Alice Walker’s Apartheid Analogy – Jonathan Judaken

Alice Walker’s recent decision not to allow an Israeli publisher, Yediot Books, to translate The Color Purple into Hebrew was a missed opportunity. The opening paragraph of her letter to the publisher indicated her reasons:

As you may know, last Fall in South Africa the Russell Tribunal on Palestine met and determined that Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories.  The testimony we heard, both from Israelis and Palestinians (I was a jurist) was devastating.  I grew up under American apartheid and this was far worse.  Indeed, many South Africans who attended, including Desmond Tutu, felt the Israeli version of these crimes is worse even than what they suffered under the white supremacist regimes that dominated South Africa for so long.

Her whole argument hangs on an analogy: Israel is an apartheid state like South Africa. The analogy is the centerpiece of the growing BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel, modeled on the success of the anti-apartheid campaign.

The untranslatable Afrikaans appellation for South African’s racial state has indeed become the term of the moment for opposition to Israel. The magical label “apartheid” serves to denounce in a single word. Jacques Derrida, the famous French philosopher who coined the much-abused term “deconstruction,” once contributed an article to a catalog of an art exhibit protesting apartheid, which he titled, “Racism’s Last Word.”

Walker’s stance on the translation of her book is a good opportunity to think through “racism’s last word,” something Walker’s facile denunciation certainly has not done, but that demands doing. For all those committed to undoing the Israeli occupation thinking through this analogy is a neglected imperative. The risk for those who reflexively oppose Israel without reflectively thinking about the terms of that opposition is that the analogy they rest upon would be deconstructed.

Walker should have allowed The Color Purple to be translated. She should have seized it as a chance to actually reflect on the equation in political discourse between racism, apartheid, and Israel. Rather than a momentary splash of publicity for her cause, translating the book would have enabled sustained and ongoing reflection on the issues the book raises, which are the very heart of her protest.

This is important for if you want to upend the injustices towards Palestinians, convincing Israelis of the abiding oppression that they participate in is certainly going to have to be part of the equation. Moving Israeli public consciousness, along with raising global consciousness, should surely be part of the goal of this protest, if the desire is to change the situation of Palestinians.

What is more, if the apartheid analogy holds, then Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel could have aided in this. The first obstacle would have been the technical problems raised by the translation of her book. Written as an epistolary novel, the idiom of the narrator is that of its protagonist, Celie, a fourteen-year-old victim of rape, incest, and the institutionalized violence that was wound into the fabric of the Jim Crow South. Capturing her moving idiosyncratic language in Hebrew would have been a huge accomplishment in its own right, translating into the language of Israelis the experience of blacks under “American apartheid.”

If this could be done, the question remains whether readers in Israel would have followed Walker in seeing the connections between their world and that of Celie’s: between Israeli occupation and Palestinian oppression and Jim Crow racism. Here there is an imaginative leap that Walker might have actually addressed in a preface, explaining to an Israeli public the relevance of Celie’s tale for the political configuration that defines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.

My gambit is that Walker could not actually perform this task. She would certainly have to do without the hyperbole that characterizes her protest. For surely anyone who actually thinks through the analogy is not going to claim that the occupied territories are “worse” for Palestinians than what Celie suffers, let alone the more brutal, state-sanctioned racism of apartheid.

Sure there are analogs. This is what permits an unexamined analogy to take hold. It is why when Peter Beinart made the call “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements” he had a point. But his protest is different from Walker’s because it does not reduplicate the “us vs. them,” homogenizing rhetoric that buttresses racism. Beinart not only speaks from a place of empathy for Israel and Zionism (as the Jewish liberation movement), but he makes crucial distinctions in his call to action. He acknowledges the brutalities and contradictions that characterize the Israeli occupation of non-democratic Israel. But he makes no blanket condemnation of Israel.

Thinking through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demands attending to its tragic dimensions, which are underpinned by an irreconcilable pair of narratives both of which have legitimacy. This is something that Jean-Paul Sartre, who headed up the original Russell Tribunal, understood in his stance on the conflict. As such, part of what differentiates the situation in Israel/Palestine from Jim Crow racism and apartheid is that it is not an either/or, black or white problem.

Without attention to the distinctions between Celie’s world, Desmond Tutu’s world, and that of Palestinians today, it is going to remain easy for the majority of Americans and Brits to dismiss the BDS movement. What is called for now is a sustained reflection on the analogy that underpins that movement. It is a pity that Alice Walker, of all people, has not aided us in doing that thinking.

Jonathan Judaken is the Spence L. Wilson Chair in Humanities at Rhodes College.

