Monday, February 23, 2009

On the firing of Joel Kovel

Judeosphere posts at Harry's Place on Bard College's letting go Professor Joel Kovel. Kovel it was an act of political censorship.

J. quotes from an article at Inside Higher Ed, "Kovel was treated the way many non-tenured professors are being treated these days as colleges retrench — and that mixed student reviews of his organizational skills in the classroom may have hurt him more than his politics." In fact, the administration at Bard has associations with the Palestinian Al Quds University, and Bard's President Botstein expressed modest support for Kovel, saying, "I am delighted that you hold views that many consider wrong or dangerous. You are not as controversial as you would like to believe."

I once saw Kovel speak at my local lefty book shop. I attended with my wife. It's perhaps worth noting that, while she's become sympathetic to the concerns of Zionists since knowing me, she is not herself a Zionist and continues to view the creation of Israel as a mistake. She was quite struck with the absolute absence of any discussion of antisemitism and even put off by the repeated assertions that antisemitism was irrelevant to the discussion. The only reference to the Holocaust -something that really can't be ignored in a discussion of Zionism- was to claim that it was a myth that Israel's existence was necessary to prevent another Holocaust.

Further, he continually referred to his own book as "banned." That was a blatant lie. In fact, his book was on sale at that very shop. The truth is that distribution of his book was suspended while the University of Michigan Press reviewed it's relationship with Pluto Press. It was Pluto Press which published Kovel's book, but using UM Press's name. UM Press decided Kovel's book was terrible and that they needed to sever their relationship to Pluto Press in order to protect their own reputation. However, when they reached that conclusion, they continued publishing Kovel's book, citing academic freedom. So, rather than banning the book, UM Press continued to publish what they saw as an obviously inferior work. In his narcissistic rant about being let go from Bard, he continues to refer to the episode as "book burning."

Although he never used words like "conspiracy" or "cabal," Kovel's version of history also contained many, many details that strongly suggested a conspiratorial worldview. For instance, he attributed US support for the creation of Israel monocausally to Jewish funding for Truman's presidential campaign. Never mind that Truman had been a vocal ally to Zionism long before running for President.

Given the similarity between his organization's name, The Committee for the Open Discussion of Zionism (CODOZ), to the blatantly antisemitic Committee for the Open Discussion of the Holocaust (CODOH), I find it difficult to ignore the possibility that these were intentional dogwhistles. Perhaps he's really that ignorant of antisemitism that he doesn't know to avoid such things (like Juan Cole's recent advocacy for an America First movement), but then I think it's still a revelatory Freudian slip. His sense of victimization and the hands of some powerful, vaguely defined (but constantly growing) group supposedly out to silence him is the same category of mistake -is the same functionally- as antisemitism.

So, had Bard actually dismissed Kovel for his views -not his advocacy of a one-state solution, but his (borderline?) conspiratorial views on the power of Zionists- I'd probably support them in that. But they didn't. They cut him to save money.

UPDATE: See also, More on Kovel.


Rebecca said...

I think that Kovel actually has stepped over the line into the world of conspiracy theories. If you take a look at a recent article of his (published before he was notified that his contract would not be renewed at Bard) - at - you'll see that he's taken up James Petras' terminology of the "Zionist Power Configuration." The most disturbing part of the essay comes close to the beginning: "Accordingly, Zionism is the world-historical disease of Jewry in the present epoch. It is the structural disorder that drives ethnocentric chauvinism, ethnic cleansing of indigenous people, structural racism—and also the peculiar moral logic that shapes the Zionist power structure in the United States and configures its impunity. There is a “bad conscience” to Zionism, which results as the ancient identity of the Jew as the ethically superior perpetual victim encounters the endless transgressions required to construct Zionism’s dream of a Jewish state in historic Palestine." You can see he's very attached to a kind of psychoanalytic gobbledegook to explain what he doesn't like. Another peculiarity of the essay is that he talks about how Jimmy Carter is a Zionist, something I suspect Carter himself would be surprised to learn.

Matt said...

Wow, I wasn't aware of that article. I haven't sought out what Kovel says - when I saw him, it had more to my attachment to the bookstore. Thanks for letting me know.

But definitely, I think we have to talk about these things, at least, with untenured profs. Bigotry is not the same thing as political disagreement. When the SPLC got Kevin MacDonald (whose take on behavioral evolution is that Jews have evolved to be destructive parasites on society) into the news, the response I saw from many blogging profs like Jessie Daniels at was that this thing should have been challenged at his tenure hearing -- too late now. But with Finkelstein, the argument is "not now."

So, I guess now I hope, though it still doesn't look that way, that Bard had more serious reasons for getting rid of Kovel than monetary reasons.