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.