18 Responses to “Alice Walker’s Apartheid Analogy – Jonathan Judaken”

  1. Argaman Says:

    I’d like to point out that the book has already been translated into Hebrew, and published in Israel, in the early 1980s. See this post from my blog: I didn’t have time to check the translation to see how well Shlomit Kedem, the translator, did her job.

    • Jonathan Judaken Says:

      So interesting that it was already published in Hebrew. Perhaps it is now out of print? It makes more evident that Walker’s refusal to Yediot Books was taken as an opportunity for political mobilization. And that is fine. I still maintain that the terms of Walker’s protest are precisely what is wrong with the geo-global politics of protest against the occupation. And Walker could have made a much more important and enduring statement with a preface to a new translation that explains why publishing the book in Hebrew now is important given the analogy she makes between American, South African, and Israeli apartheid.

  2. Abtalyon Says:

    The “analogy” requires no reflection whatsoever for the simple reason that it is false. There is no segregation even remotely reminiscent of that which took place in South Africa in Israel within the Green Line. Nor can the fact of Jews and Palestinians living in separate communities be described accurately as
    Apartheid; the separation is political, not racial. Moreover, anyone relying on the Russell Tribunal for any sort of valid argument is doomed to be ignored.

    For Argaman; Knowing Shlomit Kedem, I am sure her 1980’s translation was very good.


  3. Paul M Says:

    If Walker really believes that Israel practices a form of apartheid, and if she really wants to do something to end it, what better tool could she have than to translate her own book, highly regarded as a powerful reproach of bigotry, into the oppressors’ own language so that they might recognise themselves in it?

    She doesn’t want to do that, though. It’s more important to strike the right pose, to look good in front of the right people. That’s the mark that distinguishes her as “right-on” rather than serious — that, and the fact that she hasn’t made the effort to understand the conflict.

  4. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    I find that Benjamin Pogrund’s “Comment is Free” article from 2006 is still apposite here, especially when one bears in mind that he spent his whole life, until post-1991, in apartheid South Africa. Unlike Alice Walker, he _really_ does know all about apartheid, and now that he lives in Israel, he can make the most valid comparison of all, from knowledge of both societies.

    Pity she can’t (or won’t?) do the same.

    Pogrund’s article is here

  5. Tsietsi Yaw Says:

    I remain critical of the tone used by contributors even as I learn from their considered thoughts. i am dismayed that intellectuals turn so quickly to an dismissive tone towards people such as Alica Walker. Knowing about Jim Crow and being the descendants of those who lived through and survived by resisting its worst excesses – savage rape and lynching are quite different experiences. The articulation of each has validity but frankly very few non-Blacks have the faintest knowledge of the, as it were, deep structure of diaspora Black cultural expression. It is obvious that the refusal to use the upper case “B” reflects an ignorant and brutish refusal of de facto National status to large diaspora settlements e.g African descendants on the American continental land mass. This in turn seems to suggest that Jewish nationhood and the preservation of the Jewish people from the extermination-threat that has followed us for x amount of hundreds of years is much more important than any other aspect of the global struggle for human liberation.

    When I fulminate against the petty, ill-informed, vicious anti-Semitism that is endemic in the African Caribbean settlements on our island, in Brixton, Hackney, Chapeltown etc. I literally put my life on the line. I do it because I must. I am the first -born son of a Jewess. What else am I going to use my mouth for? Or my biro pen? Why then do I feel that the struggle against BDS is a place where my voice is not wanted because it is the exclusive preserve of smart alec white boys like my brother in arms GF [Actually its quite easy to love people from another “race” with we disagree. Isn’t it?

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      Not having personal experience of particular situations does not debar one from commenting on them. Otherwise education is a waste of time and only those with experience of the situation are allowed to comment.

      Actually, on that basis, far from knowledge of her background, to say nothing of her own experiences, giving
      Alice Walker an expert perspective on the I/P , lacking personal, growing up with it, experience of the I/P situation debars her commenting.

      Which I presume is not what the correspondent I am replying to means.

      Thus, I have as much right to comment on the situation of African-Americans, as she does on I/P. What neither I nor she are excused is ignorance, lack of evidence or the inability to join up the dots.

    • NIMN Says:

      Who is GF?

  6. Brian from Toronto Says:

    I don’t think we should pretend that the BDS movement has anything to do with the Israeli presence in the West Bank. The point of the BDS movement and the point of accusing Israel of apartheid is to deligitimize Israel and the aim is to remove Israel from the map.

  7. Absolute Observer Says:

    ‘i am dismayed that intellectuals turn so quickly to an dismissive tone towards people such as Alica Walker’.

