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Alice Walker & Israel

Alice Walker & Israel

The Pulitzer Prize winner’s fanatical worldview has morphed into Jew-hatred.


I'll never forget the first time I watched the film version of Alice Walker's masterful 1982 novel The Color Purple. Both book and movie brilliantly depict the savagery and violence against blacks in the American South and in South Africa in the 1930s.

The story is about Celie, beaten and impregnated by her step-father; Celie's friend Sophia, unjustly jailed and horribly abused in prison; and Celie's sister Nettie, a missionary in South Africa, ministering to brutalized people denied civil and political rights. It's a depressing novel, but also an important one, stirring readers to fight injustice. For this, Alice Walker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

You'd think after writing about these abuses, author Alice Walker would enjoy visiting a country like Israel: a robust democracy in which conflicting views are forced to coexist. After all, Israel has an open and vibrant press. In Israel, the vote is extended to all, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Members of Israel's Arab minority serve at all levels of government, from Parliament to Supreme Court justices. The U.S. State Department describes Israel as a liberal democracy where minority rights are respected, and disputes are settled fairly without prejudice in the nation's courts.

But instead of finding in Israel a common liberal sensibility, Walker recently announced that she won't let The Color Purple be translated furthermore into Hebrew. (A previous Hebrew version came out in 1984.)

Why? Because, according to Walker, life in Israel today is "worse” than the segregation she suffered as a youth in the Jim Crow South, and also "worse" than South African Apartheid.

Perhaps Walker's criticisms say more about her than they do about Israel.

Calling Israel "worse" than Jim Crow cheapens the history of African Americans.

Walker's parents were impoverished sharecroppers. Calling Israel "worse" than the Jim Crow South in which they lived cheapens their history and the histories of millions of African Americans who for years couldn't vote (a right extended to all in Israel) and who couldn't even to sit on buses and in restaurants with white people.

No such barriers exist in Israel, where people of all religions and ethnicities mingle in public and private places.

And to call Israel - with its universal suffrage, internationally-recognized judicial system, and rainbow society of immigrants (including thousands of political refugees from African and Arab countries) - "worse" than a regime like apartheid South Africa is just plain wrong. Again, it cheapens the history of those who suffered and died under apartheid.

Related Article: Anti-Semitism in 3D

At the Core

What lies behind this irrational hatred for the Jews?

Alice Walker's daughter, Rebecca Walker, offers some insight with a searing description of her unusual childhood.

For starters, Rebecca was fathered by Mel Leventhal, a Jewish lawyer and the son of Holocaust survivors. A mixture of guilt and disdain may have played some role here.

Yet more – ideology was always more important to Alice than people, and she espoused the radical view that childhood enslaved women. Walker ignored and neglected Rebecca for years. Resentful of the chain of motherhood, she essentially left Rebecca to fend for herself from age 13.

Ultimately, Alice took the radical step of severing their relationship: “saying that our relationship had been inconsequential for years and that she was no longer interested in being my mother.” (London Daily Mail: “How My Mother's Fanatical Views Tore Us Apart”)

With Walker's latest salvo against Israel, her family's personal tragedy has lately become a tragedy for the entire Jewish community, as well. Alice Walker has turned her naïve, one-dimensional view of the world away from the crucible of her family and onto the world stage, bringing the same warped view to bear.

Related Article: An Open Letter to Alice Walker

The Oldest Hatred

Anti-Semitism has been called the world’s oldest hatred. Through the years, it has provided people with an easy scapegoat for the world's suffering: if only there weren't Jews, everything would be great.

In modern times, this hatred is often redirected to Israel, painting the country and its citizens as uniquely evil and sinister on the world stage.

Sadly, Walker isn't the only famous person to tarnish her reputation and legacy by spurious attacks on the Jewish state.

In recent years, Nobel Prize-winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu has become known less for his struggle against South African Apartheid, and more and more for his obsession with Israel and Jews: saying it's time to forgive Hitler; talking about sinister Jewish lobbies; and repeating other bizarre anti-Semitic and anti-Israel tropes.

A spate of Nobel Prize winners has turned to comparing Israel to the Nazis.

Plenty others allow their legacy to rot into anti-Israel rhetoric. Mairead Corrigan Maguire won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for her work to end violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, but lately she's been squandering her moral capital bashing Israel obsessively, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and embracing radical anti-Israel campaigns. José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, was better known in the last years for lurid statements comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. Tom Paulin was once known as one of Britain's greatest living poets: an Oxford professor and frequent fixture on British television and radio programs. Until lately, that is, when he's compromised his considerable legacy by questioning Israel’s very right to exist and calling on some Israelis to be "shot dead."

