Alice Walker and the University of Michigan Center for Education for Women — which disinvited her from a speaking engagement at its 50th anniversary celebration, as the Sisterhood’s Erika Dreifus recently wrote about, then later re-invited her to speak at a public forum on campus — are both misguided. It was foolish of Alice Walker to boycott an Israeli publisher because of her anger at Israel’s occupation. But it was wrong, also, for the Center to rescind their invitation because of Walker’s support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
How can I stand against them both? Easy. Because I believe academic, cultural and intellectual boycotts in almost all circumstances (with some obvious exceptions) are lazy. They embody people’s fear of having their own opinions challenged by the deep nuances and multi-faceted nature of reality, of art, of the world of ideas. Art is a vehicle for revealing the grey areas of human existence. We should share it as widely as we can, and welcome the way it interrogates us and our dogmas.
Alice Walker, the BDS advocate who last summer refused to authorize a Hebrew translation of her Pulitzer-winning novel “The Color Purple,” and who more recently sought to persuade singer Alicia Keys to cancel a performance in Israel, is quick to try to silence others. But now, Walker is declaring herself a victim of censorship.
According to a report in Inside Higher Ed that quickly went viral Friday morning, the University of Michigan has withdrawn an invitation that was extended to Walker “to speak at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the university’s Center for the Education of Women.” The article cites a posted statement from the center’s director, Gloria D. Thomas, which reads in part: “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.”
From my vantage point, Ms. Thomas’s decision is valid and important. If I were a student, instructor or staff member at the University of Michigan, I sure wouldn’t be comfortable “celebrating” alongside Walker. Unfortunately, the matter doesn’t end there.
Predictably, and fueled by Walker herself, cries of censorship have ensued — as have unsubstantiated claims that the invitation was rescinded at the behest of unnamed “donors” who control the “purse strings.” (I haven’t yet seen anyone go so far as to insert the adjective “Jewish” before “donors,” but it’s early yet. I should also disclose that I am related to a Michigan alumnus who is a generous donor to his alma mater, but to my knowledge has no connection with this center.)
I love Alice Walker. I love her prose style, I love her ultra left-wing politics and the way they fuse with her artistic sensibility. I just finished her extremely complex time-spanning epic novel “The Temple of My Familiar” with my thoughts thoroughly provoked and her images in my head.
But I don’t love her decision to refuse to have her most famous book, “The Color Purple,” translated by an Israeli publisher in protest against the occupation and treatment of the Palestinians. She wrote a letter to Yediot books saying the following:
”I would so like knowing my books are read by the people of your country, 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,” she wrote in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press. “I am hopeful that one day, maybe soon, this may happen. But now is not the time.”