The University of Michigan Press has faced intense criticism in the last two months for distributing a book — on behalf of a British publisher whose sales the Michigan press handles in the United States — that is highly critical of Israel. And that controversy led to a review of the relationship with the British publisher. But on Wednesday, Michigan announced that it was keeping its ties to Pluto Press and would continue to distribute its books. The case has been closely watched by academic publishers and others concerned with academic freedom, especially on the sensitive topic of criticism of Israel.
The controversy focused attention on a role played by many university presses in the United States as the American distributors for small European publishers that don’t have worldwide sales networks. Similarly, many American presses work with foreign publishers to act as their distributors abroad. Under these deals, the distributing presses don’t review (or endorse) the works that have been published by another press. And that was a key factor in the way Michigan described its decision to maintain ties to Pluto — that the relationship was one of commerce, not scholarship.
“Distribution agreements are undertaken strictly as business relationships and have historically been a small part of the UM Press’s business,” said a statement announcing the unanimous decision of the press board to maintain its relations with Pluto. “Currently, the press distributes for five publishers. As is the case with all such commercial arrangements, books distributed on behalf of clients are not edited, reviewed, or produced by the UM Press, and they do not bear the imprimatur of the press or of the University of Michigan.”
….Pluto Press is an independent publisher in Britain that publishes many books by and for academics with a leftist perspective. The book that set off the furor is Overcoming Zionism, which argues that the creation of Israel was a mistake and urges adoption of the “one state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Israelis and Palestinians would form a new country, without a Jewish character. The book was written by Joel Kovel, distinguished professor of social studies at Bard College. While the book is not online, an interview with Kovel in the magazine Briarpatch gives a sense of both the depth and tenor of his criticism of Israel.
When pro-Israel groups found out that the Michigan press was distributing Overcoming Zionism, numerous blog postings and letters to Michigan administrators demanded that distribution be halted. Michigan briefly did so, but then resumed distribution, citing issues of academic freedom and First Amendment protections. But at that time, the university press said it would review its relationship with Pluto. The press said that it would not have published the book, and that fact raised questions about the tie to the publisher that did.
Insidehighered.com, Oct. 25, 2007