On Alice Walker and cultural boycott: A debate

Alice Walker, author of the award-winning novel ‘The Color Purple,’ has reportedly refused translation rights of her book to an Israeli publisher, citing Israel as an ‘apartheid state’ with policies worse than the treatment of blacks in the southern United States and South Africa. This post will be updated with additional opinions throughout the day. Readers are welcome to contribute their comments. 

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel posted on its website a letter said to be from Walker, in which she notes:

I would so like knowing my books are read by the people of your country, especially by the young, and by the brave Israeli activists (Jewish and Palestinian) for justice and peace I have had the joy of working beside. I am hopeful that one day, maybe soon, this may happen. But now is not the time.


Roee Ruttenberg writes:

Activism is a vital form of expression in a free society. It is a crucial form of checks-and-balances which keeps governments and institutions-of-power in-check. And on a personal note, I think it is important that individuals fight for a cause that is greater than their own.

That said, I have long opposed the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) Movement against Israel and actions like the one’s supported by Walker. While I think it is commendable that those behind it – well, some of those behind it – truly believe such acts will help remedy the plight of the Palestinians, I think such moves are misguided and short-sightened at best, and worst yet, hypocritical.

…the bigger irony is that, for now, she is choosing to deny the Israeli public a book, in Hebrew, about the government-sanctioned legal exploitation of a subjugated, oppressed minority (in the United States). Surely, at a time like this, even Walker should realize the urgency in providing a book just like that to Hebrew-reading Israelis.

Read more from Roee here.

Noam Sheizaf: It’s an honest, moral form of activism

I don’t want to go into the BDS debate yet, but instead speak of this act alone. Activism is about using the tools you have to make the world better. It means questioning every choice you make in a political context, rather than just use elections, or an occasional petition, to voice your opinion. Alice Walker possesses the rights to the books she has written – why not use them for the most important cause in which she is engaged? One can question the effectiveness of her act, but not the moral legitimacy of it. It is similar to the cases of the musicians who refuse to perform in Israel. I have written my position on that here.

As for the notion that reading books will help the cause of justice more than denying them from readers – I think that’s a position that romanticizes the political reality. Literature is an industry. Literature is political. Recently, Israeli publishers lobbied for a Knesset bill to secure their margins of profit. If you benefit from the state, why not bear some responsibility for its actions?

Finally, a word about cultural boycotts. People hate them, and they are usually met with more anger and frustration than any other form of boycott. I think that the reason lies not in the the special value of music or literature, but in the fact that it’s the elites that consume most of those imported cultural products, and when you hurt the elite, they cry louder. But for this reason, it’s a more effective and even more moral form of boycott. Economic boycott hurt the poor first, in a way that could actually put their lives and well-being in danger. It’s unfair, because the poor are usually the last to influence policy. Cultural boycott targets the elites, and doesn’t kill anyone. So I think it’s actually fairer game and more effective than other forms of political sanctions.

From Mya Guarnieri:

It is not entirely clear whether Walker is objecting to having her book published in Hebrew or just by an Israeli publisher. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency suggests the former; Ali Abuminah argues that it is the latter.

If Walker is indeed boycotting the publication of her book in Hebrew, her move is misguided–and I say this as a BDSer who has signed letters asking artists not to come to Israel. If Walker is conflating Hebrew with Israel, she plays into the state’s hands, unintentionally legitimizing the state’s attempt to monopolize Jewish culture and Jewish symbols. Yes, Hebrew was revived by early Zionists but it is not the province of Zionists and Israel only. As I mentioned in an earlier article, David Vogel is an example of a non-Zionist who wrote in Hebrew.

Mapping Hebrew–the language historically associated with Jews–onto Israel and then boycotting the it will only fuel the government and right-wingers’ claims that the boycott is anti-Semitic, which it is not.

On the other hand, it could be that the JTA has twisted Walker’s words around to pander to readers who see any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic–falsely conflating a state that is home to a minority of the world’s Jewry with Judaism itself.

 From Lisa Goldman: 

Cultural boycott is applied to Israel in an interesting and rather capricious manner. Two summers ago, for example, Elvis Costello cancelled his concert for political reasons – ie, pressure from the international boycott movement; but his wife, famed jazz singer Diana Krall, performed in Israel less than two months later. Her concert was announced well in advance, but she was not pressured by the boycott movement to cancel. So in this respect I disagree with Noam Sheizaf’s contention that culture boycotts are fairer because they affect the elites, in contrast to economic boycotts that tend to affect the poor, who have less political influence. A jazz musician appeals more to elite tastes than a pop musician. Also, elites can travel abroad to visit museums or hear concerts. In some cases, being part of the elite means having access to an education that teaches fluency in English, so Hebrew translations of books are not necessary. But for a person who does not have access to money, an elite education or the privilege of travel, access to books in one’s native language is an essential means for intellectual development.

