UPDATED: A couple dozen fervent pro-Israel activists gathered outside the 92nd Street Y on Thursday night to protest an appearance there by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. Some of the demonstrators labelled her an “anti-Semite," lamenting that she'd been invited to a vaunted Jewish institution on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Jewish institutions like the 92nd Street Y are increasingly coming under harsh pressure—and, sometimes, being protested—for inviting forceful critics of Israel to speak. Walker, best known for her novel The Color Purple and a frequent guest of the 92nd Street Y, considers Israel's occupation of Palestinians "apartheid," and advocates for a near total boycott of the Jewish State. In an open letter this week, Walker invited the R&B singer Alicia Keys to join the cultural boycott of Israel and cancel an upcoming Tel Aviv concert. Last year, Walker declined to have her book translated into Hebrew by an Israeli publisher, citing her work with the Russell Tribunal on Palestine.
Both the apartheid charge and supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel virtually guarantee denunciation by the right-wing pro-Israel community as anti-Semitic. In Commentary, Jonathan Tobin suggested that perhaps even the 92nd Street Y was anti-Semitic for hosting a BDS-backer. "While some rightly label those who advocate discrimination against Israel and its people as anti-Semitism, many refuse to draw the logical conclusion about those who back the BDS (boycott, divest and sanctions against Israel) movement and continue to welcome them into the community and even honor them," he wrote. "The question is, how is it possible that a venerable Jewish institution like the 92nd Street Y would choose to welcome someone who advocates bias against Jews?'
In April, the 92nd Street Y reportedly cancelled an event with another Tribunal veteran and BDS backer, the Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters. The Y gave the impression Waters bailed, but he said they cancelled without explanation. He suspected "resistance in the local Jewish community" prompted the Y's reversal.
The Waters announcement came amid outrage over a softer-spoken critic of Israel at a Jewish institution 80 blocks downtown: President Jimmy Carter, at Yeshiva University. JCC Watch, a far-right Jewish community watchdog based in New York, fueled the campaign against Carter, but promised protests failed to materialize and Carter received his award from a student-run journal without a hitch.
JCC Watch helped organize the protest against Walker, who the Y invited to discuss, with playwright Eve Ensler, her writing and activism. Several of the protesters told me that Walker shouldn’t have been invited to speak given her comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa, though a few of them didn’t know her position on Israel prior to the event. One man thought that Walker shouldn’t be allowed to speak at a Jewish institution because “she is a pagan.”
CORRECTION: This post and its headline have been updated to reflect the following correction: an earlier version of this post described an encounter between Alice Walker and demonstrators that, according to Walker, did not occur. The account in Open Zion matched that offered by other outlets, where an apparent impostor allowed on-lookers to believe she was Walker, who wrote on her blog that she actually entered through a rear entrance and had no exchange with protesters. We regret the error.