In all these cases hostility toward Israel begins to spill over into hostility toward Jews. Alice Walker's opposition to people reading her books in Hebrew is a move against the language of the entire Jewish people. To target the language in this way is to move vilification out of the political realm and make it personal.

What can we do in the face of such anti-Israel mania, especially on the part of well-respected cultural figures?

On one hand, we can and must educate ourselves to counter factual inaccuracies. There is no shortage of pro-Israel websites; the Jewish Virtual Library contains a treasure trove of information.

On a deeper level, perhaps the most effective way to counter anti-Israeli hatred is to recognize it for what it often is, a poisonous world view that hurts its host as much as its object. It appeals to those looking for a simplistic answer to complex questions; to those to whom the world is either black or white, good or evil; to people who lack the will to explore more complex understandings.

Sadly, Alice Walker's extreme views on Israel indicate a pervasive problem with fanaticism that, according to her daughter, has distorted her entire life. The danger for the rest of us is that her statements create an atmosphere in which ever more virulent rhetoric about Israel becomes the norm.

June 24, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 87

(66) ellen, June 23, 2013 3:07 PM

Oh those horrible jews

Dear Ms. Walker, In researching your own history, I wonder how many Palestiinians she found had put their lives on the line in an effort to secure black civil rights. I've never understood how any blacks in America can support this kind of blatant anti semitism, considering the history and jews and blacks in this country. When a country has enemies, sworn to destroy it, they have the right to defend themselves, including economically. To say that Israel doesn't have the right to put it's best foot forward is simply obvious anti semitism. I'm sure she won't miss my buying her books.

(65) Alan, September 28, 2012 6:20 PM

Alice Walker is wrong

I heard Alice Walker on KPFK in an interview with Amy Goodman and it lingered in my mind. What does it mean I kept asking myself that she would not want her book published in Israel in Hebrew. The more I thought about it the more wrong-headed it seemed to me. She called it a cultural boycott. That sounds like garbage to me. Does she not believe in freedom of thought and the free flow of ideas. Does she think Israeliis are so diabolical that they are immune to compassion, self-reflection, concern for others and for justice. Sometimes we are totally disappointed with the cultural icons that we set on pedestals. They can often let us down with smug contemptuous arrogance.

Anonymous, October 3, 2012 5:35 AM

the real answer

Alan: The real answer, in my opinion, is that Ms. Walker has fallen prey to the same hatred, inhumanity and spiritual poverty that her "oeuvre" repeatedly accuses and ascribes to other. In my view, this lady lacks any sense, and factual information is a tedium that can be easily dispensed with, given the ego stroking that her new "spiritual co-religionists" provide for her. I Dare Ms Walker "stand by her principals, and exercise INTEGRITY" - wear a niqab. This, an Only this will validate her true blue convictions that she now has declared publically. Should Ms Walker Not wear the Niqab - IN Public, as a gesture of solidarity with oppressed women everywhere, in my humble opinion, she may need to revisit the continuity of her "new and brave foray" into authentic personhood.

(64) Anonymous, August 13, 2012 6:08 AM

Love for the Land

Yes. I have visited Israel four times and I love the land, its people, the food, the culture. I respect their struggle and the diffculty to keep Israel safe and secure. But, when I'm there, something mysterious and wonderful happens to me. I don't want to leave. Hope to visit agian!

(63) Anonymous, August 13, 2012 6:03 AM

...They shall prosper that love thee

These days I am not surprised at the happenings in the hearts of people, even renown people. Not sure if their hearts are being revealed at this time in earth's history, or that people have not changed as we have better ways of finding out what they believe. Our Jewish friends are the "apple of God's eye". Not loving them is impossible if you love Abraham's God, even when snubbed by them (smile), one's unconditional love surfaces. I, for one, love Israel and I am not ALONE. David said in Psalms 122:6...Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. That blesses me because prosperity of one's life goes far beyond cash and riches, although they are not excluded. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee..meditate (and do what it says) there for a while and you will smile and be full of joy. I don't worry when people don't like me. If they hate you, it's because you are doing something right. Israel doesn't need to worry about her enemies, she has escaped everyone of them and will continue to do so by the grace of God.

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