On an ethical level, I also have a problem with the concept of proprietary rights when it comes to translations. Of course I oppose violation of copyright or distributing unauthorized copies of anything in cases when this affects an artist’s earnings. But to deny someone the right to read one’s book or view one’s painting or listen to one’s music in order to make a political point seems very problematic from an ethical point of view. To be fair, this is not what Alice Walker proposes to do. In fact, her book was translated into Hebrew years ago. Yedioth Books requested her permission to publish a new translation; and it was this request that she refused, on political grounds. She seems to object to allowing an Israeli company the translation rights; I would hope / assume that if a non-Israeli company asked her permission to issue a new Hebrew translation, she would consent.

Dimi Reider responds:

Noam is quite right that activism consists of using the means at one’s disposal, but literary boycott constitutes the exact opposite – refusing to use one’s instruments as an artist; or, at the most charitable interpretation, abandoning the paintbrush, and the palette, and the surgeon’s lancet and using a clumsy softball bat instead. While it may seem defiant, literary boycott is an admission of surrender. It’s declaring to all and sundry that your words, and your art, and your analysis are powerless, and the only thing you can do with your book is to lock it up in a drawer, and then, paradoxically, vie for the boycotted person’s attention and try and to persuade them  they’re really missing out on something.

This is unlikely to have anywhere near the same effect as throwing the book out there and allowing people to actually be exposed to and challenged by the power of your words and of your craft. The boycott of a new Hebrew edition (and Hebrew language changes so rapidly new editions are essential keep a work of art accessible to new generations) won’t have the slightest effect on the occupation, or on the mindset of Israelis; not least because the ruling elites in Israel don’t care two figs about literature, or theater, or progressive music, or dissident humanities.  Allowing a new translation to be published can, by contrast, contribute to the process of turning a few from conformers to dissenters. I know it because nearly every major political change I underwent was accompanied by literature – I would never have felt the moral draw of the right of return if I hadn’t read Grapes of Wrath, for instance. It’s a small contribution – but a vital one, and certainly greater than a passing item in a newspaper telling Israelis there’s some book they’ll never get to read.

What’s worse, acts like these effectively mean serving the government of Israel monopoly and domination over the Hebrew culture on a silver platter, instead of wrestling this rich and fertile cultural ground out of its control.  It’s as if instead of the Soviet authorities banning George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Orwell himself announced he will not allow the publication of the book in the USSR, until the Soviet Union began to respect freedom of speech.

Yuval Ben-Ami suggests:

I support BDS as a non-violent means of effecting change, but Walker’s move is problematic, particularly because “The Color Purple” is an effective weapon against apartheid, which she chooses not to put in our hands. It is a book that raises awareness to questions of human rights and presents the horror that occurs when those are not preserved. The fewer such books we have in Hebrew, the more likely the new generation is to grow up thinking that occupation and apartheid are perfectly fine. None of the Israelis who think differently today would have reached that point of view if not for the encounter with great humanist works of art from the world at large. Instead of promoting important points through the use of her book, and providing them to readers who have no or little access to the English language, Walker offers a gift to Netanyahu and his ilk, who prefer that we don’t think.

This is the Catch 22 of cultural BDS: it is joined by artists who are aware, but these are the same artists who create awareness through their work. Imagine that Amnesty International refused to work in Israel because human rights are broken here, or that Walker had chosen not to publish “The Color Purple” in the first place, since the U.S. is still full of segregation, prejudice and injustice. Such scenarios would not have been much more ridiculous.

Noam Sheizaf: Answering Dimi Reider and Lisa Goldman

Lisa – Maybe pop music is consumed by masses, but international shows and other imported cultural products are still a matter of the middle class and the upper middle class. You won’t find many Arabs, or Sephardi Jews, for example, coming to Ramat Gan Stadium to see Dylan or Leonard Cohen, so the cultural boycott can be seen as a targeted boycott aimed at the political consensus. I think it might be even better than a settlement boycott, which plays into the hands of the right most of the time.

Dimi – There is little point in comparing Israel to the USSR or to any similar authoritarian regime. In those countries, the dictator oppressed his own people. The Israeli system is a one of a small sample of cases in which one national group has full rights and enjoys democracy, while most of the other group has none. Education – through literature or poetry or NGO projects – is therefore bound to fail: You don’t need to educate Israeli Jews to appreciate democracy and freedom because they enjoy it, and you don’t need to teach Palestinians about resisting oppression because they feel it first hand. Here one needs political action and activism to change the status quo.

