Michigan Press voted unanimously to continue distributing books from the London-based independent publishing house Pluto Press. The controversy began earlier this summer when the university press decided to stop distributing a new book by author Joel Kovel. It was published by Pluto Press. It’s called Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine.

The press dropped Kovel’s book in August after getting a series of threatening emails from a right-wing group called Stand With Us. But faced with a growing campaign led by fellow academics and civil libertarians, the board overturned its earlier decision. Last week’s key decision to continue ties with Pluto Press came in the midst of a series of events organized around what right-wing groups called “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.”

Joel Kovel is an antiwar activist. He was a Green Party candidate for Senate here in New York. He is the author of over 10 books — this latest, Overcoming Zionism, is his most recent — joining us in the firehouse studio in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: So your book will continue to be published.

JOEL KOVEL: Yeah. More to the point, Pluto will continue to be published, because that was a huge threat. It’s a marginal firm that nonetheless publishes a tremendous amount of alternative works. And it would have been devastating had that contract had been violated.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s the University of Michigan Ann Arbor Press —

JOEL KOVEL: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — that distributes the British Pluto Press?

JOEL KOVEL: Right. Yes, through contract. And they panicked this summer when they dropped my book. I mean, they were pressured by this Zionist watchdog team, which is really part of the same apparatus that’s putting out “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” and many other things. And the director just wrote me this absurd letter saying that my book was not worthy of free speech, because it was hate speech. My book was so full of hate to the state of Israel. My book was really written to open the dialogue, which is so wretched in this country on this subject.

AMY GOODMAN: I thought it was interesting that one of the people who, well, what is called blurbing the book, who recommends the book is Michel Warshawsky.


AMY GOODMAN: I remember him many years ago, visiting him in Israeli, who is a leading Israeli peace activist.

JOEL KOVEL: Yeah, a wonderful man. He doesn’t even necessarily agree with the conclusion, which is to have a single democratic state, but he recognizes the necessity of opening this discourse. And that’s why I wrote the book. I mean, I wanted to — I disregarded all the taboos, that you’re not supposed to talk about Israel in any depth in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: He says, Kovel is suggesting a binational Israeli-Palestinian state. It may be a challenged, but definitely should not be ignored.

JOEL KOVEL: Right. It should be challenged. What we don’t have is any kind of real debate on this subject in our country at this time. And I guess my book went too far for the watchdog, so they — you know, they started barking and howling at the University of Michigan Press, which folded. And then that provoked a big reaction, and where we are now is that we’ve actually won quite a considerable victory in this, because as this story developed, we found that people all over the country and indeed many other parts of the world, particularly the United Kingdom, were backing us. And there were hundreds of letters sent to the University of Michigan Press. And I think it had a decisive effect. So it’s really historic, because basically these Zionist repression groups have had pretty much a free hand.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by that?

JOEL KOVEL: Well, I mean there’s [inaudible] Michigan

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there are many people who consider themselves Zionists that would not advocate the banning of your book —

JOEL KOVEL: Oh, that’s right

AMY GOODMAN: — which it essentially comes down to.

JOEL KOVEL: Exactly, but the ones who do advocate the banning, you know, had a big effect. They got the University of Michigan Press to roll over for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how — how did people organize to push back? Who were the leaders, among them Howard Zinn?

JOEL KOVEL: Well, we contacted Zinn, and he was most gracious and generous in letting his celebrated, illustrious name be used to bring in people to write letters on behalf of Pluto. My book was restored, but the threat to Pluto continued, and so the organization emphasized, you know, we do need an alternative press in this country. Pluto does have perhaps the largest pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist, you know, collection of books. And it’s essential that people be given access to these books. So, Zinn and other well-known people, like Richard Falk, you know, have said yes, we’re on board with this. And we have a committee forming, Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, And we’re planning a conference and all. But the committee leapt into action, and we were amazed at just how eloquent and, you know, basically fed up a lot of people were with being intimidated by these kinds of tactics. They just want to suppress an open discussion of this subject.

