Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An Open Letter to Alice Walker

WARNING: Some folks aren't going to like this, are going to seek to read between the lines, and the like. Apologies in advance. But read the lines themselves. :)

Dear Sister Alice:

I'm sort of an odd person to be writing you this note; I'm not a student of yours, not a literary agent or a writer or a politician, not an activist (well, certainly not on the level you mostly interact with). And truth be told, I feel a bit surprised myself that I'd write to you, but I felt the need to level with you on something near and dear to both of us: justice. So here I am.

Recently you chose to reject an offer by an Israeli publisher to have your seminal work, A Color Purple translated into Hebrew. This was done as part of an effort to boycott Israeli goods, services, arts and intellectual efforts in order to pressure Israel into changing their policies viz. the Palestinian community, which you have described as being apartheid-like in nature. This is not, of course, surprising: you had sailed as part of the Gaza flotillas of a couple of  years ago and have been pretty consistent in your behavior and advocacy in this regard (though I don't think you've been seen you sitting with kids in a shelter in Sderot while the rockets and mortars land, but that's a different conversation). And, of course, your refusal had the desired effect: it made the papers, the Zionist press is going well and truly bananas. Everyone is talking about it. Which is what you wanted; what good is an act of protest and defiance if no one notices, right? That's why you (really, anyone) write literature: to illicit a reaction. Not just to tell a story, but to inform the readership, to change the way they see the world. Samuel Johnson taught, of course, that literature is supposed to teach, not just entertain. And what is teaching if not a form of advocacy?

I want you to know that I"m saddened by this choice of yours and would like to humbly suggest a different course of action.

At this point, you're probably ready to defend your actions, or simply turn away. After all, what could I possibly have to teach to you, Sister Alice? I haven't fought the good fight as you have, I haven't been there, I don't have the ethos on this subject. I'm just a young rabbi in Wilmington Delaware (Dela-where?) who probably has an anti-Palestinian agenda.

The truth is, we probably wouldn't agree. Despite being a supporter of J-Street and Rabbis for Human Rights, I would not classify Israel as being an apartheid state. Far from it! Then again, to say Israel is free of racism (not just against Palestinians or migrant workers but other Jews) would be a lie. Clearly Israel as a society has a lot of work to do on justice for women. And it would be easy to make some claim of equivalency with the Western World (even Canada and the Netherlands have racism etc.), or with the Israeli experience (try to be a progressive liberal when 50 rockets are shot at you in a given week, etc.) but I'm not interested in either of those conversations right now either.

Sister Alice, the conversation I want to have with you right now is about justice and advocacy, things you've lived. Literature is part of that, it is, as we discussed before, advocacy. And by not sharing your book in Hebrew, you are refusing to share a tool of advocacy. Worse, you're denying an entire readership the opportunity to learn.  

I find the timing serendipitous with a literary event taking place in  Britain as we speak.  As I'm sure you're aware, Nelson Mandela's worn edition of Shakespare that he took to prison with him, the so called "Robben's Bible", is on display at the British Museum. This book was one of the few at that prison for political prisoners (opponents of South African apartheid) and became annotated with the various prisoners' notes and reflections, as well as served as an inspiration and a rare beacon of hope for these freedom fighters 'cast away in a desolate void'. In 1977 Mandela signed his name next to his favorite passage, from Julius Ceasar: ""Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once."

Imagine if Mandela and his fellows had not had that book. This was their only ray of light; imagine if that had been shut to them, these words by a white man written hundreds of years before. Imagine the prisoners of the Soviet gulag without the little bits of literature that served to inspire them. What would their advocacy look like without those words, without that literature, without the learning and inspiration that came in those books?

Sister Alice, you and I disagree profoundly about the nature of the problems in Israel, a country I love fiercely and profoundly. But we both agree there are problems. And you, by refusing to translate your work into Hebrew, by cutting yourself off from a readership of millions, are taking away a beacon of hope and light. Israel is not hardly a prison, but you are acting as intellectual jailer, and instead of getting more people to read your story and be inspired by it, and see their world differently, they see merely another Israel-hater, another Jew-hater, and will reject you.

Because the thing is, Sister Alice, the teacher, the writer, the advocate, they have the obligation of loving their audience, their students. They have the obligation of recognizing the humanity and equality and humanity of those readers, and instead you've chosen to highlight one humanity over another. Even you yourself acknowledge that you want your books read in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority, but indicate that 'now is not the time'. Why? Of course now is the time! Imagine your book read by a teenage girl in an Israeli classroom in Holon, or Afula, or a boy in Arad or Haifa. Or by a person in Sderot. How would that story influence the teenager who will be entering the military, and may man a checkpoint? How will it influence them as they go to university and study alongside people unlike them? How will it transform the teacher who, year after year, shares this book with his or her students? How does it change the nature of the national conversation? To quote the Washington Post article:
The chief editor of Yediot Books, Netta Gurevich, said in a statement Wednesday she regretted Walker’s decision to bar the release of a new Hebrew-language edition of her book, a tale about black women’s struggle against their miserable status in the American South in the 1930s.
The arts, and literature in particular, “are so important to bridging differences, presenting ‘the other’ and generating a climate of tolerance and compassion,” Gurevich said. “That’s all the more so when talking about ‘The Color Purple,’ a book that addresses discrimination, otherness and the importance of the individual’s struggle against injustice in general.”
How is your choice helping bridge differences, Sister Alice? How are you teaching Israelis and Palestinians about otherness, discrimination, the individual's struggle and how to struggle against injustice, Sister Alice? Who are you protecting your book from, Sister Alice?  It's a grand political statement, the indictment of a whole nation; but what kind of justice does it promote? What Mandela, what Solzhenitsyn, what Shcharansky are you hiding yourself from, Sister Alice? What are you afraid of? What would have happened if you had put out a critical edition in Hebrew and Arabic, with commentary from Palestinian and Israeli Jewish activists and writers? What would have happened if you had tasked Yediot with creating a curriculum for integration and understanding that had to--had to--go with your book? What if you had brought copies yourself to Gaza and Bethlehem and Sderot and Ashkelon and Tel Aviv? Isn't that advocacy? Who would you inspire to break out of their prisons, Sister Alice?

Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once.  To hide your book is a coward's choice. You're bigger than that, you're better than that. Do not hide your book, or your face, but share it, and undo the hurt caused unknowingly.

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