Neil Macdonald: Is self-censorship fuelling Alice Walker's Hebrew halt?

Alice Walker's decision to block a Hebrew translation of The Color Purple is saddening on so many levels, Neil Macdonald writes.

Author of The Color Purple puts the brakes on new book translation for Israel

A rather sad email arrived this week in the relentless slew of material political activists shower on me and every other reporter in the Washington press corps.

Titled "Letter from Alice Walker to publishers at Yediot Books," it was essentially a declaration of intent to suppress ideas in furtherance of a political battle.

That's hardly a new tactic in these belligerent times. The astonishing thing was the identity of the iconic woman so vigorously seeking to shut down the sustaining free flow of intellectual discourse.

Alice Walker is the author of The Color Purple, a powerful 1982 statement about sexism, racism and the pathologies of an underclass. It was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg in 1985.

The book won Walker a Pulitzer Prize. But the graphic style with which she explored her themes, particularly sexual abuse, was a jolt to the sensibilities.

The novel shocked middle-class America and made The Color Purple a favourite target of censors, who strove to remove it from the nation's libraries.

Now, it seems Walker herself has joined the censorious crowd, at least in spirit.

Her letter, which has made headlines here in the U.S., is addressed to an Israeli firm that wants to publish her book in Hebrew. Walker is publicly refusing permission, citing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and its treatment of Palestinians.

Going to Graceland

Reflect on that for a moment: Alice Walker is blocking certain unilingual Israelis from access to her moving treatise on the concept of an underclass based on ethnicity, and the extreme dysfunction that such an underclass develops as a result of its circumstances.

U.S. writer Alice Walker, during a visit to the northern Gaza Strip community of Beit Hanoun in March 2009. (HATEM MOUSSA / Associated Press)

In her letter, she cites her decision 27 years ago to lobby against allowing Spielberg's movie adaptation of her novel to be shown in South African theatres when apartheid was still the law.

"I lobbied against this idea," she writes, "because, as with Israel today, there was a civil society movement of BDS aimed at changing South Africa's apartheid policies and, in fact, transforming the government."

The acronym BDS stands for boycott, divest and sanction, a strategy called for by the Palestinians in the case of Israel and supported by their more determined allies worldwide.

Walker and others in that camp say modern Israel's behaviour is worse than that of the murderous South African apartheid regime. I find that sort of rhetoric a gross exaggeration.

I lived in Israel for many years and need no lessons on how the state of Israel operates, particularly from people who have only ever visited.

But if Walker is truly concerned about the effect a Hebrew translation of her book might have, I suggest she examine Paul Simon's decision to record much of the album Graceland in South Africa in the mid-1980s, in defiance of the BDS call of that era from the African National Congress, and of the UN, which had declared a cultural boycott. (The UN has condemned Israel on many occasions, but has not called for any such boycott).

The ANC denounced Simon, and its allies rallied against the singer. Simon was hurt by the vilification, but refused to relent on the grounds that art and expression should be immune to censorship, even in the name of a struggle endorsed by most of the world.

Graceland, of course, contained an anti-apartheid theme that reached at least 14 million sets of ears. It put South African music on the international map and is viewed as an artistic masterpiece.

It would be lunacy to suggest it somehow set back the fight against apartheid. If anything, it had the opposite effect.

Pre-emptive book burning

Walker, in contrast, appears to be eagerly embracing self-censorship, participating in what amounts to a pre-emptive book-burning.

Whatever one might think of Israel's policies, its population is a thoughtful one, and its government allows dissenting expression at a level that does not exist elsewhere in the region.

I appreciated that when I lived there. And I'm grateful for having been able to consume the English-language translations of such writers as A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz and David Grossman, particularly the latter.

All of them have been published in the West in other languages, and all of them have had an impact on educated thought about Israel.

The same can be said for the likes of Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev, the so-called "new historians" who were the first to dismantle some of Israel's more egregious founding myths. Students of the region devoured their books.

I've interviewed Segev several times. I highly recommend his work, and I suspect he would be perfectly happy to see it translated into Arabic and sold in the capital cities of Israel's enemies.

Furthermore, Israel itself permits publication and circulation of some of the state's angriest and most vituperative critics. Without much effort, one can purchase Norman Finkelstein's corrosively critical The Rise and Fall of Palestine in Jerusalem.

Israeli orchestras have even broken the country's long-standing boycott of Wagner, and are performing the works of Hitler's favourite composer on Israeli soil.

The fact is, most Israelis believe in the free exchange of ideas. Yes, they can be pretty nasty about things if they don't like your ideas, but they are generally committed to the bedrock principle of free discourse.

Which, incidentally, is why most Western media outlets base their Middle East correspondents in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

Israel's relative forbearance (and I stress "relative") where dissenting views are concerned probably also explains why determined activists would challenge its navy with seaborne flotillas of aid to Palestinians, but haven't yet set sail for the shores of, say, Syria.

But I digress. 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.

I would commend The Color Purple to everyone capable of reading it, including the pro-settlement extremists who recently burned down a West Bank mosque and sprayed it with threatening Hebrew-language graffiti.

I find it abidingly strange that Alice Walker would not.