June 26, 2012
Couscous, flags and ‘The Color Purple’
I don’t think Alice Walker really believes that the popular demand for a Hebrew-language edition of “The Color Purple” is so great that the government of Israel will evacuate the Jewish settlements in the West Bank in order to win her approval for its publication. But those of us who worry about the Jewish state ought to be concerned that a writer of Walker’s stature is lending her name to the cultural subsection of the BDS (Boycott Divest Sanction) movement.
“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,” explained Walker. “I am hopeful that one day, maybe soon, this may happen. But now is not the time.”
One unhappy but mostly overlooked consequence of the BDS movement is that Israel is being erased, sometimes quite literally, from the cultural landscape in which we live. Thus, for example, when I recently tried to find a box of what I am accustomed to call Israeli couscous at Whole Foods, I discovered that the product is now called “pearled couscous.” And when I pulled up behind a bus at a red light, I was able to study an advertisement for Santa Monica College that depicted the flags of the world — including those of several predominantly Muslim countries — but the Israeli flag was nowhere to be seen.
I am not suggesting that Whole Foods or Santa Monica College have joined Alice Walker in the BDS movement. But it is self-evident that even casual references to Israel are now seen as intolerably provocative by companies and institutions that seek to avoid controversy, which represents a victory by the BDS movement. No matter where you stand on the settlements, the notion that the Jewish state cannot be safely included or even mentioned in the public conversation is not good for Israel.
Some activists, as I recently discovered, claim to be committed to opening a conversation rather than shutting it down. Even a writer as critical of the settlements as Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” and “Going Rouge: Sarah Palin, An American Nightmare,” sought a way to “boycott the Israeli economy,” as she puts it, “but not Israelis.”
“For eight years, my books have been published in Israel by a commercial house called Babel. But when I published ‘The Shock Doctrine,’ I wanted to respect the boycott,” she explains in an item posted at her website. “I contacted a small publisher called Andalus…, an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus’s work, and none to me.” Her plan, explains Klein, “required dozens of phone calls, e-mails and instant messages, stretching from Tel Aviv to Ramallah to Paris to Toronto to Gaza City. My point is this: as soon as you start implementing a boycott strategy, dialogue increases dramatically.”
Of course, both Walker and Klein are assuming that the cultural BDS movement will have some influence on Israel, but it’s hard to imagine that the Netanyahu government will change its policy on the settlements in order to court public opinion in America or anywhere else in the world. Nothing in recent history suggests that world public opinion matters much in the decisions that governments make; certainly, it did nothing at all to stop the German government from murdering Jews by the millions during World War II. And, ironically, the cultural boycott of Israel only strengthens the conviction of the hawks, both here and in the Jewish state, that the world is already so hostile toward Israel that nothing they might do on the ground would put the Israeli flag back on bus advertisements.
For that reason alone, Alice Walker may wish to reconsider her decision and to follow the example of Naomi Klein, who is no less opposed to the settlements but found a way to engage with her Israeli readership rather than to punish them.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.