©June, 2012 by Alice Walker
Recently I wrote a letter to Yediot publishers declining an offer they’d made to publish my novel The Color Purple. Though the letter is self-explanatory there have been many erroneous and curious interpretations of it. Many media outlets requested interviews, among them the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, and Fox news. However, I have chosen to give one interview only. I accepted the invitation to be interviewed by an Israeli paper because I feel it is important to speak directly to the Israeli people; both Jewish and Arab.
Below is that interview for the benefit of English speaking readers. My responses to the questions I chose to answer are in italics.
Ms. Walker, It is a great honor for us to have this chance to interview you for the literary section of Yedioth newspaper, and to spread your opinions to our readers. Thank you for your time and patience. I hope answering these questions will reflect to the Israelis what we look like and will help to arouse a discussion.
It has been years since you had a book published in Israel. A new edition of “The Color Purple” could have been an excellent opportunity to let your views and beliefs be known to the general public in Israel. Could you please elaborate on the reasons that made you refuse its re-publication?
There is an international cultural boycott of Israel because of its practice of apartheid and persecution against the Palestinian people. Please Google The Russell Tribunal on Palestine for details of how this charge was determined last fall in Cape Town, South Africa.
You have said before that the current situation in the occupied territories reminds you of your youth, living under the racial segregation in the United States. Could you point out some of the similarities you found? Was there any specific moment when they became clear to you?
I have written extensively about my experiences in Gaza and the West Bank and these articles may be found on my blog: alicewalkersgarden.com. When I was in the West Bank it was shocking to see the apartheid wall, which is immense and forbidding. And to realize that it’s purpose is not only to enforce segregation between Palestinians and Israelis but that it also steals huge amounts of Palestinian land. Land Palestinian farmers need to work in order to feed their families. I sat with a family of four and watched a huge Volvo digging machine dig the deep trench directly in front of their drive that the wall will be placed in. The noise was deafening and the vibrations shook the small house. The children, two young boys, will have to cross three check points each morning to go to school. The youngest boy had been severely beaten the week before our arrival by an Israeli soldier and was still so frightened he hid during most of our visit.
Another friend’s house will be so close to the wall she will never again see the sun rise from her window. And of course there have been thousands of house demolitions with people simply run off. This began as early as 1947-48 with Israel’s “War of Independence” which was for the Palestinians the “Nakba” or Catastrophe. It is continuing now.
At the Allenby bridge en route to the West Bank I saw how rudely Arab people were treated. Women, children, old people. Yelled at and kept waiting indefinitely for the least little thing. With no water, no toilet facilities, once having left the terminal on the way into the Occupied Territories. Treated really worse than animals, whose biological needs would surely be thought of on what could be several hours of travel, in this sense.* And this reminded me very much of the way people of color were treated during segregation/American apartheid in the South where I was born. My partner and I were also treated disrespectfully. I was interrogated for over four hours and altogether we were detained, without water or food, for over nine hours. The arrogance was also reminiscent of the white supremacist swagger of police, especially, in the South. And some of these Israelis were very young. I did not like the distortion of personality I saw occurring in them because of their involvement in enforcing the Occupation.
In the South every single thing was segregated: water fountains, public toilets and hotels and restaurants, but in “Greater Israel” i.e. the Occupied Territories, there’s even segregation of the roads! Our Palestinian taxi driver tried hard to stay on the Arab only roads but one of them was blocked. He then, with great trepidation, got onto the big Jewish Settler only highway. This was simply amazing to experience. As was the realization that Palestinians have different colored license plates and that one of our group of artists and writers, a Palestinian man, had to leave our van because even inside a van he’s not permitted to enter Jerusalem.
The way Palestinians are shot and killed, or arrested and beaten, as if they are not human beings, also reminds me of growing up in the South, where we were made to feel that Black life had no value. Also, the use of prison to keep politically conscious and active people out of the population. At this moment there are Palestinians in Israeli jails and prisons on a hunger strike because the majority of them were arrested without ever having been charged with anything. In the South too black people were often beaten and jailed and never given a fair trial, or sometimes never even told what they were arrested for. They were often put to work on plantations owned by the prison and by other plantation owners in the area. It was a way to re-enslave black people. After demolishing their houses and taking their land Israel has made use of workers in the Palestinian communities to build their Jewish only settlements.
One thing that makes Israeli apartheid worse than the American South or South African apartheid is the reluctance of the world’s citizens to denounce it. There is a tremendous amount of fear that is just beginning to lessen as more people speak out about it. People have a great dread of being labeled anti-Semitic. They know they can lose their livelihoods and that even their lives might be in danger. This is a real consideration.
Don’t you suppose an artist would be more influential when acting within a society in which injustice takes place, instead of boycotting it? If not, can it be deduced that you don’t believe in a writer’s ability to set a change in motion?
I was seventeen years old when I left my small segregated town in Georgia and, feeling it was my right to sit in any empty seat, I sat down in the front of the bus. I was ordered immediately to the back of the bus because a white woman complained to the white bus driver (the only kind that existed in the South at that time). I was on my way to my first year of college. I had been writing poetry since I was nine, but I realized I would never have the luxury of only writing poetry; that I would have to be politically active in order to achieve enough freedom to write at all.
