Alice Walker's True Colors

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Maya Sela
Maya Sela

Through her decision not to have her book "The Color Purple" translated into Hebrew, Alice Walker is choosing to keep silent and absenting herself from Israel's crucial public discourse about racism and the occupation.

Literature at its best should be a Trojan horse. Good authors don't just tell us a story to pass the time in a pleasant way. They offer ideas that insinuate themselves into the reader's mind, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes in the form of a tale that disguises its moral and cultural lessons. Books can provide readers with a mirror in which they can see something they hadn't seen before, and give them the uncommon opportunity of subsequently seeing themselves and their surroundings in a different light.

Alice Walker relinquished the possibility of becoming a literary Odysseus when she announced recently she would not agree to have her book "The Color Purple" translated into Hebrew. Walker explained her decision on the grounds that Israel is an apartheid state, adding she hoped the boycott would have an effect on civil society here.

Let us set aside the proposition that Israel is an apartheid state, though to me this doesn't seem an accurate definition. The background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not racial. It would have been enough to talk about the Israeli occupation. There is no need to bandy slogans around in order to strengthen the argument that the occupation must be ended.

But let us use Walker's assumption that Israel is indeed an apartheid state. If South Africa was still under an apartheid regime, would it not be smarter to enable the people there - by any means possible - to read what Walker has to say about racial discrimination?

Boycotting is easy. A herd of boycotters is a comfortable herd. Being anti-Israeli these days is fashionable. As a boycotter you join a popular crowd, and you're safe in the knowledge that you will get automatic applause from your intellectual and literary milieu. Clearly the issue of Israel/Palestine is important to Alice Walker - she was due to participate in last year's (aborted ) Gaza flotilla - but she and others involved in the arts who are implementing a cultural boycott of Israel are accomplishing the opposite of what they believe in.

What is Walker achieving by preventing Israelis from reading "The Color Purple" in Hebrew at this specific time? What punishment does she, and all the boycotters of Israel, think they are meting out to us? To be blunt, most Israelis don't have any special interest in Alice Walker, and her specific boycott won't make waves.

But the cumulative trend of boycotts does have an effect on Israeli life. By isolating Israelis, boycotters are creating a renewed sense of unity and self-worth among Israelis, and greater antagonism and withdrawal from the outside world. The boycotters are feeding the flames of Israelis' eternal bonfire of victimhood. Victimhood is one of those mental constructs which is so hard for Israelis to rid themselves of - and therefore, one which the Israeli establishment itself nurtures because it is convenient. When someone boycotts Israel, Israelis immediately see themselves as victims of anti-Semitism, which unites them in the general sense of lamentation and the rightness of their way.

Some say that when a writer prevents publication of his book in Israel, or refuses to participate in literary festivals here, s/he is in fact punishing precisely those - in the center and on the left, who are disproportionately represented in literary circles - who support peace and oppose the current government's policy.

I'd like to suggest a different argument, using the example of the Trojan horse. 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 it is crucial for them to read. Walker should want her books to appear not only in bookshops and on private bookshelves but also on huge billboards along 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.

Israelis don't like to hear criticism. Maybe that's true of every nation in the world, but maybe the dislike is stronger than for other nations - I haven't conducted enough research globally to make a judgment, even an anecdotal one, on that. To paraphrase a local saying, anyone with butter on his head shouldn't go out in the sun.

Had Walker herself done more serious research, she would have certainly discovered that the occupation is just one of our problems. Perhaps it's the most acute of our problems, but the manifestations of racism in Israeli life are far more extensive than solely attitudes toward Palestinians. The incarceration and deportation of African migrants living in Israel is an intense current issue and is eliciting unprecedented racism - and not only from the mob in the streets but also in the Knesset and from senior government ministers, who have actively fanned the flames of race hatred.

Maybe this public and humiliating demonstration of primitive racism to the world is Israel's punishment for the occupation. Something inside us is sick. The situation is disturbing as well as infuriating - but the way to fight it is to make your voice heard. Not to be silent. In her decision not to have her book translated here, Walker is choosing to keep silent, absenting herself from Israel's crucial public discourse about racism and the occupation. This is a strange and disappointing choice for an activist writer.