In 1936, Kovel was born in Brooklyn, New York to "an immigrant Ukrainian-Jewish family." He received his B.S. Summa cum laude from Yale University in 1957. In 1961 he received his M.D. from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and in 1977 was a graduate of the Psychoanalytic Institute, Downstate Medical Center Institute, Brooklyn, New York.
From 1977 till 1983 he was Director of Residency Training, Department of Psychiatry, Albert Einstein College of Medicine (where he was also Professor of Psychiatry from 1979-1986). From 1980 to 1985, he was an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research and from 1986-7 a Visiting Professor of Political Science and Communications, University of California, San Diego. He also held short-term positions as a Visiting Lecturer at San Diego State University in the spring of 1990 and another Visiting Professor position at UCSD in Winter 1993.
In 1988, Kovel was appointed Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies, a non-tenured position, at Bard College. In February 2009, he was informed that his position would not be renewed after the contract ended on June 20, 2009 and that he would be moved to "emeritus" status at that time. Kovel argued in a letter sent to the faculty of Bard College that his contract was not renewed due to his political views. He reiterated his argument in a statement posted on his official website that the "termination of service is prejudicial and motivated neither by intellectual nor pedagogic considerations, but by political values, principally stemming from differences between myself and the Bard administration on the issue of Zionism". The college president, Leon Botstein, responded in a letter sent directly to Kovel by arguing that his termination was not political but part of a larger move by Bard to reduce part-time faculty. Botstein stated: "To take what is self-evidently a result of economic constraint and turn it into a trumped-up case of prejudice and political victimization insults not only your intelligence but the intelligence of your readers." While Kovel called his dismissal illegitimate and vowed to fight the decision, he did leave Bard permanently per the university's decision in 2009.
By the late 1980s, he became involved with the Environmental movement. He then had a brief career with the Green Party of the US, under which he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998 and "sought the party’s presidential nomination in Denver in 2000."
Kovel's works include White Racism (1971) (nominated for a National Book Award), A Complete Guide to Therapy (1979), The Age of Desire (1982), Against the State of Nuclear Terror (1982), In Nicaragua (1986), The Radical Spirit: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Society (1988), History and Spirit (1991), Red Hunting in the Promised Land (1994), The Enemy of Nature (2002), and Overcoming Zionism (2007). He is the Editor-In-Chief of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism.