Three things Alice Walker gets dead wrong about anti-Semitism
Editor’s note: We’ve republished this piece, originally published on December 20, 2018, after Walker’s appearance this week on writer Cheryl Strayed’s podcast for The New York Times, “Sugar Calling,” created new outrage.
Earlier this week, the internet issued a collective groan when Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker recommended a book by the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist David Icke in The New York Times. Asked which books were on her nightstand, Walker listed four titles, including Icke’s “And The Truth Shall Set You Free.”
That’s the book in which Icke suggests a Jew was to blame for the Holocaust. He also repeatedly cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he refers to as the Illuminati Protocols “to get away from the Jewish emphasis,” a difficult feat when the Protocols are an explicit work of anti-Semitic libel.
Icke declares various banks and media outlets to be “tools he describes as “the secret government of the world which is, minute by minute, manipulating the human mind to accept a centralised global tyranny.” Then he accuses the Rothschilds of using allegations of anti-Semitism to distract from that nefarious endeavor. In case that’s not enough, he also writes “nor is it true that most Jewish people today have a genetic line back to ancient Israel.”
In fairness to Icke, not everything he writes is anti-Semitic; some of it is just plain wacky. See, for instance, his insistence that the fact that the Hebrew word “Elohim” is plural in construction suggests Jews worship multiple gods — my guy, you’re a few millennia late to the conversation — which quickly turns into an assertion that the Elohim are in fact an extraterrestrial race that want to take over the world. Oh, sorry; I guess that one turned out to be anti-Semitic, too.
On the other hand, there’s Walker’s defense of Icke, published today on her blog as part of a post responding to the outcry: “I do not believe he is anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish.”
And there’s her argument for why people are claiming that he is: “I believe the attempt to smear David Icke, and by association, me, is really an effort to dampen the effect of our speaking out in support of the people of Palestine.”
Let’s do what Walker, in her blog post, didn’t: Examine the facts. Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of what she said in responding to the controversy, and what she got wrong.
1) Is Icke really anti-Semitic?
Uh, see above. Walker might do to remember, as well, that a classic tactic of prejudice is instructing members of a group in what does and doesn’t count as bigotry toward them. Just as it’s a mistake to take the word of a white person on what is and is not racist, it’s a mistake for a non-Jew to pass judgment on what is and is not anti-Semitic. In other words, Walker can say that Icke isn’t anti-Semitic, but the Elohim-are-money-obsessed-aliens-who-want-to-control-the-world thing kind of speaks for itself.
It’s also worth examining Walker’s claim that Icke is neither anti-Semitic nor “anti-Jewish.” Of course, “anti-Jewish” isn’t a real term; Walker’s use of it in partnership with “anti-Semitic” suggests there’s a difference between the two. That’s telling. The word “Semitic,” on its own, refers to people whose native languages are in the Semitic family, a language group that originates in the Middle East and includes Arabic and Aramaic. Remember Icke’s incorrect assertion that Jews don’t have a “genetic link” to Israel? Separating Jews from an explicit affiliation with Semitic languages is akin to separating them from historical origins in the Middle East. Again, that’s a denial of historical fact; it’s also a canny way of introducing Walker’s next mistake, which was to conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.
2) Is criticism of Walker really about her stance on the Palestinian territories?
Curious about whether opposition to Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism? Check out the Forward’s very comprehensive opinion section. Either way, it’s clearly mistaken for Walker to interpret criticism of her endorsement of a book that claims wealthy Jews persuaded Hitler to execute the Holocaust as really being about her opposition to Israel. After making that claim, Walker wrote “I don’t know about Icke, but I am also a supporter of BDS (Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions, now heavily under attack) as a just and justified means of ending Israeli occupation of Palestine, and ending the slaughter of Palestinians, especially children, which Israeli soldiers do with alarming frequency.”
Supporting BDS is a personal choice that Walker has every right to make. That right doesn’t extend to her giving a tacit thumbs-up to the canard that wealthy Jews lead a cabal of bankers, newspapers and communists working toward world domination. Walker is saying that anger over her spreading blatant and pernicious lies about Jews is a way of avoiding a moral accounting of Zionism’s outcome. That, in turn, denies the idea that anti-Semitism exists outside the context of alleged Jewish wrongdoing — in other words, that Jews deserve the libels Icke throws at them. That suggestion is — you guessed it — anti-Semitic.
3) Would people really get as angry if she were reading the Quran or “Mein Kampf”?
Walker made precisely that claim. “I read everything,” she wrote. “I even tried once to read ‘Mein Kampf’ but found it too steeped in German history to make sense… I’ve also taken a crack at the Koran [sic]. I’m not equating these two, simply noting that many people encounter them both with dread. Suppose these books had been in the pile of books on my nightstand?”
Leave aside, for the moment, the weighing of Icke, Hitler and the Quran as mutually problematic. The issue isn’t really that Walker was reading Icke, as she suggests — on her blog, she decried attempts “to frighten people into lying about what is on their nightstand” — but that she endorsed both the book and its author. “In Icke’s books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about. A curious person’s dream come true,” she told The Times. To employ Walker’s framework, while there are valid reasons to read “Mein Kampf,” few of them might involve calling it “A curious person’s dream.” Ditto for Icke. Reading the book isn’t the wrong; uncritically preaching its supposed benefits is.
So, for that matter, is uncritically preaching the supposed flaws of the Talmud, which Walker did in her 2017 poem “It is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud.” (Walker brought up the Talmud in her response to this week’s controversy, as well, writing that it was yet another book that some might find morally objectionable for her to have on her nightstand.) In that poem, Walker wrote that her YouTube study of the Talmud revealed “an ancient history of oppression” of “Goyim, sub-humans, animals, the Palestinians of Gaza” executed “With impunity, and without conscience,/By a Chosen people.”
It’s alarming to think that Walker thought she had made sense of a 6,000 page text in two languages she presumably does not speak — Hebrew and Aramaic – by going to YouTube, on which the second result for the search term “Talmud” is a video titled “Ugly truths about the Talmud” that, in its first 10 seconds, refers to Jewish law as “the ugliest law known to humanity.” “The ignorance of many humans, especially in our country, is abysmal,” Walker wrote in her defense on her blog. That, we can agree, is true.