Author, poet and human rights activist Alice Walker has declined an offer to publish her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Color Purple in Israel because the country is “an Apartheid state,” she said.
In a June 9 letter to Yediot Books, Walker thanked the publisher for wanting to issue her novel but said she would wait for “a just future.” Walker said that last fall the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in South Africa, on which she served as a jurist, “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 … 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.”
The Israeli website Haaretz reported on June 19 that Walker “refused to authorize a Hebrew translation of her prize-winning work,” although her letter to Yediot makes no mention of Hebrew or a translation. “It was not clear when Yediot Books, an imprint of the daily Yediot Achronot newspaper, made the request, or whether Walker could in fact stop translation of the book,” Haaretz said. The website reported that “at least” one Hebrew version of the book had appeared in the 1980s.
Walker, who was a passenger on the U.S. Board to Gaza last summer, has long fought racism wherever she has found it. She has worked with the Native American struggle in the U.S. for a long time and counts Dennis Banks and John Trudell among her friends in Indian country. She also counts American Indian roots in her heritage.
“My own ancestry is part Cherokee, and it’s very natural to feel close to the Indigenous Peoples of the United States, as they were the ones who cared about the land in ways that the dominating culture never did and probably never will,” Walker told Indian Country Today Media Network.
Walker also appeared on Democracy Now on March 30 speaking about racism and the death of Treyvon Martin.
“We are a very sick country, and our racism is a manifestation of our illness and the ways we don’t delve into our own wrecks,” Walker said. “As a country we have never looked to see where we went off the trail…. I feel so much for this young man because he was beautiful and he was ours. And I don’t just mean black people, but all of ours. These children are our future, and they have to be protected.”
In her letter to Yediot Books, which was posted on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), Walker said she hopes the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, “of which I am part, will have enough of an impact on Israeli civilian society to change the situation.”
She offered the film version of The Color Purple as an example of “engagement in the worldwide effort to rid humanity of its self-destructive habit of dehumanizing whole populations.”
When the film came out in 1985, director Steven Spielberg was faced with the decision of whether it should be offered to the South African public.
“I lobbied against this idea because, as with Israel today, there was a civil society movement of BDS aimed at changing South Africa’s apartheid policies and, in fact, transforming the government,” Walker wrote, adding that they decided not to distribute the film in South Africa until the apartheid regime was dismantled and Nelson Mandela became the first “president of color” in that country. “Only then did we send our beautiful movie! And to this day, when I am in South Africa, I can hold my head high, and nothing obstructs the love that flows between me and the people of that country.”
Walker said in her letter that she would like her books to be read by Israelis—“especially by the young, and by the brave Israeli activists [Jewish and Palestinian] for justice and peace I have had the joy of working beside”—and hopes that one day soon this will happen.
“But now is not the time. We must continue to work on the issue, and to wait,” she wrote, signing off that she has “faith that a just future can be fashioned from small acts.”