When I saw Sarah Seltzer’s “Why Alice Walker and Michigan Are Both Wrong” posted on The Sisterhood late Thursday afternoon, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or maybe bang my head against a wall.
Laughter (rueful), because Seltzer’s response was so predictable (especially after her published comment on my original post about Alice Walker and the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women) that perhaps I should have anticipated it. Tears, because on a day when four rockets were fired at northern Israel (never mind the continuing chaos in Egypt and Syria), what breaks my heart isn’t the way “conflicts over borders spill over to the cultural realm.” What breaks my heart are the challenges to its legitimacy that Israel faces—including challenges from my fellow Jews.
I am drawn to focus on this paragraph in Seltzer’s post, in which I am invoked:
But whether Walker is right or wrong, the folks at American universities should not insulate themselves from thinkers who don’t march in lockstep on Middle Eastern policy. Whether or not supporters of Israel want to hear it, opposition to the philosophy of Zionism is a legitimate intellectual position — and that is true even if some of its adherents are anti-Semitic. Walker’s opponents and Dreifus certainly wouldn’t want all supporters of the Israeli government to be tarred with the same brush as extremely racist Israeli politicians like Avigdor Lieberman. So we can’t dismiss all critics of Israel, even the most virulent, as being the same as those wackos who fulminate about Zionist conspiracies to take over the world.
Several points must be made here. First, my support for the CEW’s initial decision was not a matter of seeking to “insulate [myself] from thinkers who don’t march in lockstep on Middle Eastern policy.” Let’s remember that the rescinded invitation was for no mere visiting lecture or classroom visit. Rather, it was for a signal honor: Walker had been asked to speak as part of the CEW’s 50th anniversary celebrations, a cluster of “programming that honors the past and looks to the future” of a center whose stated mission is “encouraging and enhancing the education and careers of adult women through programs and services, advocacy and research.”
As noted in my original post, I agreed with the CEW’s director, who explained the decision to rescind the invitation (in a statement that is apparently no longer visible on the CEW site, but is still quoted elsewhere): “Upon further research, I decided to withdraw our invitation because I did not think Ms. Walker would be the optimum choice for the celebratory nature of our 50th anniversary event.” My own exact words for The Sisterhood — as a Jewish woman writing for a venue “where Jewish women converse” and using this CEW episode to express a larger point about what sometimes distances me from feminist projects — were the following: “If I were a student, instructor or staff member at the University of Michigan, I sure wouldn’t be comfortable ‘celebrating’ alongside Walker.” For context, links embedded within my post provided some evidence of Walker’s intense preoccupation with the vilification of Israel; had I read it earlier, I might have included a reference to Michael Berenbaum’s sage and sensitive review of Walker’s latest book as well.
Next, this isn’t exactly my first rodeo. I’ve been studying, teaching, and/or otherwise working in American universities for most of the past 26 years. I fully understand and appreciate the principle of freedom of speech; I have also seen and experienced enough to know that if Seltzer fears that anti-Israel sentiments are being muzzled in American colleges and universities, she needs to visit some campuses for a reality check. But I do believe that choosing a figure as divisive (and, in the views of many, as bigoted) as Walker to serve as featured speaker at a women’s-oriented celebration would have instantly alienated at least some of the audience the CEW would have hoped to attract. The new invitation — which, according to the University of Michigan’s provost will bring Walker to campus not for the original event but instead “to speak in a public forum on campus” that will be co-sponsored by the CEW and the university’s Department of Afroamerican and African Studies — acknowledges the difference.
But let’s look more closely at these lines from that paragraph in Seltzer’s post: “[O]pposition to the philosophy of Zionism is a legitimate intellectual position — and that is true even if some of its adherents are anti-Semitic. Walker’s opponents and Dreifus certainly wouldn’t want all supporters of the Israeli government to be tarred with the same brush as extremely racist Israeli politicians like Avigdor Lieberman. So we can’t dismiss all critics of Israel, even the most virulent, as being the same as those wackos who fulminate about Zionist conspiracies to take over the world.” There is so much to unpack and argue with in the lines I’ve just quoted that I hardly know where to begin. For brevity’s sake, I’ll address only two points.
First: I hope that Seltzer isn’t implying that “Walker’s opponents” (and me, “Dreifus,”) are virtually synonymous with “all supporters of the Israeli government.” When I declare myself a Zionist and a supporter of Israel, I am linking myself with the Jewish state and its people. But, like many Jews throughout the diaspora — and more significantly, like many Israelis — I may not always agree with official Israeli government policies or actions. (This isn’t too dissimilar from my love and support for our own United States, regardless of disagreements with or doubts about our government’s official policies or actions.)
More worrisome are the extrapolations embedded in Seltzer’s words above, particularly regarding Avigdor Lieberman. To try to present more appropriate parallels and analogies, let’s imagine that an American university’s center for foreign policy studies, or center for immigration studies, had, in fact, invited Lieberman to keynote an anniversary celebration. Would Sarah Seltzer approve of that decision? Or would she write an op-ed against it?
On one argument in her post — and it’s an important one — Sarah Seltzer and I agree: “Art is a vehicle for revealing the grey areas of human existence.” All the more reason, then, for us to celebrate (and celebrate with) artists, writers, and thinkers who help us perceive and engage with those grey areas, rather than honor extremists like Alice Walker.
Writer and book critic Erika Dreifus holds graduate degrees in education, history and creative writing.