Alice in Wordlessland

Larry Levin


Last week, the world learned that the author Alice Walker refused to allow a new Hebrew edition of her award-winning novel, “The Color Purple,” to be published in Israel. The decision was based on her observation of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, which in a recent statement she labeled as “apartheid.”

Walker is no newbie to the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to influence change in Israel’s policies through economic and other vehicles. Last year, for instance, she participated in a flotilla that tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

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The words of an author with the literary credentials of Walker carry great weight, and so it was no surprise that many reacted swiftly, and with great emotion and force, to Walker’s claims and actions. As one would expect, outcries from large swaths of the Jewish community called Walker out on her unfair and inaccurate use of apartheid symbolism; her failure to point out that BDS is largely funded by hateful anti-Israel forces; and her refusal to acknowledge the true physical threats and violence Israel constantly must confront from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other radical groups throughout the Mideast.

It’s easy to view Walker as another of the many voices who use unnuanced arguments to compare Israel’s actions to those of South Africa during its apartheid regime. But there were voices of objection stemming from a different vein; those who find the notion of literary censorship distasteful and objectionable. They focus in on ways in which refusal to publish can inhibit open and useful discussion, and on whether the kind of censorship Walker is exercising is even legally defensible.

• Neil Macdonald, CBS Senior Washington Correspondent: “What makes me most uncomfortable about the kind of fervent activism that Walker and her fellow travellers advocate is not their boycott. In the end, that is really only an attempt to influence others through suasion, to make a particular personal choice with one’s own money. Rather, it is the fact that they are so certain of themselves that they would blithely consent to stamp out speech.”

• Maya Sela, Literary Correspondent for Haaretz: “I believe Alice Walker’s aspiration, and that of other major cultural figures, should be to have her books read precisely by those people with whose actions and beliefs she does not agree. Walker, of all people, who has confronted racism and has written a powerful fictional critique of it, is preventing Israelis from being exposed to the very kind of literary work that is crucial for them to read. Walker should want her books appearing not only in bookshops and on private bookshelves but she should want her texts to appear on huge billboards along the highways in the state of Israel. For whose edification is she talking about racism and segregation? Is her aim only to preach to the converted, to the liberal masses of Scandinavia? It is precisely here in Israel that her voice needs to be heard, and in Hebrew.”

• The noted lawyer Alan Dershowitz (who certainly is an ardent supporter of Israel, though by his own writings open to a wide variety of perspectives), in the Jerusalem Post: “(Walker’s) bigotry against the Jewish state and in support of terrorists knows no bounds. Now she is even prepared to impose censorship of her own writings as a tool in support of terrorism. She should not be permitted to get away with such bigotry. Nor should her actions be seen as morally elevated. The laws of copyright were certainly not designed to encourage or even permit selective censorship based on national origin or religion.”

So three very different takes are presented above: Intellectual arrogance; counterproductive tactics; and censorship in violation of public policy. Interesting that neither of the first two even get to the issue of BDS as a tactic (which we at the Light and I personally continue to eschew as not only a futile method but one that is largely anti-Semitic and largely funded by those with extremist and destructive views toward Israel). Dershowitz obviously shows venom, but his objection to the publishing refusal is based on a legal argument that turns Walker’s objections on their head, namely: How can she discriminate against an entire people by refusing to publish when she is accusing the same people of discriminating against another people?

Walker is no doubt intellectually dishonest in her treatment of the State of Israel. If she held America to the same standard to which she subjects Israel, we wouldn’t be able to read her literature here either (and now many less Jews will do so, for sure).

But even if you don’t care to go that far, one thing’s for darned sure — Israelis who only read Hebrew aren’t going to be swayed by not being able to read her novel. If they were going to be persuaded of her position, which is unlikely to say the least, the only thing that might do the trick would be the words themselves. Words that they cannot now read because of Walker’s self-congratulatory and meaningless boycott.