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Walking Away from Alice Walker

June 29, 2012

When Eric Maria Remarque, the exiled author of All Quiet on the Western Front, was asked whether he missed Germany, he is reported to have said, “Why should I? I’m not Jewish.” Remarque’s comment was an edgy swipe at those formerly German Jews who never lost their infatuation with the Fatherland or its culture. Even after Germany became maniacally genocidal, many German Jews could not help themselves but love it.

It’s an oft-repeated Jewish pattern. The Jewish belief in the value of human creative genius often reigns so supreme that we refuse to draw lines in the sand; we resist calling something evil even when there is no other way to describe it. Now we’re seeing it again – not with Germany, but with the United States. It’s reappeared not with Richard Wagner, but with Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple.

Walker, as is by now well known, recently refused to allow her novel to be translated into Hebrew. In a letter posted on her website, she explained her reasoning as follows:

“… last Fall in South Africa the Russell Tribunal on Palestine met and determined that Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories. The testimony we heard, both from Israelis and Palestinians (I was a jurist) was devastating.  I grew up under American apartheid and this was far worse. Indeed, many South Africans who attended, including Desmond Tutu, felt the Israeli version of these crimes is worse even than what they suffered under the white supremacist regimes that dominated South Africa for so long.”When a person of Walker’s obvious intelligence utters such drivel, what we have is not a matter of ignorance. It is a matter of hate.

Everyone knows that the condition of Palestinians in the West Bank is far from ideal; we also know that Israel could, and must, do better. But Walker writes as though the Palestinians are identical to the blacks of South Africa; they suffer only because of the color of their skin (or their ethnicity, in this case), not because of anything they have done. She writes as though Israel is the only obstacle to their “freedom,” as though Israel is, as a matter of policy, committed to perpetuating their second-class status without end. But no reasonable reading of the Middle East justifies any such claim.

There is much to critique about Israeli policy; but the notion that the Palestinians are stateless solely because of Israel, or that they suffer at Israeli hands only because of their ethnicity, is obviously rubbish. Deep down, Alice Walker must know that.Lest we imagine that what Walker really objects to is the occupation, she even makes a point of saying that Israel is guilty of apartheid inside the Green Line as well.

Really? Again, it is true that Israeli Arabs do not get a fair share of Israel’s social bounty, and that must be fixed. But name a single country in which some minorities do not get the short end of the stick. Is every country on the planet therefore guilty of apartheid? And if so, why boycott only Israel? It can’t be because of Israel’s social policies, which are far better than those of many other countries that Walker is not boycotting.

Why just Israel? In apartheid South Africa, were there blacks on the Supreme Court? (Justice Salim Joubran, an Arab, serves on Israel’s highest bench; nor is he the first to do so.) In apartheid South Africa, were there recognized black parties in the parliament, legally pressing for their rights? The list could go on, almost endlessly. Anyone who knows anything about apartheid South Africa and about Israel knows how utterly different the two are.

Alice Walker also knows. But Alice Walker doesn’t care. Because this is not about Walker’s concern for the Palestinians; it is about her attitude to the Jews.

Yet, à la Remarque’s bemused comment about Jews their abiding infatuation even with cultural icons who hate them, there are Jews across the US still wondering how to “bring her around.” What can we say to Alice Walker, they ask, to get her to re-think, to understand? Though these questions come from a place of deep goodness, of belief in reason and decency, they also reflect our inability to draw a line in the sand and to demand that hate speech (which is precisely what Walker’s letter was) simply be banned from any circles in which we will take part.

We can especially understand those Jews who do not wish to cut their ties with Alice Walker, of all writers. After all, we sympathize with the plight of African Americans, which she evoked so brilliantly in The Color Purple. Her cause was our cause, and rightly so. But our cause, sadly, is not hers. Our ongoing attempt to assure a Jewish future by assuring a vibrant and secure Jewish state is a cause Alice Walker utterly rejects.

Walker, who joined a failed flotilla that had planned to sail from Greece, who openly supports the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and who has called Israel “the greatest terrorist” in the Middle East, compares Israel to South Africa and to the American South because she hopes for the same outcome – she wants Jewish sovereignty to go the way of apartheid, a rich Jewish future to go the way of the old American South. She does not want the Jews to have the revitalization that the Jewish state is meant to foster.

The real issue, therefore, is not Alice Walker, but us.

Anti-Semites come and go. Walker is not the first, nor will she be the last.  There is nothing we can do about that. But there is something we can do about our own reactions. Can we learn to stop coddling cultural geniuses, even though we revere their craft and talent, when they cross certain lines? Can we remind the world that what is truly abhorrent is not a conflict that Israel does not know how to end (though again, Israel could certainly manage it better), but the tarring of all Israelis and all Jews with one brush, as boycotts such as Walker’s invariably do?

Anthony Julius, in his magisterial Trials of the Diaspora, a history of British anti-Semitism, says this about boycotts: “What happens when people are boycotted? The ordinary courtesies of life are no longer extended to them… The boycott is an act of violence, though of a paradoxical kind – one of recoil and exclusion rather than assault… It is a denial, amongst other things, of the boycotted person’s freedom of expression… The boycott thus announces a certain moral distaste; it is always self-congratulatory.”

Nazi Germany, we should recall, began with boycotts of Jewish businesses, with the boycotting of Jewish intellectuals and professionals.By and large, German Jews said nothing. Will be we silent once again? This will be our test: Will Jews across the spectrum come to the defense of their people, or will they continue to wallow in their fawning over cultural icons? Will J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami publicly repudiate Alice Walker? What about Peter Beinart, who continues to insist that he is a Zionist? What about the many American rabbis who have made social activism a cornerstone of their rabbinate? Do they care about Jewish civil rights, too, or is it only other victims who arouse their sympathies? We are going to learn a great deal in the weeks to come.

We know what Alice Walker is made of; now it’s time to find out what we are made of.

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