Real Anti-Semitism Watch

07.02.12

Alice Walker Is Not An Anti-Semite

Daniel Gordis—among others—has accused Alice Walker of Nazi-grade anti-Semitism for refusing to translate her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple, through an Israeli publisher. This doesn’t sit well with me.

My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. He survived the death camp Treblinka, a place so fatally efficient that only .000075% (60 out of 800,000) lived to tell their stories. I am the grandchild of a man who was a slave and who taught me what real anti-Semitism is.  And it isn’t Alice Walker.

Walker’s ancestors were also slaves. Her parents, living in the segregated American South, were sharecroppers. Jim Crow was no Holocaust, but I bet it taught Walker’s parents something about bigotry.

And there's more than just a shared heritage of oppression: Walker married (and divorced) a Jewish civil rights lawyer and they became the first legally married interracial couple ever to live in Jackson, Mississippi.  They had a child, a daughter named Rebecca, who still grapples with her black, white, and Jewish identity. The Color Purple—the very novel she refuses to publish in Israel—was first turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg. Oh, and she also said this:

...I would so like knowing my books are read by the people of your country, especially by the young, and by the brave Israeli activists (Jewish and Palestinian) for justice and peace I have had the joy of working beside. I am hopeful that one day, maybe soon, this may happen. But now is not the time.

Alice Walker is not boycotting Jews. She is not even boycotting Israelis. She is boycotting the government of Israel. She is boycotting what she sees as state-subsidized symbols of racism that remind her of Apartheid South Africa: segregated roads, demolished houses, a comprehensive system of control, public support for Bantustans and the denial of the right to vote for a specific, occupied population. Yes, Walker objects to the way Israel treats the Palestinians, but she doesn’t hate Israelis, nor does she want to deprive them of her book.  In fact, The Color Purple was translated into Hebrew once before. Should Israelis choose to seek it out, they can read it in their native tongue. This woman is not out to get Jews; she’s out to get injustice. So when Gordis tells me that "this is not about Walker's concern for the Palestinians; it is about her attitude to the Jews," I just don't believe him.

And because Walker isn’t an anti-Semite, calling her one degrades something far beyond basic linguistic meaning of the phrase.  It devalues the memory my grandfather’s experience. It compounds starvation, hard labor and disease with the mild absence of a piece of American literature. Could there be any more degrading a comparison?

So what is it about Alice Walker that scares Gordis?  It’s not that she and Elvis Costello and Naomi Klein and the dozens of other artists and writers who boycott Israel are on the brink of transmogrifying into the fourth Reich in order to renew the systematic extermination of the Jews. No. It’s the legitimacy of the “Apartheid” analogy and BDS. And why does that scare them?  Because, they say, it delegitimizes Israel as a Jewish state. And in some ways, perhaps it does. And yes, that is terrifying. But cheapening the term anti-Semitism in order to stuff a proverbial sock the mouths of BDS activists won’t help buoy Israel’s legitimacy. In the age of Twitter, trying to shut down a movement only makes it louder and more viral. It is precisely because the Apartheid analogy exists—and scares us— that we should talk about it.

Far be it from me to support Alice Walker’s words and actions—I think the term "Apartheid" is inappropriate when applied to Israel and BDS erases the Green Line. But in order to have any meaningful exchange, we must be precise in our language. We need a robust conversation about what Apartheid is and is not, what the Holocaust was and was not, and, above all, we need to use the label of anti-Semitism only when we do it justice.