What is a reviewer to do when a truly gifted writer writes a genuinely awful book?
I suspect that I was invited to write this review because the editor suspected that I might be open to the author’s experience, moved by the power of her words, and might not dismiss her critique of Israel, her sympathy with the Palestinians and her participation in the Gaza flotilla out of hand.
Alice Walker is of my generation. I am familiar with her writings and often moved by her passion and the power and majesty of her words. We marched in many of the same marches; we knew in different ways many of the same people. Her mentor at Spelman College in Georgia, Howard Zinn, was later my teacher at Boston University. I marched with Zinn, I demonstrated with him, still I remained far more critical than Walker of his work then as now, but one could not fail to be impressed by his charisma and determination. She writes movingly of my college classmate Andrew Goodman, who was killed in Philadelphia, Miss., along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, two Jews and a black, civil rights workers during 1964’s “Freedom Summer.”
So, as I began reading Walker’s “The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wanderings as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way” (The New Press, 2013), I was prepared to be moved and pained, to be made to cringe by Israel’s occupation and the heavy-handedness of some of Israel’s actions.
Instead, I found a work that was uninformed and self-indulgent, where mistakes that could be corrected by a simple click of the mouse and stroke of the key in Google, remained untouched by the author and her editors, where history is unreliable and maps so thoroughly distorted that anyone who knows the Middle East finds them comical.
Examples abound. Permit me a few: Ariel Sharon was not the president of Israel, but its prime minister.
Example: An Israeli commission found Sharon indirectly responsible for the murders at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. The actual killing was done by Lebanese Christians who entered the camps and settled old scores. But one couldn’t learn that from Walker’s writings. According to Walker, “He [Sharon] led a massacre of the people.” I celebrate the fact that the Israeli public in response to the lessons of Jewish history and Jewish morality insisted that if a massacre occurred on its watch, it was its responsibility. But there is a world of difference between direct and indirect responsibility for a massacre, as any moralist — including Walker — should well know.
Further, I have no fondness for the Israeli general who only late in life came to understand that Israel could not continue to dominate a Palestinian population that did not want its rule. Sharon used the word occupation [kibbush], much to the chagrin of his former supporters and their fellow travelers in the United States. He withdrew from Gaza, resettling its Jewish inhabitants and abandoning settlements that had been productive and prosperous, able to house Palestinians comfortably, to offer them a livelihood from fertile hothouses that yielded fruits and vegetables. These settlements were burned down by an irate Palestinian population that was more intent on eradicating any remnant of Jewish presence than on bettering its own situation.
Example: A map illustrates the loss of Palestinian land from 1946 to 2000. It neglects to mention that Israel accepted partition in 1937 and 1947. The Arab countries chose to go to war when Israeli statehood was proclaimed in 1948. It omits the fact that it was Jordan that began the assault against Israel in 1967, after repeated requests that it stay out of the war, and that Israel’s conquest of the territories was the result of a defensive war.
Walker’s sentiments, however well-intentioned — and I don’t want to bother challenging her motives — are fundamentally unserious. Walker advocates a one-state solution. Muslims, Jews and Christians living together. Kumbaya.
Anybody looking at the landscape of the Middle East has to wonder how one-state solutions are working for Shiite and Sunni Muslims, for Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt, for Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, for Alawites and Shiites in Syria.
In fairness to Walker, she is no less foolish here than Jews in Israel and in the United States who advocate a one-state solution, saying that Israel’s security is served by dominating a Palestinian population that does not welcome its rule. At least the president of the Palestinian Authority is clear, even if he is not politically correct, when he says that the Palestinian state to be created on the West Bank will not welcome Jews.
I hate the wall that was erected to divide Israel and the Palestinian territory, but any serious student of the region must at least mention why it was erected and be cognizant of the fact that it has been effective in preventing killings.
Walker is an advocate of nonviolence. Yet she writes as if Israeli wars against Gaza were unprovoked, as if Israeli citizens were not bombed and innocents not murdered. She also writes as if the leaders of Gaza did not place its military resources within the civilian population hiding behind schoolchildren and sick people, presuming that Israel would be restrained because of its values. The best argument for nonviolence as a Palestinian tactic is to remember the difference between the tactics of Intifada I and of Intifada II and the response of the Israeli public.
Alice Walker has written many serious books worthy of your consideration; “The Cushion in the Road” is, sadly, not one of them. There are also substantive critiques of Israel’s action in Gaza and the West Bank by serious people who feel responsible to understand the complexity of the situation in its historical, moral and political context. This, too, is not one of those.
When an important writer writes a book unworthy of her reputation, one can respond with anger or with sadness. I prefer sadness.
Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.