A Few More Shades of Grey

07.18.12 7:00 PM ET

No, Danny Gordis didn’t say that Alice Walker is guilty of “Nazi-grade anti-Semitism.” What he did do was this: 

First, he accused Alice Walker of anti-Semitism—the sub-heading of the Jerusalem Post article was “Anti-Semites come and go. Alice Walker is not the first, nor will she be the last.” And later he compares the B in BDS to the Nazi boycott of Jews in in the 1930s:

[Walker] openly supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement…Nazi Germany, we should recall, began with boycotts of Jewish businesses, with the boycotting of Jewish intellectuals and professionals.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Alice Walker arrives at the induction ceremony for the California Hall of Fame where she was inducted Billy Jean King, Amelia Earhart and Clint Eastwood.

So if it’s “intellectually dishonest” to “intentionally misread” Gordis’ “unambiguous column” to say that he’s comparing Alice Walker’s BDS tactics to a 1930s Nazi campaign, well then I'm not quite sure what to say. (Also, since Gordis only refers to be as "Beinart's assistant," my name is Elisheva Goldberg)

But if we’re going to persist in keeping the conversation about anti-Semitism, we have to think about who anti-Semites are and what they do and don’t do.

It’s quite easy to look up who anti-Semites are, what they believe and all of the presently defined permutations of what they do.  Exhaustive studies and whole departments at Ivy League universities are dedicated to positively identifying what it is (or isn’t). But before you head off to browse JSTOR, here are some examples of what anti-Semites don’t do:

They aren’t mentored by the likes of Howard Zinn (Walker called him “an extension of her father”). They aren’t often inspired by the poetry of the likes of Muriel Rukeyser, (Rukeyser’s poem “To Be a Jew” became part of reform and reconstructionist liturgy, and it was her agent that found Walker her first major publisher). They don’t marry Jews, they don’t then go and live with them in Mississippi where interracial marriage is illegal and they don’t have children (however estranged) with them. They don’t allow Jews like Steven Spielberg to turn their magnum opus into a film. And they don’t tell Israeli Jews that they’d love for them to read their book, though now’s not the time.

So I’ll say it again: Alice Walker isn’t an anti-Semite.  Not Nazi-grade, or any other kind. And I’ll say something else again: Her tactics (BDS) and her terminology (Apartheid) when it comes got Israel are painful, and while I don’t agree with them, I refuse to discount her.

I’m not saying she’s always particularly nuanced (she reads Ali Abunimah and thinks a two-state solution will inevitably lead to Bantustans)—but I understand what’s triggering her reaction.

She compared the experience of entering Palestine and “going through Israeli checkpoints” to “going back in time to American Civil Rights struggle…” In her TEDx talk in Ramallah, she talked about how Palestinian “resilience” and “suffering” called to mind the Freedom Song of South Africa. When she was interrogated on the King Hussein Bridge (for three hours), she got to talking with the soldier who held her at the border.  She asked him if Israelis and Palestinians could live together like they lived in South Africa. He was pessimistic; she was less so. For Walker, the Apartheid analogy in Israel is as clear as a summer’s day. 

And it’s no wonder. Walker, the child of sharecroppers, grew up in a segregated school system deep in the American South. She spent much of late 1960s working for the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People where she took depositions from blacks who had been evicted from their homes for attempting to register to vote.  She boycotted South Africa during apartheid and speaks metaphorically of having visited the spirit of the country since she was five.

So I wasn’t shocked when Walker’s letter turning down the translation offer from Yediot Books discussed her experience of “American apartheid” and turns the term on Israel. I don’t like it, but I hear her frustration. Seeing house demolitions, real segregation, harassment and one ethnic group dominating another must set off some mighty alarm bells for someone like her.

Gordis and Walker see Israel wearing very different glasses: Gordis through a Jewish-holocaust lens and Walker through her black-segregation lens.  Both come with blinders. Neither is entirely wrong, but calling Alice Walker anti-Semitic is just about as bad as calling Israel racist.