Editor’s note: The statement below by Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, longtime New York Times reporter and leading defender of human and civil rights, was prepared in response to the recent decision of the Bay Area Book Festival to rescind their invitation to Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and author of The Color Purple, to be a leading participant in their May 7-8 annual event in Berkeley, CA. Hedges, along with Angela Davis, is one of the initial 60 signers of a petition to the Book Festival entitled, “Anti-Zionism is NOT Anti-Semitism.” The signers call for a boycott of the Berkeley Book Festival unless Walker’s disinvitation is rescinded.
To date, over 2,600 people have signed the petition. To add your name, go to: https://standwithalicewalker.org/
The petition was intiated by the Committee to Stand With Alice Walker, represented by Jeff Mackler, Director, The Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal; Joe Lombardo, National Coordinator, United National Antiwar Coalition; Noura Khouri, National Committee, El Awda: The Palestinian Right to Return Coalition; Nathan Fuller, Director, Courage Foundation; and Jim Lafferty, Director Emeritus, National Lawyers Guild, Los Angeles.
By Chris Hedges
There is a steep price to pay for having a conscience and more importantly the courage to act on it. The hounds of hell pin you to the cross, hammering nails into your hands and feet as they grin like the Cheshire cat and mouth bromides about respect for human rights, freedom of expression and diversity. I have watched this happen for some time to Alice Walker, one of the most gifted and courageous writers in America. Walker, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel The Color Purple, has felt the bitter sting of racism. She refuses to be silent about the plight of the oppressed, including the Palestinians.
“Whenever I come out with a book, or anything that will take me before the public, the world, I am assailed as this person I don’t recognize,” she said when I reached her by phone. “If I tried to keep track of all the attacks over the decades, I wouldn’t be able to keep working. I am happy people are standing up. It is all of us. Not just me. They are trying to shut us down, shut us up, erase us. That reality is what is important.”
The Bay Area Book festival delivered the latest salvo against Walker. The organizers disinvited her from the event because she praised the writings of the New Age author David Icke and called his book And the Truth Shall Set You Free “brave.” Icke has denied critics’ charges of anti-Semitism. The festival organizers twisted themselves into contortions to say they were not charging Walker with anti-Semitism. She was banned because she lauded a controversial writer, who I suspect few members of the committee have read. The poet and writer Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, who Walker was to interview, withdrew from the festival in protest.
Walker, a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, has been a very public advocate for Palestinian rights and a critic of Israel for many years. Her friendship with Icke has long been part of the public record. She hid nothing. It is not as if the festival organizers suddenly discovered a dark secret about Walker. They sought to capitalize on her celebrity and then, when they felt the heat from the Israel lobby, capitulated to the mob to humiliate her.
“I don’t know these people,” Walker said of the festival organizers who disinvited her. “It feels like the south. You know they are out there in the community, and they have their positions, but all you see are sheets. That’s what this is. It’s like being back in the south.”
Banning writers because of books they like or find interesting nullifies the whole point of a book festival. Should I be banned because I admire Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s masterpieces Journey to the End of the Night, Death on the Installment Plan, and Castle to Castle, despite his virulent anti-Semitism, which even after World War II he refused to relinquish? Should I be banned for liking Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which I recently reread, and which is rabidly misogynistic? Should I be banned for loving William Butler Yeats, who, like Ezra Pound, many of whose poems I have also committed to memory, was a fascist collaborator? Should I be banned because I revere Hannah Arendt, whose attitudes towards African-Americans were paternalistic, at best, and arguably racist? Should I be banned because I cherish books by C.S. Lewis, Norman Mailer and D.H. Lawrence, who were homophobic?
We might as well sweep clean library shelves if the attitudes of writers we read mean we are denied a right to speak.
And let’s not even get started with the Bible, which I studied as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School. God repeatedly demands righteous acts of genocide, transforming the Nile into blood so the Egyptians will suffer from thirst. God sends swarms of locusts and flies to torture the Egyptians, along with hail, fire and thunder to destroy all plants and trees. God orders the firstborn in every Egyptian household killed so all will know “that the Lord makes a distinction between Egyptians and Israel.” The killing goes on until “there was not a house where one was not dead.”
The Bible contains much of this divinely sanctioned slaughtering of non-believers. It endorses slavery and the beating of enslaved people. It condones the execution of homosexuals and women who commit adultery. It views women as property and approves the right of fathers to sell their daughters. But the Bible also remains, with all these contradictions and moral failings, a great religious, ethical and moral document. Even the most flawed books often have something to teach us.
Organizers of the festival attacked Walker for her poem “It is Our Frightful Duty.” They accuse Walker of channeling Icke’s alleged anti-Semitism into her writing, as if Walker is unable to think for herself. The attack on the poem, which is a gross misreading of its intent, exposes the lie that Walker’s position on Israel and Palestine had nothing to do with her being disinvited.
“Unfortunately, Ms. Walker has not only promoted Icke’s ideas widely on her own blog and in interviews, but they may have influenced her own writing,” the festival wrote in a statement. “Ms. Walker’s 2017 poem “It is our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud” encourages people to use Google and Youtube to “follow the trail of “The / Talmud” as its poison belatedly winds its way / Into our collective consciousness. // Some of what you find will sound / Too crazy to be true. Unfortunately those bits are likely / To be true.” A New York Magazine essay by writer Nylah Burton (who identifies as Black and Jewish) describes her reaction to Walker’s support of Icke and this poem.”
