"Distribution agreements are undertaken strictly as business relationships and have historically been a small part of the UM Press's business. 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."
- UMP Executive Board Statement, October 24, 2007.
An Irresponsible Choice, and Indefensible Choice
University of Michigan Continues Distribution of Anti-Semitic and Anti-Israel Propaganda
By Jonathan Harris and Roberta Seid, Ph.D.
Over the last few months, the board of the University of Michigan Press (UMP) has claimed that it would never approve and publish the unscholarly polemics of the UK's Pluto Press. The UMP Director likened one 2007 Pluto title to hate speech. Yet last week, the UMP board decided to continue its exclusive distribution contract with Pluto, and remain the sole distributor for many of the most radical anti-Semitic and anti-Israel texts available in the United States today.
UMP had reviewed its relationship with Pluto after StandWithUs-Michigan and others drew attention to Pluto's Overcoming Zionism by Joel Kovel which verges frequently into anti-Semitic propaganda, and to the anti-Semitic works of the late Israel Shahak. Both are staples of Pluto's offerings on the Middle East.
In a statement issued last week, the executive board justified its decision with misleading arguments and by altogether avoiding the most troubling issues.
The Board claimed that UMP has similar contractual relationships with four other "publishers", but there is no similarity. Pluto Press is the only publisher with which UMP has a distribution agreement, along with an understanding that UMP does not vet the works that Pluto submits and adds them, without review, to its distribution lists. Furthermore, the four other presses are University-affiliated and would likely meet scholarly standards, as they include two university centers, the American Academy in Rome, and the University's own English as a Second Language program. In contrast, Pluto Press is an independent political publisher with an explicit ideological agenda, describing itself as "one of the world's leading radical book publishers."
The executive board also justified its decision as a principled defense of freedom of speech, but free speech is not at issue. Rather, StandWithUs-Michigan questioned why UMP would make the choice to promote and distribute Pluto books when they have no scholarly merit and do not meet UMP's standards and mission. Even UMP officials could not support some Pluto titles. They found them indefensible, concluding that the University should not countenance them even in a "limited distributive capacity." StandWithUs- Michigan also questioned UMP's judgment in establishing its unique contractual relationship with Pluto Press in the first place.
Finally, UMP justified its decision on the grounds that the agreement with Pluto was "undertaken strictly as [a] business relationship." According to the Michigan Daily, the University's press earns approximately $1 million dollars per year selling Pluto books, making up 16% of their annual returns. Pluto Press likely earns substantially more, and therefore UMP directly supports Pluto polemics. Should financial considerations justify supporting a press that promotes anti-Semitic canards and other narrow radical agendas? The UMP Board's decision to distribute books that it would not countenance or endorse with the UMP logo solely for financial reasons is deeply disturbing.
The UMP-Pluto Press exclusive distribution agreement also violates the stated principles of the executive board: promoting different views and encouraging the free exchange of ideas. Not one of the books published by Pluto Press presents a scholarly or sympathetic view of Israel, Zionism, Jews, or Judaism. UMP's entire Pluto catalog offers only one political framework which is dogmatically anti-Israel, and frequently anti-Semitic. If Pluto's output showed the same uniform bias against African-Americans, Muslims, gays or other minorities, responsible citizens would have undoubtedly protested loudly long ago and the UMP and University officials would have addressed the problem. Yet, University President Mary Sue Coleman has not made a single public statement justifying or explaining why UMP is distributing such material in the university's name.
Students, parents, stakeholders and donors to the University of Michigan should know what is occurring. StandWithUs-Michigan and other concerned citizens [in addition to representatives of Jewish Civil Rights Organizations] will take this issue before the Board of Regents on Thursday, November 15. We encourage all those willing to confront anti-Semitic and anti-Israel polemical texts being distributed by our public universities to join us in the Founder's Room in the Alumni Center, 200 Fletcher Street, on the Ann Arbor Campus. [Time not announced yet].
Jonathan Harris is the director of the Michigan chapter of StandWithUs. Roberta Seid is the Education Director of StandWithUs.