I have felt incredibly lucky as poet, writer, activist, because I am able to use every part of myself – my mind, emotions, my body – to be of assistance to the liberation of people and other beings in the world. I have every faith that my words, because they are the best of my thinking, will reach others, even if they disagree with me. And that my political activity can also bring comfort to those who perhaps do not read. Political activity is how I considered the making of The Color Purple into a movie, by the way.
I am tormented knowing what is being done to the children of Gaza, for instance, because my country has paid for weapons Israel uses to murder and terrify them. When I was in Gaza I talked with psychiatrists and social workers and of course with some of the children. My view is that all children are the responsibility of all adults. The Jewish child is precious, so is the Arab child. So is the African Child and the Indian child and so on. To turn away from them is impossible for me. That is just how it is. When I was a child myself I thought all the adults I saw (not the white people, of course, because it was clear they marched to a very different drummer) thought this way. It was clear the whites wanted only our labor and nothing else; certainly not our presence outside the labor force. This is the Israeli attitude toward Palestinians, from what I’ve seen and read.
Some would say political sanctions should be hold against governments, and not their citizens. Preventing regular Israelis exposure to your art doesn’t harm the policy-makers but the simple man on the street. Cultural isolation might only make Israelis feel they’re being attacked and will cause an even larger fixation in their stands. What is your response to this?
I think much of the world and certainly my own country has done a disservice to Israel in not stopping its many war crimes and abuses of humanity. The UN has tried to hold Israel accountable for its actions, the World Court has also tried, and I don’t know how many other major respectable bodies. Israel sails along as if under a spell of immunity. What can the average citizen, who is also a mother, also a child, also a father or a brother or an uncle or aunt, with full human feelings of compassion and horror do? Our governments in the case of Israel are worse than useless. They aid and abet behavior by Israel that they condemn anywhere else on the globe.
Sometimes for a moment of bitter amusement I compare the treatment given Israel by the US government and its treatment of Cuba. Every move of Cuba’s is condemned even when it would benefit the US (for instance, Cuba sent doctors and medicines to the victims of hurricane Katrina years ago, only to be refused – I forget exactly what was the excuse to maintain hostilities to this small, disobedient nation); Israel on the other hand is simply promised an eternity of support and good will no matter what atrocities it commits.
By the way, when The Color Purple was published in Israel in 1986 I was happy to have it there. I have nothing against the Hebrew language, or any language for that matter. I assumed this time around the book might even have been published in both Hebrew and Arabic. Why not? Since there is a large Arab population in Israel. There was no cultural boycott in 1986 and I had not yet gone to Gaza or to the West Bank. I had not observed and experienced the mistreatment of the Palestinian people, nor stood beside them, experiencing their suffering in myself.
Many Israelis agree with you and think the occupation is immoral. What should they do to change the situation – after all, one can’t boycott his own county?
But of course you can boycott anything that deserves it. Find a way. In our struggle we boycotted the Montgomery, Alabama bus company that for decades had forced black people to sit in the back of the bus. We boycotted stores where black women and children (and men) were not allowed to try on the clothes and shoes they bought. We boycotted wherever we could. There is a part of the population, anywhere one goes, that will never descend to acts of physical violence, yet these people feel deeply. They need a way to express their human understanding of injustice; they need to express solidarity with the oppressed. They need to exercise compassion. These are human needs. That is why boycotts are inevitable.
Why did you choose to focus your efforts in Israel? The situation in Israel is rather difficult, but other placed in the world – such as China, Syria or Sudan – deal with horrible things and on a much larger scale. Your book “Overcoming Speechlessness” deals with Congo and Rwanda, (countries in which genocide, massacre, organized sexual abuse and amputation of limbs have taken place) side by side with dealing with Israel. Do you really believe there is room for comparison?
If you read much of my work you will see that Israel is not singled out for scrutiny. I spent ten years working on the exposure to the world of the practice of female genital mutilation, widely practiced in many African and Arab and some Asian countries. My support of the ongoing struggles of Native Americans, and native Hawaiians, is a matter of record. I have stood with Tibetans in their struggle with the Chinese. I have stood with women everywhere. As well as with the abused animals of the planet. Israel’s behavior is not worse than that of my own country, by the way, especially in its treatment of the Palestinians; in fact the similarity to the way the US has treated Native Americans is striking.
What I am pointing out is the savage nature of physical violence wherever it occurs. I believe humanity must make a concerted effort to outgrow this behavior. Whether you kill someone by chopping off their limbs with a machete, while looking them in the eye, or whether you incinerate them from the air, and never see their face, the violence is the same. There is a tendency to think violence in Africa is incomparable to Israeli violence because the weapons used are not so clean and efficient and distant as the ones manufactured in the west.
