Kate Maltby

Alice Walker’s open Jew hate is simply ignored

There is a jarring collective amnesia around the views of the author of The Color Purple


The cast of 'The Color Purple' . (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

January 11, 2024 10:47

Sometimes, a public embrace is an act of cruelty. Oprah Winfrey, big on kindness, missed this memo. Last month saw the Los Angeles premiere of the media mogul’s latest movie as a producer – the musical adaptation of the cult novel The Color Purple. Oprah’s official website Oprah Daily covered the event in gushing tones, its picture gallery culminating in a photo of Winfrey planting a hug on the novel’s author. “And here’s one of the sweetest moments of the whole night,” it reads. “Oprah embraced Alice Walker — both of them clad in their lovely purple gear — and celebrated the power of this enduring story.”

Yes, that Alice Walker. The novelist is an iconic figure in black America. She’s also the person who encouraged her admirers to read David Icke’s And the Truth Shall Set You Free, one of the more unambiguously antisemitic manifestos of recent years.

Icke’s book claims that Jewish bankers funded Adolf Hitler, and that the Holocaust is a myth that should be challenged in schools. It argues that violence against Jews is faked by Jews to generate sympathy, that the slave trade and the KKK are Jewish conspiracies, Combat 18 is a front for the Anti-Defamation League and that the Talmud is “among the most appallingly racist documents on the planet”. That’s a light sampling. In 2018 Walker told the New York Times that Icke’s book was “a curious person’s dream come true”. She has stood by it ever since.

In recent years, we have become used to antisemitism making more effort to disguise itself. Modern antisemites talk about “punching up” at “privileged communities”. They complain about “overrepresentation” in the media. They fixate on the problems of the world’s only Jewish state. But when antisemites endorse David Icke, there can be no pretence. It’s about whether or not you believe the Jews are in cahoots with lizard-men.

Inevitably, Walker has tried the generic excuses. Her critics, she argues, are out to undermine her work “in support of the people of Palestine.” It is true that in addition to promoting falsehoods about Jews, she is fiercely critical of Israel. Go figure. But for once, this is a secondary issue. There are no grey areas to Walker’s attacks on Jewish people, Jewish culture or the Jewish state.

In a 2017 screed Walker blamed the “demonic” crimes of Israel on the “poison” inherent in the Jewish sacred texts. The title of this poem (in the loosest sense) reads, It Is Our (Frightful) Duty To Study The Talmud; Walker asserts that the Talmud ordains a world where: “Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only That, but to enjoy it?” The worst allegations against the IDF, she argues, make sense in the context of a religious tradition that makes “three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse… young boys fair game for rape”.

All of this is well known. It feels tiresome to recite these established facts, to rehash this basic bigotry again and again. The extraordinary thing is we still have to do so.

The tragedy is that Walker’s great novel The Color Purple does deserve to be celebrated. Reading it was a transformative experience for millions of women, particularly black and bisexual women. Reading it as a teenager taught me that sexual violence could be followed by sexual renaissance. It taught me about female resilience and female friendship.

It taught Oprah Winfrey the same things. As she regularly recalls during promotional events for the movie, it taught her about black women’s survival. No wonder Oprah has championed the novel throughout her career, making her film debut in the first, non-musical adaptation of the story in 1985. Long before she became an icon, Oprah was a victim of child rape. She has every right to identify with its story of endurance.

But does she also have the right to rehabilitate Walker? And to ask us to suppress Jewish trauma? Readers of the JC are all too familiar with our experience of antisemitism being minimised. We are familiar also with the difficulties of discussing antisemitism in the African-American community which doesn’t mean we should politely ignore it.

Even by the standards of antisemitism denial, however, the collective amnesia around The Color Purple is extraordinary. Steven Spielberg, whose Schindler’s List is said by Icke “to indoctrinate children” with Holocaust “propaganda”, remains a producer of the movie, a legacy of his work with the 1985 film. In December, the Hollywood Reporter ran an interview with Oprah and the movie’s stars. They gushed about Walker; at no point did the reporter even raise her anti-Jewish bigotry. The magazine’s social media ran a video of Walker blowing kisses to fans, captioned: “Alice Walker, author of #TheColorPurple, shows her love at the premiere”. How about talking about her hate?

For many readers, especially black women, The Color Purple is a story about love. That makes it harder to acknowledge her descent into hate. No one should be trying to strip The Color Purple from the culture censorship has never helped Jews. But when Oprah is hugging an antisemite on the red carpet, something has gone very badly wrong.

January 11, 2024 10:47

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive