Joel Kovel (1936-2018)

Against the Current, No. 196, September/October 2018

DeeDee Halleck and Michael Steven Smith

JOEL KOVEL WAS not a ’60s radical. He was something more unusual. He was a ’50s radical. He developed his values, his critical thinking and worldview in a time when nonconforming was rare.

Joel and his younger brother were from a Jewish Ukrainian family who moved from Brooklyn to what Joel called “the purgatory of Baldwin“ on Long Island. His father was a right-wing patriot, his mother a Zionist.

Joel was as he described himself, “a whizbang student” at Yale (1955-1959), where he was an “ace” especially in the hard sciences, including math. He hung out with a sympathetic group of young men, mostly Jews. Yale had a 10% Jewish quota.

The group styled itself as “the John Dewey club,” named after the progressive American philosopher of the preceding generation. Because the group was mostly Jews, Tom Cohen, whose father Elliot Cohen started Commentary magazine, called it “The Don Jewey Club.”

Joel went on to medical school and quickly became a professor and the chief teacher of psychiatry residents at Albert Einstein medical College in New York City.

In the 1960s and ’70s Dr. Kovel was a well-known psychiatrist and teacher. He was the director of resident training in psychiatry at Albert Einstein medical school and had a large influence on a generation of young psychiatrists.

His first book, White Racism: A Psycho­history (1970), was a prescient and detailed look at the persistent and deadly embedded racism that is ever present in U.S. society. He went on to write 10 other books. Joel was a modest person. But he told me (Michael) that he recognized he had a special ability, and that his unique contribution to the movement was writing these books.

I first met Joel 20 years ago when he was running for the New York Senate seat on the Green party ticket. My son, Eli, was a student at Elizabeth Irwin high school, which was connected to the Little Red School House. Elizabeth Irwin had been an associate of Dewey. At that time the high school was still a little bit red.

The principal agreed to host a student assembly for Joel. The students loved him. He said that in order for people to be free they had to free themselves; they had to have their own political party and that was why he was running as a Green.

Struggle Over Zionism

The eighth book Joel wrote in 2007 was Overcoming Zionism. It was published by Pluto Press and distributed in the United States by the University of Michigan Press. Joel’s position was for equality for Palestinians within a single democratic state, which he called Palisrael. This was a perfectly reasonable humane solution which has become increasingly salient as the true nature of the Israeli state has revealed itself, particularly with its murderous repression in Gaza.

Some Zionists in Michigan were alerted to the University of Michigan’s distribution of the book and put enough pressure on the University of Michigan Press to have it suppressed. We formed a group to fight back, called the Committee for Open Discussuion of Zionism (CODZ). And fight back we did.

We met every week in the conference room of my office. Caving under pressure and censoring Joel’s book was of course disgraceful.

We publicized what happened widely and were able to get that decision reversed; ultimately, however, the University of Michigan Press dropped its contractual agreement to distribute all of Pluto’s books (which are now carried through the University of Chicago Press — ed.).

Although the planned distribution was blocked, Joel was able to utilize social media and the book found many readers. After his obituary was published in The New York Times, for a brief time the book was number 17 in books about the Middle East on Amazon.

At the time Joel was a professor at Bard College in New York State. He held the Alger Hiss Chair in social sciences and was the most radical teacher on the campus.

Joel’s book on Zionism proved to not be a good career move. Three years later his Bard contract was not renewed. Again the CODZ group attempted to defend Joel, this time unsuccessfully. Bard College President Leon Botstein denied it, but Joel always suspected that it was his anti-Zionist views that got him canned.

Family and Defending Nature

One of Joel’s main joys was spending time with his grandchildren. The prospect of their future in a world of extreme weather made his commitment to fighting climate change one of tremendous personal effort.

He was a prodigious recycler and insisted when the Willow house was renovated (25 years ago) that a composting toilet be installed. But just as in so many areas, Joel always saw the really big picture. He went to the heart of the matter, condemning capitalism as The Enemy of Nature — or as he put it in that book’s subtitle: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World (2002).

His profound thoughts on ecology and Marxism are in that book, but also in the many articles which he developed in the years after the book. For over a decade Joel was the editor of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, an international journal whose importance is now finally being recognized.

Joel’s thoughts about nature and political culture evolved in the articles and discussions with his younger colleagues Quincy Saul, Kanya Dalmeida, Lee Brownhill and others, becoming a movement called Ecosocialism.

He wrote in collaboration with the great French theorist, Michael Löwy, a manifesto which has traveled to every continent and is seen as the basic document of the Ecosocialist position presented at the founding of the Ecosocialist International Network at the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil in 2008.

Joel’s ideas were developed and strengthened by his inexorable, undeterred, basic core of hope, born out of a profound spirituality and faith, not in any institutional doctrine but in his very basic love of nature and humankind.

September-October 2018, ATC 196