Alice Walker has stated that she is not willing to authorise a new translation of her 1982 novel “The Color Purple” by an Israeli publisher. I’m not a huge fan of any aspect of BDS, but this seems a more than usually unhelpful example , and even zealous boycotters have expressed doubts as to what good can possibly come of such a move.
She explains why she is unwilling for an Israeli house to publish this book:
“Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories.”
Although she conflates those two very different contexts together with a cursory ‘and also’, Alice Walker is quiet about conditions for Palestinians living in other countries in the region. Invoking this article, about racism in the Arab world, might be classed as ‘whataboutery’ if done to deflect fair criticism of racism against African migrants in Israel. However, marking one nation out for special punishment, as Walker does, is rather more than fair criticism.
What is the best way to counter these methods? Conceding, either readily or reluctantly, that Israel is not beyond criticism is of course an automatic reflex for many opponents of boycotts. This (perfectly reasonable) strategy is adopted by Maya Sela, writing in the Guardian:
“Let us set aside the proposition that Israel is an apartheid state, though to me this doesn’t seem an accurate definition. The background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not racial. It would have been enough to talk about the Israeli occupation: there is no need to bandy slogans around in order to strengthen the argument that the occupation must be ended.”
This measured statement is followed by the very sensible point that these boycott moves may, by making Israelis feel isolated and defensive, have quite the reverse effect to that intended. But I wasn’t sure about some of the later steps in her argument:
“For whose edification is she talking about racism and segregation? Is her aim only to preach to the converted, to the liberal masses of Scandinavia? It is precisely here in Israel that her voice needs to be heard, and in Hebrew.”
But Scandinavia is hardly a racism free zone. As well as the terrible case of Anders Behring Breivik, there is of course also a real problem with antisemitism in countries such as Sweden and Norway. And nationalist parties, often driven by anti-Muslim bigotry, have been gaining popularity in Scandinavian countries.
I also found this passage, which follows a brief account of the recent manifestations of racism in Israel, uncomfortable to read:
“Maybe this public and humiliating demonstration of primitive racism to the world is Israel’s punishment for the occupation. Something inside us is sick. The situation is disturbing as well as infuriating – but the way to fight it is to make your voice heard, not to be silent.”
That statement, ‘something inside us is sick’, in particular, seemed very startling, suggesting that a whole country, a whole people, might be pathologically tainted by the actions of some, actions which may be deplorable but which are hardly unique. Although she is speaking out against turning Israel into an exceptional case, I wonder whether the writer also seems to have internalised something of that exceptionalism herself. This is a tricky area though. For me, it resonated with the controversy surrounding a recent article by Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy ‘Why do they hate us’ – the ‘they’ in question being Arab men. Danios asks:
“Why, for example, did Mona Eltahawy choose to publish her article in Foreign Policy, an American magazine? Why didn’t she write it for an Arab/Arabic publication, with a primarily Arab readership?”
It is healthy to be honest about one’s own country, face up to its flaws, rather than be blindly partisan. However the precise effect of such self-criticism may depend, not just on the words used, but on the publishing context in which those words appear. Just as Egyptian readers might read Eltahawy’s article with a defensive awareness that some of her readers are just looking for an excuse to demonise the whole culture, so some of Sela’s Israeli readers might feel less inclined to participate in her anxious introspection once they have read some of the comments added by Guardian readers.