Dahlia Scheindlin adds:

There’s no question in my mind about Alice Walker’s moral right to use the tactic of a boycott, as she interprets it. But is it effective?

I read The Color Purple when I was a teenager. I’ll never forget the opening lines, which were shocking to my young eyes; the book had an enormous impact on me, forcing me inside the unimaginable hardships other people suffered from the moment of birth, because of their station of birth. It helped provide me with vital context for what would later be called the ‘savage inequalities’ of the environment where I was raised. There could be no question which side of that equation I accidentally inhabited, and the book burned into my soul this realization: that the moral imperative for the privileged is to struggle for and with those who are not.

Together with other formative literature and events (the Rodney King riots, for example, created turmoil that I felt all over again when I learned of his death this week), this kind of learning made me into the person I am today.

So my heart hurts at the thought that Israelis will have less access to such an essential source of insight. I appreciated the creative solution Naomi Klein reached (which I learned of from Electronic Intifada) – she found a way to boycott an Israeli institution and/or the economy, while exposing the Israeli people to her work. Perhaps Walker could do something similar.

Instead, Walker implied that the timing is wrong: she would like to see her novel translated for a futuristic, post-conflict Israel, just as she sent the film The Color Purple to South Africa after the downfall of apartheid. I fear she will wait a very long time.

I cannot dispute Noam’s point that the tactic is legitimate – anything is better than violence. There’s no guarantee that reading the book will bring about the desired change. But it will definitely have a searing impact on any sensitive reader.

The heart-stopping documentary “Under African Skies” raises a similar question about Paul Simon’s decision to produce Graceland despite the boycott of South Africa at the time. The situations are very different – Simon engaged and supported the oppressed people in that case. The film is honest and offers no dogmatic answers. But in the case of masterpieces like Graceland and The Color Purple, I cannot help but believe that some works have timeless artistic, spiritual, soulful meaning, whose profound impact on our conscience now and forever is stronger than their use as a political tactic of the moment.

Haggai Matar comments:

I agree with most of what Noam has said, so I’ll join in from another angle. Many people blame the cultural boycott in general and this act of Walker’s in particular, saying that they are supposedly silencing dissent, diminishing rather than creating tools for dialog and leaving the discourse grounds free for the Israeli propaganda to play in by itself. Dimi said that “it’s declaring to all and sundry that your words, and your art, and your analysis are powerless”. But I find this to be absurd. How can you declare that words are powerless? The mere act of the declaration, the mere statement made by Walker and others like her, is a greater statement and a greater act of dialog than what we usually get from any other artist performing inIsrael or whose books are published here!

And this leads me to Yuval’s and Dahlia’s arguments. They say we need books like “The Color Purple” in order to help us open people’s hearts and minds and promote peace. But “The Color Purple” already came out in Israel some time ago. So did books by G.M. Coetzee, and books by Palestinian authors, and Israeli journalists and Israeli ex-soldiers. The bookshops are filled with political writings such as these, and have been for quite some time. The occupation has been with us for quite some time as well. Is another translation of “The Color Purple” going to change anything about the occupation? Probably not. But the turmoil created around the refusal to have it translated might actually help.

This is the whole point of the boycott movement – to encourage artists, who would otherwise simply write and perform, to make a stand. It may be a choice to boycott Israel altogether, or to visit both Israel and Palestinein an informal visit, or to go on a formal visit (crossing the BDS picket line) – but make statements against the occupation. Whereas once Israelis could go on without any notion of what their favorite artists think of their compliance with the apartheid – now they are forced to hear them, one of or another. And like the newspapers that printed empty, clean, white issues to protest censorship laws, so does the echoing denial of words by Alice Walker speaks volumes in itself. The rest is silence.

Larry Derfner writes: 

Since a boycott is a perfectly legitimate means, the question for me is whether the goal is justified, and if Walker wants to end the occupation and create two states of equal sovereignty – along the lines, say, of the Arab Peace Plan – then I think she’s doing the right thing. I wish there were a global boycott of Israel that put forth a genuine, equitable two-state solution – the kind that’s never been offered to the Palestinians – as its end point. Things would change fast. But if Walker’s end-point is a one-state solution, then I consider her boycott harmful. I don’t know what her goal is, but the tone of her letter struck me as being well-intentioned toward Israel, which is the opposite of the tone of every international BDS campaign I’ve ever come across.