Alice Walker has written a lot of sentences in her Pulitzer Prize-winning career, but none quite so astonishing as one contained in a recent letter she wrote to Alicia Keys, urging the R and B singer to join the cultural boycott of Israel.
“This is actually a wonderful opportunity for you to learn about something sorrowful, and amazing: that our government (Obama in particular) supports a system that is cruel, unjust, and unbelievably evil,” writes Walker.
Forget the condescending suggestion, directed at a high school valedictorian, that she “learn” something about Israel. Instead, note how Walker describes Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians: as “unbelievably evil.” Really?
Let’s grant her “cruel” and “unjust” — Israeli nonprofits often challenge various aspects of the occupation in court, sometimes successfully, and plenty of innocent Palestinians have suffered from restrictions, justifiable as they are from a security standpoint.
But it’s a degradation of language to describe Israel’s actions as “unbelievably evil” in a region where Muslims slaughter Muslims on a daily basis in car and suicide bombings, often directed at mosques and civilians; where Taliban fanatics target schoolgirls for the crime of getting an education; or where Syria has murdered over 70,000 of its own people. If you want to judge Israel by the actions of its neighbors, it is actually unbelievably restrained. And to call someone or something evil is to label it as inhuman, irredeemable, undeserving of understanding, and immune to change. That’s not a call for peace — it’s a call for annihilation.
I would take Walker seriously as an activist only if she demonstrated that she understood the history of the conflict; the legitimate security fears that have undermined repeated Israeli peace efforts; the vicious terrorism and hateful rhetoric that have characterized the Palestinian “resistance” for decades and repelled even Israeli moderates; the seemingly unbridgeable divisions within the Palestinian movement itself; and the distrust and antagonism on both sides that must be confronted, acknowledged, and atoned for before you can even start talking about a solution.
Imagine if Walker, instead of demanding that others boycott Israel, urged them to engage with peacemakers on both sides and to use their appearances as platforms to raise the profiles of groups seeking to change the situation. Instead of trying to reduce Israel to a pariah state, imagine if artists were to stage highly publicized meetings with members of the Parents Circle, which brings together Jewish and Arab victims of violence. Or if they were to donate a portion of their proceeds to Israeli and Palestinian groups that are working toward reconciliation and coexistence.
In her letter to Keys, Walker invokes the civil rights movement and the South Africa boycott. But Jim Crow and apartheid, l’havdil, would not have fallen had activists and politicians not engaged with those on both sides of the color line who imagined a different future. Like Stephen Hawking and other converts to the boycott Israel movement, Walker doesn’t want to engage Israel. She wants it gone.