In a recent interview published in the New York Times, American novelist Alice Walker stirred up controversy by praising a book riddled with anti-Semitic ideas and images.
Asked to name the books on her nightstand, Walker extolled what she saw as the courage and honesty of David Icke’s And the Truth Will Set You Free. Icke’s self-published book blames anti-Semitic attacks on Jews, promotes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and advocates the dissemination of Holocaust denial material. Icke’s publisher found the manuscript so problematic that it refused to publish it, forcing Icke to set up his own publishing company. A British conspiracy theorist, Icke espouses other wacky ideas, such as the belief that extra-terrestrial reptiles have taken over the earth and blocked humanity from achieving its true potential.
Many readers criticized the New York Times for failing to challenge Walker on her comments about Icke’s brilliance, or at least to provide some background on Icke’s writing and his reputation for anti-Semitism. In the wake of the strong reactions to the interview, Walker doubled down on her admiration for Icke’s ideas. As many of the articles and blogs responding to the Walker interview noted, some of her own poems and essays also invoke anti-Semitic tropes.
In fact, Walker is no stranger to accusations of playing unfair. Her most widely read novel, The Color Purple, focuses on the life of an African-American girl in rural Georgia who is repeatedly raped by her father and gives birth to two of his children, who are then stolen from her. Married off in her teens to a brutal widower, she lives in squalor, enduring his abuse, while caring for his children and their home.
While moving and sometimes inspirational in its description of the lives of African-American women, the book was also criticized for what some saw as a betrayal of African-American men, who – with the exception of old men (whom Walker elsewhere describes as resembling women) – come off as uniformly violent, abusive and exploitative of women.
In retrospect, one could say that Walker’s writing suffers from a lack of empathy for those most unlike herself, whether men or Jews.
Once married for almost 10 years to a Jewish civil rights lawyer from New York – the first interracial marriage in Mississippi – one feels the bitterness of a marriage gone bad behind Walker’s radicalized politics. Their daughter, Rebecca Walker, who’s also a writer, describes struggling with her mother’s neglect in her memoir, Black, White, and Jewish. After their divorce, Alice Walker and Mel Leventhal moved to San Francisco and New York, respectively. Rebecca Walker spent two-year stints living with each parent, contending with shifting cultural, racial and ethnic milieus and the impact that had on her sense of identity. In her teen years, Rebecca Walker struggled with both parents. But it is clear from her writing that her father is still a part of her life, while she has been estranged from her mother for years.
I was struck by the contrast between Walker’s categorical animosities and the nuanced writing of Amos Oz, the Israeli writer who died tragically last month. One of Oz’s most impressive gifts was his ability to reach beyond himself, to find points of empathy and understanding with those whose lives were vastly different from his own.
As an Israeli man, he entered the inner lives of Israeli women. As an Israeli Jew, he felt compassion towards the Palestinians who shared the land. As a secular Israeli, he reclaimed common ground with religious tradition. In raw literary talent, Oz vastly outshines Walker. But the difference between them is really one of innate sensibility. Oz probes complicated situations and shades of grey, seeking to increase his own – and, hence, our – ability to understand others. His literary and humanistic wisdom breaks down the kind of polarizing thinking that has sadly come to characterize Alice Walker’s writing.