You have said before that you support the “One State” solution – a solution that is not accepted by the majority of Palestinians and Israelis. Both peoples want their own national state. Is there, in your opinion, a realistic way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I believe Israelis and Palestinians will have to learn to live together on equal terms. In one country. A two state “solution” is no longer possible. I don’t think it ever really was. People who talk about this seem to be talking about an “idea” rather than a true possibility. Where would the Palestinian state exist, for instance? Where is the land for it? Would Israel ever permit its free existence? I don’t think so. And the idea of “land swaps.” As a gardener and daughter of generations of farmers, I must say this is an absurd notion. One wants the land of one’s choosing, where the soil is fertile and good. And where one’s ancestors are buried. Not a bit of desert that nobody else wants.
In the past you supported Obama, but recently you called Israel and the US Terrorist Organizations. Are disappointed in President Obama? If so, why? Will he have your support in the upcoming elections?
Our system of government is fraudulent and always has been. From its inception it was a “democracy” for rich white men with property. It is still that way to a discouraging extent. It was founded on terrorism and genocide, slavery and exploitation on a scale almost impossible to comprehend. I think the coming elections are a disgrace to the Planet. Imagine spending billions of dollars for elections that could be used for housing and decent drinking water for the millions who have none. I have written a new poem called DEMOCRATIC WOMANISM that posits the direction I would like the world to move. With women of courage, mostly of color (and with our brave male allies) imbued with an understanding of democracy and socialism, leading all of us back to care of the earth as part of our duty to coming generations. And to the planet itself. Patriarchal leadership, including Obama’s, has been a huge disappointment, and this is an understatement.
When George W. Bush was elected you said in an interview: ” I know that Martin Luther King would have felt very saddened because he gave his life for a very much larger vision “. Did it remain your view till this day? Do you
ever wonder what Dr. King would have thought of Obama’s America? What should be done to fulfill his full vision?
Martin Luther King was a leader, a person of conviction. He would find it difficult to comprehend, as I do, why Obama is incapable of standing up to Israel and why, whenever he tries, he soon collapses again. I believe Obama started out in the presidency as a good and decent person. With much ambition, but that is not a crime. However, killing people in distant lands by drone attack is, in my opinion, a crime. Condoning Israel’s crimes makes him an enabler of criminal behavior and complicit in the misery Israel causes to poor and frightened people. This is almost unbearable to face, because I, like so many others, love Barack. But we have lost him to the US government machine that is only running true to course in its treacherous machinations around the globe.
I introduced Barack Obama when he came to San Francisco. We were ecstatic that he was with us. I told him, in the moments we had alone before going onstage, that he didn’t have to be president. You can be a writer, I said, because he writes so well. You could have a good life of being anonymous when you felt like it, writing anything you like. You could be free, I said. He laughed.
But I still feel this way. Better a writer than a president of the United States any day of the week. No country on earth is worth losing one’s soul. As a student of Buddhism, though not a Buddhist, I must add: there are ways to re-claim the soul, but it takes a lot of meditation and eternities of work.
Do you believe the USA should end its Alliance with Israel?
I think the USA should be fair. To Israel and to Palestine. It should simply observe, and comment on, the truth of what is happening there. It should stop sending to a cruel, bullying government in Israel our tax money that we need desperately at home; it should stop sending weapons. It should not want the gas that is reported to be under the ground in Gaza so much that it is willing to look away as the people of Gaza are bombed into oblivion. It should care that 95 per cent of the water in Gaza, because of American made bombs, is unsafe for the people to drink. It should free itself of the burden and distraction from its own needs that Israel has become.
There are many books and documentaries that can help us educate ourselves about what happened in the past and is happening right now. I recently wrote the foreword to a magnificent book by Miko Peled, son of the Israeli Zionist general, Matti Peled. It is called appropriately The General’s Son: An Israeli in Palestine . Miko’s sister Nurit Peled-Elhanan (whose young daughter Smadar was killed in a suicide bombing) has written an equally courageous and transformative book Palestine in Israeli School Books , about the indoctrination of Jewish children against Arabs that prepares them to treat Palestinians as eternal enemies, never as true human beings. There is the incredibly balanced and thoughtful book One Country , by Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada as well as Palestine Inside Out , by Saree Makdisi, a book of devastating detail about what life is like for the average Palestinian under Israeli rule. There are documentaries: Five Broken Cameras comes to mind. But also a film I provided narration for: Roadmap to Apartheid , made by an Israeli and a South African who should know something about apartheid.
I am particularly moved by testimony (found on Youtube) of former Israeli soldiers who refuse to fight defenseless Palestinians whose only” crime”, more often than not, is that they don’t want to be forced out of their homes. On the American boat in our recent Flotilla attempt to bring letters to Gaza there was such a former soldier. He was the one who volunteered to climb down in the dirty water underneath the boat each day to see whether the Israeli experts at sabotage (some of whom he’d trained) had damaged the propellers of our boat.
As a person that paid a heavy personal price for her political activism, can you please share an advice or two on how one can keep his activist spirit over years without giving in to bitterness and Indifference?
I have a deep sense of oneness with the planet, the cosmos. I realize I am home, forever, in this Universe. A Universe that seems to me perfect in every way. It is tragic that our focus on harming others is fatally distracting humans from this invigorating reality. Whatever happens to me I will always be part of this amazing Wonder that is life in this vast Creation. I am thankful. When I am not overwhelmed by sadness I am filled with joy.
*Amended for clarity.