    I think that part of the reason for such dismissal – if that is what it is – is that it is she who is undermining the specifics of antii-Black racism but, first assimilating it with the experiences in the US, in SA, and then claiming that it is ‘worse’ than both those situations. In doing so, she masks what is unique to all, and as Judaken notes, does not allow a full understanding and appreciation of each.

  8. Absolute observer Says:

    Where is this ‘our island’ with ‘African carribean settlements’ where a ‘first born son of a Jewess’ takes his life in his hand? I recognise the names of these mythical places, but not the places themselves, which adds to the confusion. As for the notion that a non-national understanding of anti-black racism leads to a ‘privileging’ of antisemitism is frankly bizarre.
    In fact, amid its sheer incomprehensibilty, the whole post is surrounded by a rather nasty odour and aura. At the very least, some clarification is necessary to explain the seeming presence of its own apparent racist underpinnings.

  9. Paul M Says:

    This is a small side-issue and I don’t want to derail the thread, but I’m genuinely curious about how others perceive this: To me, a female Jew is also a Jew. When I hear “Jewess” alarm bells go off in my head. I associate the word with antisemitism, mostly of a bygone era. For whatever reason it makes me think of The Merchant of Venice. Is it an oddity of my own or does “Jewess” rub any of you others the wrong way too?

    • Lynne T Says:

      No. Tsaitsi Yaw is just using a noun form that is, in post feminist days obsolete and very rarely used, similar to referring to female thespians as “actresses” or female “front of the house” staff as “waitresses”. It is curious though, that no parallel description applies to female adherents of other faiths that I can think of.

  10. Absolute Observer Says:

    Paul M,Yes I agree. There is a wonderful scene in ‘The Finkler Question’ where one of the main characters, herself not Jewish (but if I recall correctly, converted to Judaism), tells the naive Finkler never to use the word ‘Jewess’ for the reasons you allude to (and, in passing, she is my favourite character in the whole book).

  11. david Says:

    Published October 22nd in Haaretz: poll finds that 58% of Israeli Jews consider Israel to be an apartheid state. 69% would not offer the vote to Palestinians if the West Bank were annexed. 74% either are untroubled by segregated roads or are troubled by it, but accept it as necessary. If an Israeli Palestinian family lived in their building, 42% of Israeli Jews would find this offensive. A similar percentage would be offended if a Palestinian child was in the same class as their own child. I repeat, this is the opinion of Israeli Jews.

    • Alan G Says:

      Some “poll”! Some “apartheid”! Its premise is ridiculous. To start, only 38% of those polled — the entire survey contained only 503 respondents, a suspiciously small sample — were in favour of annexing settlements (note: the settlements… comprising perhaps 5% of the West Bank along the Green Line and which — as the Palestinians acknowledged at Camp David, at Taba and other negotiating sessions — would be swapped for equivalent land in the Israeli side of the Green Line). Why not herald this fact? “Most Israelis against annexing settlements”… how’s that for a headline?

      So this poll (whose methodology is glaringly suspect… here’s an analogous survey: “If you committed a capital crime would you prefer to be executed by hanging or electrocution?”) has been twisted to say things that it does not say… What did Mark Twain say about statistics?

      Here’s a small sample of what’s wrong:

      Levy admits that “the survey conductors said that the term ‘apartheid’ “was not clear enough to some interviewees”, which may explain the following additional quote by Levy about the results: “39 percent believe apartheid is practiced “in a few fields”; 19 percent believe “there’s apartheid in many fields” and 11 percent do not know.” Further, it’s unclear how ‘apartheid’ – widely understood as a systemic policy of separation based on race – could be characterized as a dynamic localized in certain fields. It seems possible that Israelis were expressing their belief that “discrimination” occurs in certain fields, which is a far different phenomenon than ‘apartheid’.

      An exposé of racism in Israel would be laudable, but this effort is risible. Indeed, if racism were the issue in the Israel-Palestine dispute, it would seem the shoe is largely on the other foot. (See the roundup of Palestinian polls in the link above.)

    • Hal Says:

      Now, days after all sorts of anti-Israel sites gleefully cited the poll in Haaretz, the paper has published a correction/apology (only online, not in print)…

      … as well as a rebuttal:

      But the damage is already done. (And this is not the first time that Haaretz, has given writers like Gideon Levy and Amira Hass free rein to spout their inflammatory opinions.) The “poll” — more particularly its distorted interpretation and the accompanying headlines — has been enshrined on the Internet as a fact and few Western news sources or opinion sites (let alone the Arab media), will take much notice. As Mark Twain (purportedly) said: “A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

  12. Gullible is the only word not in the dictionary Says:

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