After the San Diego Community College District announced that Alice Walker would be the keynote speaker for the new Chancellor’s installation, protests immediately followed. Various Jewish organizations wrote in protest, and the San Diego Union Tribune reported on the ensuing controversy. At least two opinion pieces (here and here) came out against the invitation.
Walker, best known for her 1982 novel, “The Color Purple,” made into a movie in 1985 and a musical in 2005 (which garnered 11 Tony Awards), has become something of an icon in American culture. Precisely why is something of a mystery. None of her subsequent novels achieved anywhere near the success of “The Color Purple.” Unlike, say, Toni Morrison, Walker cannot point to a substantial body of work to justify her reputation. Nonetheless, she remains a popular figure on the lecture circuit, and a selection of her journals has just been published to considerable acclaim.
But Walker is also a conspiracy theoris
But Walker is also a conspiracy theorist. She follows the loopy ideas of one David Icke, who believes, as Vox puts it, “that the world is run by a secret cabal of alien lizard people, many of whom are Jewish.” And Walker authored a “poem” that is viciously antisemitic. In this screed, Walker encourages her reader to “study the Talmud,” but not by actually seeking out the Talmud, either in its original language or in English translation. Instead:
I recommend starting with YouTube. Simply follow the trail of “The
Talmud” as its poison belatedly winds its way
Into our collective consciousness.
What does one find on “YouTube”? A litany of antisemitic tropes taken straight from the Protocols of Zion:
Is Jesus boiling eternally in hot excrement,
For his “crime” of throwing the bankers
Out of the Temple? For loving, standing with,
The poor? Was his mother, Mary,
Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
Must even the best of the Goyim (us, again) be killed?
Pause a moment and think what this could mean
Or already has meant
In our own lifetime.
Now, one would think that at a time when the slightest hint of racism is enough to sink a career or get one fired, Walker’s unapologetic adherence to antisemitism would disqualify her from speaking at a college campus. But the response to the wave of protest to her invitation shows that David Baddiel is exactly right when he titles his book, “Jews Don’t Count.” Baddiel’s point is that among progressives, antisemitism “is not real racism, or that it is a lesser form.” So when antisemitism pops up, it’s either ignored or discounted as something minor. That perfectly describes the response to Walker’s antisemitism.
After the San Diego Union-Tribune published an article questioning Walker’s invitation, the District’s PR person, Jack Beresford, responded with this defense:
The San Diego Community College District is pleased to welcome Alice Walker as keynote speaker at the May 31 investiture celebration. Walker is a Pulitzer prize-winning author and her participation is consistent with the District’s support of the free exchange of ideas and opinions. This does not mean the District agrees with every statement made by her now or in the past. Walker is a source of inspiration for many in the community. This includes chancellor Carlos Cortez who says Walker played a key role in his decision to focus his academic studies on African American feminist political history.
It is inconceivable that someone spouting the equivalent about Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTQ persons, or any other “minoritized” group would be treated so respectfully.
It is inconceivable that someone spouting the equivalent about Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTQ persons, or any other “minoritized” group would be treated so respectfully. It is inconceivable that repeating the worst anti-Black or anti-Hispanic racist tropes would be treated as part of the “free exchange of ideas and opinions” or that Walker’s statements would be the subject of legitimate disagreement. As if antisemitism was the same as a dispute over the causes of inflation, or whether students and teachers should continue wearing masks in the classroom.
Imagine the response if someone floated the idea of inviting Don Black, the white supremacist who created Stormfront.org, because he pioneered using the web for spreading ideas? After all, we don’t have to agree with “every statement made by [him] now or in the past.” Or David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, because he was also a successful politician and, whether we like it or not, “a source of inspiration for many in the community”?
I am glad that Walker has positively influenced Cortez and that he finds her inspiring. But Jewish faculty at several of the San Diego Community Colleges consider Walker deeply threatening and the refusal to take their concerns seriously is deeply alarming. As one writes in a private email, Walker’s invitation “clearly exemplifies the ‘Jews don’t count’ mentality … This district has sent a clear message that Jews better watch their backs because antisemitism is clearly tolerated, and in this case invited, to campus.”
At a time when the ADL reports that antisemitic incidents in the United States are at an all-time high, when attacks on synagogues and JCCs have increased 61%, when a white supremacist who went on a killing spree in Buffalo, New York posted a virulently anti-Black and antisemitic manifesto claiming, inter alia, that Jews “are permitted to hate and exploit the goyim” and to engage in pedophilia (the same poisonous nonsense that shows up in Walker’s “poem”), it is sickening that Alice Walker will be accorded the honor of a keynote address.
Jew hatred needs to be named, confronted, and condemned—not brushed aside as an opinion upon which reasonable minds may disagree.
Peter C. Herman’s books include “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11,” and “Critical Contexts: Terrorism and Literature.” His opinion pieces have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Areo, Inside Higher Ed, and Times of San Diego.