The poem calls out these hate-filled religious texts. “All of it: The Christian, the Jewish, The Muslim; even the Buddhist. All of it, without exception, At the root.” Walker reminds us in the poem that these texts have been used throughout millennia to sanctify subjugation, dehumanization and murder. Slave holders defended the enslavement of Blacks by citing numerous passages in the Old and the New Testament, including Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians where, equating slaveholders with God, Paul writes: “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”
Israel seeks, in the same way, to legitimize its colonial-settler project by citing the Old Testament and the Talmud, the primary source of Jewish law. Never mind that Palestine was a Muslim country from the 7th century until it was seized by military force in 1948. The Old Testament, in the hands of Zionists, is a deed to Palestinian land.
Walker excoriates this religious chauvinism and mythology. She warns that theocracies, which sacralize state power, are dangerous. In the poem, she highlights passages in the Talmud used to condemn those outside the faith. Jews must repudiate these sections in the Talmud and the Old Testament, as those of us who are Christians must repudiate the hateful passages in the Bible. When these religious screeds are weaponized by zealots —Christian, Muslim or Jewish — they propagate evil.
Is Jesus boiling eternally in hot excrement,
For his “crime” of throwing the bankers
Out of the Temple? For loving, standing with,
The poor? Was his mother, Mary,
Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
Must even the best of the Goyim (us, again) be killed?
Pause a moment and think what this could mean
Or already has meant
In our own lifetime.
Walker was invited to the festival to interview Honorée Fanonne Jeffers about her work, not to give a lecture on Icke or Palestine — but no matter. She ran afoul of the thought police, who are always vigilant about catering to smear campaigns against Israeli critics but blithely ignore the virulent and overt racism of Israeli politicians, military commanders, writers and intellectuals.
Walker is not the first writer targeted by Israel. Israel banned the author Gunter Grass and demanded the rescindment of his Nobel prize after he wrote a poem denouncing Germany’s decision to provide Israel with nuclear submarines, warning that Israel “could wipe out the Iranian people” if it attacked Iran. Former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who calls for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to create a “Greater” Israel, described the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as “someone who has written texts against Zionism — which are still used as fuel for terror attacks against Israel.” He said honoring Darwish was the equivalent to honoring Adolf Hitler for “Mein Kampf.” Israeli bookstores Steimatzky and Tzomet Sefarim purged Sally Rooney’s novels from some 200 branches and online sites because of her support for BDS. Israeli writer Yehonatan Geffen was beaten outside his home for calling the Israeli prime minister a racist.
Bay Area Book Festival founder and director Cherilyn Parsons defended the board’s decision to disinvite Walker when I requested a comment:
Our decision to disinvite Ms. Walker had nothing to do with her position on Palestine, her voice as a Black woman writer, or her right to speak her mind freely. We honor all those things. We also do not hold that she is anti-Semitic. (To be pro-Palestinian does not mean a person is anti-Semitic, just as to be Jewish does not mean that one is anti-Palestine.) Our decision was based purely on Ms. Walker’s inexplicable, ongoing endorsement of David Icke, a conspiracy theorist who dangerously promulgates such beliefs as that Jewish people bankrolled Hitler, caused the 2008 global financial crisis, staged the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and more. (See his book “And the Truth Shall Set You Free,” available full-text on the Internet Archive.) Icke also regularly promotes “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fabricated, uber-anti-Semitic text that was widely read during the time of social upheaval in pre-WWII Germany and turned public sentiment against Jews–a truly dangerous document for a populace to embrace. Finally, we note that Ms. Walker provided financial support for, and participation in, a documentary celebrating Icke and his work.
“I do not believe he is anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish,” Walker posted on her website. “I do believe he is brave enough to ask the questions others fear to ask, and to speak his own understanding of the truth wherever it might lead. Many attempts have been made to censor and silence him. As a woman, and a person of color, as a writer who has been criticized and banned myself, I support his right to share his own thoughts.”
“I maintain that I can be friends with whoever I like,” Walker told me. “The attachment to this belief that this person is evil is strange. He’s not.”
I worked for two years as a reporter in Jerusalem. I listened to the daily filth spewed out by Israelis about Arabs and Palestinians, who used racist tropes to sanctify Israeli apartheid and gratuitous violence against Palestinians. Israel routinely orders air strikes, targeted assassinations, drone attacks, artillery strikes, tank assaults and naval bombardments on the largely defenseless population in Gaza. Israel blithely dismisses those it murders, including children, as unworthy of life, drawing on poisonous religious edicts. It is risible that Israel and its US supporters can posit themselves as anti-racists, abrogating the right to cancel Walker. It is the equivalent of allowing the Klan to vet speakers lists.
Torat Ha’Melech by Rabbi Yitzhak and Rabbi Yosef Elitzur is one of innumerable examples of the deep racism embedded in Israeli culture. The book provides rabbinical advice to Israeli soldiers and officers in the occupied Palestinian territories. It describes non-Jews as “uncompassionate by nature” and justifiably exterminated to “curb their evil inclinations.” “If we kill a gentile who has violated one of the seven commandments of [Noah]…there is nothing wrong with the murder.” It assures troops that it is morally legitimate to kill Palestinian children, writing, “There is justification for killing babies if it is clear they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults.” The Biblical prohibition on murder, Yitzhak and Elitzur write, “refers only to a Jew who kills a Jew, and not to a Jew who kills a gentile, even if that gentile is one of the righteous among the nations.” They even say it is “permissible” to kill Jewish dissidents. A Jewish dissident, the rabbis write, is a rodef. A rodef, according to traditional Jewish law, is someone who is “pursuing” another person to murder him or her. It is the duty of a Jew to kill a rodef if the rodef is told to cease the threatening behavior and does not. Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, argued that the din rodef, or “law of the pursuer,” justified Rabin’s murder.
Walker is the best among us. She is one of our most gifted and lyrical writers. She stands unequivocally with the crucified of the earth. She sees her own pain in the pain of others. She demands justice. She pays the price.
Boycott the Bay Area Book Festival.
That is the least we owe a literary and moral titan.