In defence of Alice Walker

Alice Walker’s real ‘offence’ is not anti-Semitism; it is her unwavering support for the Palestinian cause.

Alice Walker
Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice Walker talks with Palestinian women during a visit in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on March 8, 2009 [File: AP Photo/Hatem Moussa]

Much has been said about Alice Walker in recent weeks, none of it good. It was her turn to get churned through the gristmill of Zionist slander, pummelled with recycled accusations of anti-Semitism after she mentioned reading And the Truth Shall Set You Free (1995) by David Icke, a book widely regarded as anti-Semitic. To be clear, Walker never said she agreed with or embraced Icke’s views. She said she was interested in his writings and found him “brave” for saying things opposed by popular sensibilities.

I’ve never read Icke, save for recent excerpts plucked out by his critics, and I don’t feel the need to do so in order to state that guilt by association is wholly unfair. The excerpts are terrible, but they do not reflect on Ms Walker simply because she read them. 

The poem

“But did you read Alice Walker’s poem?” People have said to me. “It’s as anti-Semitic as it gets.”

I am reminded of Dareen Tatour, who was imprisoned by Israel for a poem she posted on Facebook, on the fanciful claim it called for violence against Jews; and Gunter Grass, whom Israel banned and lobbied to have his Nobel Prize in Literature rescinded because he wrote a poem arguing that Germany should stop supplying Israel with nuclear submarines. Even the work of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s greatest poet, was denounced as the equivalent of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

In general, I think delineating and policing the boundaries of inquiry and artistic pursuit is never a good idea. It is no exaggeration to say that Alice Walker is a cultural icon whose intellectual labour and imaginative creativity contributed to the moral advancement of American society. Yet the ways in which she has been simply dismissed and disposed of as an anti-Semite have been stunningly swift, decisive, and defamatory.  

It is for this reason that I feel compelled to respond, even at this late hour and despite the attacks I am likely to receive. It is also because I have been asked, as a Palestinian writer and member of several collectives, by some of our allies to denounce her; and because Ms Walker is a thoughtful, compassionate and brilliant woman who deserves better from us.

Her poem begins with the shock of being called an anti-Semite for daring to suggest universal human dignity belongs to Palestinians, too. It goes on to examine Israel’s unfathomably cruel and unrelentingly violent treatment of indigenous Palestinians. From there, Ms Walker searches the Talmud for answers. Then she calls out passages that uphold Jewish supremacy and anti-Gentile (goyim) values.

According to Rabbi Rosen, the passages are real. All monotheistic religious texts span the full spectrum of ideas, from the noblest to the vilest. The Bible and Quran have their own versions of misogynistic, homophobic, and shockingly violent passages, which are frequently called out, and in the case of the Quran, used to frame the destruction of defenceless societies.

Walker’s critics make a fair point

Those denouncing Walker have said that pulling out the worst texts from a religious tradition to make sweeping statements about its adherents goes beyond critical analysis, into xenophobia.  

This is a fair point, one with which I agree wholeheartedly. But that’s not what happened, and the suggestions otherwise are dishonest.

Keeping in mind we’re talking about a poem, not a political essay, Ms Walker certainly did not make sweeping statements about Jews, but about a decidedly Jewish settler-colonial theocracy, whose ministers and military frequently use rabbinic edicts and religious texts to justify unspeakable oppression against Palestinians.

Weaponisation of Jewish texts

For decades, Israeli political, cultural and religious leaders have been shaping the social, legal and psychological landscape with repugnant guidance – inhumanity they serve to their public as divinely ordained truth. Some examples: In 2010, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur wrote The King’s Torah, a rabbinical instruction manual outlining acceptable murder of Gentile babies, children and adults in which it claimed that the commandment “thou shalt not kill” applies only to Jews. The book was widely distributed throughout Israel from their yeshiva, which was funded by the Israeli government and by US tax-exempt charities.

In 2016, Israel’s chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef declared publicly that non-Jews should not be permitted to live in Israel except as servants to Jews. In March 2018, the same chief rabbi compared black people with monkeys and later defended this racism as being supported by the Talmud.

In April 2018, a translation of rabbi Ophir Wallas’ lecture revealed he was teaching upcoming soldiers that they are religiously permitted to commit genocide against Palestinians, but that fear of international condemnation is preventing it.

These are not proclamations by fringe Israelis. They are not poems by writers with no material power. Rather, they constitute a deeply embedded ethos of a huge swathe of Israeli society, including politicians, generals and spiritual leaders with extraordinary power – with planes, bombs, tanks, bulldozers, and toxic chemicals they use on Palestinians regularly.

They aren’t just hurting people’s feelings, but spurring real and profound injury to millions of human beings, every hour of every day, one generation after another, producing the soul-crushing statistics of an ancient people’s slow erasure from this world.

Selective condemnation

Yet those denouncing Alice Walker and calling on Palestinians to do the same did not once take up space in the New York Times, New York Magazine, or other prominent media venues to denounce the dissemination of the worst ideas from Jewish texts, which continue to inspire violence against Palestinians, their properties and holy places, including the increasing “price tag” assaults.

Nor have Palestinians called on allies to do so. We who are killed, humiliated, and destroyed in visible and invisible ways by Israel’s notions of Jewish supremacy do not expect our allies to prove over and over where they stand.

We also never point to the religious teachings Israelis consistently use to justify their barbarism. We take painstaking care to always make the distinction between the awful political ideology of Zionism and the religion to which it clings.  

That Alice Walker used literary creativity to highlight the specific religious sources verifiably used to promulgate hatred does not make her racist and it is not a reason to turn on a beloved elder.

The real offence

Ms Walker’s real offence is her defiant support for Palestinian liberation. It is her unapologetic endorsement of BDS, the international Boycott, Divest and Sanction campaign against Israel.

Only weeks before the Zionist machines began clawing at Ms Walker, they were trying to skewer Professor Marc Lamont Hill.

Before them, there was Jimmy Carter, Jeremy Corbyn, Desmond Tutu, Roger Waters, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Helen Thomas, Richard Falk. And before them was a whole generation of black revolutionaries. The list is too long to go on.

Their crime isn’t that they’re actually anti-Semitic. It is a sinister violation of public imagination to put any of these individuals under the same word as the attacker who opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, or the white nationalists who chanted “Jews will not replace us”, or those who paint swastikas on their bodies and fly Nazi flags.

Alice Walker’s legacy has been one of love, defiance, and living one’s truth. She is a towering cultural figure, a civil rights leader, an ardent feminist, and a brave champion of human rights. She is also imperfect and not beyond criticism. But an anti-Semite she is not.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.