Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Alice Walker refuses to have "The Color Purple" translated into Hebrew

This is no surprise, but it's still sad. Alice Walker refuses to authorize the publication of a Hebrew translation of her book "The Color Purple" because "Israel is guilty of apartheid." (For more on her views about Israel, Zionism, and Jewish self-determination, see my posts on her - Alice Walker).

Her opposition may not, in fact, prohibit the book from being published in Hebrew. Haaretz reports:
It was not clear when Yediot Books, an imprint of the daily Yediot Achronot newspaper, made the request, or whether Walker could in fact stop translation of the book. At least one version of the book has already appeared in Hebrew translation, in the 1980s.
The letter she wrote to Yediot Books refusing to let her book be published was posted on the PACBI website. Apparently when the book was made into a movie, the question arose as to whether it should be shown in South Africa, during the years of apartheid. She decided that it shouldn't be because "there was a civil society movement of BDS aimed at changing South Africa’s apartheid policies and, in fact, transforming the government." Walker is convinced that Israel is worse than both apartheid-era South Africa and the segregated South in which she grew up, particularly in how Israel treats the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and in how Arab citizens of Israel are treated.

I cannot speak to what it felt like to grow up in the segregated South as an African-American. I am white, and grew up in Massachusetts. My only taste of segregation was when I visited my grandparents in Washington, DC. What disturbed me was not the visible signs of segregation (for example, water fountains marked separately for "white" and "colored"), because I didn't see them, and they might have already been taken down by the time I was visiting. What disturbed me were the casual racist attitudes I encountered. And it's not as if there was no racism in the north - I lived in the Boston area throughout the period when the federal courts decided that the Boston schools should be integrated through busing. The courts did this because the Boston School Committee steadfastly refused to integrate the schools. It had members who engaged in the crudest racist demagoguery.

Despite what Israeli government spokespeople will tell you, the position of Israeli Arab citizens is not equal to that of Jews. As far as I can tell, the situation is quite mixed. Israeli Arab towns and villages suffer from decades of neglect by the government - the infrastructure in most of them is decidedly inferior to that in mostly Jewish cities and towns. Because most Israeli Arabs do not serve in the IDF, they have a great deal of difficulty in finding jobs in areas of the economy where IDF service is required. (Druze and Circassians are drafted into the IDF, and many Bedouin volunteer, but very few other Arab men serve in the IDF).

From what I can tell, the situation is improving slowly - the government is now running a program to encourage Jewish employers to hire Arab university graduates. There have been advertisements on the radio (and television also, I assume) urging Jewish employers to consider Arab applicants, and the government is also given monetary incentives to employers who hire Arab graduates. Arab Israelis go to colleges and universities (for example, the local college in Safed has a majority of Arab students, probably because of the large Arab population in the Galilee, where Safed is located). Hebrew University, which I am most familiar with, has Arab students - I don't know what percentage of the student population they are, but they are certainly visible on campus.

I do not think it is accurate to describe the situation of Arabs within Israel as "apartheid," or even "segregated" - I think it is accurate to say that they suffer from some discriminatory government policies and from widespread suspicion of them by Israeli Jews, which can lead to discrimination in employment or housing. The situation is hardly ideal, but it is not as bad as the segregated South or apartheid South Africa.

As for the description of the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank as "apartheid." I assume that is meant is the existence of separate, government-built infrastructure for Jews, including separate communities and roads. For example, Rte. 443 goes from Jerusalem to Modi'in through the occupied West Bank. There are parts of 443 that Palestinians are not permitted to drive on, for security reasons. (Israeli cars and cars belonging to West Bank Palestinians have different-colored license plates, so it's easy to tell - the Israeli ones are issued by the Israeli government, and I assume the Palestinian ones are issued by the Palestinian Authority). Is this apartheid? It definitely makes me feel uncomfortable, and I try not to drive on 443.

When I was first living in Israel in the late 1980s, as a graduate student, there were a lot fewer Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and there were no separate roads built to get to the settlements. If you wanted to ge to the Gush Etzion settlements, close to Bethlehem, you had to drive on roads that went through Palestinian towns. With the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987, this became increasingly dangerous. I don't know when exactly the separate roads started to be built - the second intifada, which started in 2000, might have been the real impetus for the construction of separate roads, because it was so much bloodier than the first intifada.

In my opinion, the situation in the West Bank is getting close to apartheid, in the sense of government-imposed separation and favoring of one group (Israeli settlements) over another (Palestinians). This is one of the many reasons that I favor Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state with full sovereignty (unlike the partial control given to the Palestinian Authority in certain parts of the West Bank). I think that some of the settlements should become part of sovereign Israel, while others will remain under Palestinian state control - in other words, returning to the borders as of June 4, 1967, "with land swaps," as President Obama put it.

Is any of this relevant to whether Alice Walker's book should be published in Hebrew? I think that she should davka publish it in Hebrew, with a forward explaining her current political views. The book is very powerful, and I think that it could be influential, with sufficient publicity - not only with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to the current disgraceful treatment of African refugees in Israel. If she refuses to publish it in Hebrew, she's taking herself out of any anti-racist and pro-peace movement in Israel, and that seems like a complete waste.


  1. The problem is that you remember as well as I do Ms. Walker's foray into this whole state of affairs (your post and mine). This is not a case of misguidedly pursuing justice in the wrong way. This is the result of someone whose sense of justice has become so perverted so as to exclude Jews from its ambit.

    And from that perspective, Walker is behaving in a way that is exactly how one would expect. She's not taking herself out of anti-racist and pro-peace movements; not only was she not a part of them in the first place, her commitments run opposite whatever such a movement would pursue.

  2. I agree with you. I was just trying to take her objections seriously, and also point out seriously what is wrong with her call to boycott Israel. I know that she's deaf to any opinions other than her own, especially those of people who support Israel.