AMY GOODMAN: Joel Kovel, as a Jewish activist and scholar, talk about this issue, this idea that you are proposing, creating a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine? Of course, it’s not only you; among others, it’s Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada, and others. But explain what it is. And also, how does it relate to your own religion, to Judaism?

JOEL KOVEL: Well, to take the second part first, I grew up in a very conventional Jewish home, except for the fact that there was a lot of division on this subject, so I think from an early age I learned to take a certain distance from it and to think critically about it. And I detail in the book certain incidents of my childhood, which sort of made me somewhat estranged from what was going on. But in any event, as I grew up, I felt that the Jewish people have been, you know, very largely deprived of a real opportunity to look at what’s going on in the state of Israel, you know, because there is such a frantic effort to establish Israel as a Jewish state, as somehow the destiny of the Jewish people, are using all of the history of the oppression and the persecution that Jews have suffered over the centuries.

And I feel that the notion of Zionism, as that there is this kind of destiny of the Jewish people to have their own state, is just a wrong idea. And it’s an idea that requires signing on to imperialism. It means signing on to ethnic cleansing. It means—despite everything that has been said about it, it means basically becoming a racist situation, where you’re oppressing an indigenous population and depriving them of their right to existence, and then thinking that somehow you can go ahead and have a decent life on that basis. And you can’t, in my view. And I join hands with those people who feel that the time has come to basically think of Israel in the same category as South Africa, as a state that just has gone wrong and needs replacement, OK? Now, that’s a way-out idea. On the other hand, a lot of people around the world think about it, and it should be openly discussed.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, Bishop Tutu, who was disinvited and then invited by the St. Thomas University —

JOEL KOVEL: Yes, in Minneapolis.

AMY GOODMAN: — in Minneapolis, for making comparisons of Israel to Apartheid South Africa.

JOEL KOVEL: Yes. Well, the comparison was interesting, because Tutu and other leaders of the freedom struggle in South Africa who visited Palestine have always been asked, well, how does it compare? And he says, well, it’s not the same thing, Israel is actually worse. He actually said, Israel is a worse place than apartheid South Africa was, because apartheid South Africa attempted to retain the integrity of the blacks so they could work in the mines and the mills of the South African, you know, industrial system, whereas the key point about Israel is that it wants to get rid of them, transfer. It wants to get them out of there. And it wants this area to be for Jews only, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Why not two states?

JOEL KOVEL: Well, first of all, it’s been destroyed as a practical alternative, because the nature of the occupation has completely eaten out from under any possibility of having a real Palestinian state. More fundamentally, it perpetuates the logic of the same kind of thinking that has gone on all along. I mean, I think a two-state solution, in any practical sense, that is to say that Palestinians would have a little statelet, would be basically rising Israel to the level of South Africa. South Africa had a two-state solution. There was the South African state, and there were the bantustans. The kind of two-state solution that they’re talking about is that the state of Israel and then the bantustans, sometimes even dividing Gaza from the Occupied Territories.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of support does a one-state solution have, either in the Occupied Territories or in Israel?

JOEL KOVEL: It has very small support. And I call it a strategic goal. This is to say, it’s not something that is on the horizon, but if you think in these terms, you are led to take a really constructive view towards the situation, because now you’re grounding your politics in universal human rights. You’re not grounding your politics in the aberration and the very wrong idea of a national, you know, ethnic state, which is a big mistake. And I think that that orients you in a good direction, and the overall outcome cannot help but be better, even if the result is another state for Palestinians. But you want to weaken this notion that there should be a Jewish state and that that somehow can be democratic. It can’t be.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. When is the conference and where?

JOEL KOVEL: Well, the conference is being planned for early next year. We’re doing it in New York. We want a very high-profile conference.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Joel Kovel, author of Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine. The book will continue to be distributed by the University of Michigan Press at Ann Arbor.

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