The Color Purple, a story focused on African-American women in the 1930s South, has been censored before. It is listed at #17 on the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009 by the American Library Association for “explicit content.” In 1985, Steven Spielberg, a nice Jewish boy and ostensible supporter of Israel, brought the story to life onscreen with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Still, with roots of minority oppression, a subject with which most Jews identify, and so many other Jewish connections, author Alice Walker won’t let her book be translated into Hebrew for Israeli readers.

In a letter the Pulitzer-Prize winner sent to Yediot Books, which has been reprinted on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel’s website with her permission, she thanked the publisher for their interest but stated that “it isn’t possible for me to permit this at this time.” She went on to write:

As you may know, last Fall in South Africa the Russell Tribunal on Palestine met and determined that Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories.  The testimony we heard, both from Israelis and Palestinians (I was a jurist) was devastating.  I grew up under American apartheid and this was far worse. Indeed, many South Africans who attended, including Desmond Tutu, felt the Israeli version of these crimes is worse even than  what they suffered under the white supremacist regimes that dominated South Africa for so long.

It is my hope that the non-violent BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, of which I am part, will have enough of an impact on Israeli civilian society to change the situation.

Ms. Walker also cited the example that she and Steven Spielberg chose to prevent the film version from being shared with the South African public until after apartheid in that country was deemed over by the BDS Movement.

Steven Spielberg, in fact, has decidedly different views on how art can influence society. As he said in this 2006 interview of the film Munich:

I do not claim to be providing a peace plan for the Middle East with my film. But is that a reason to leave it all to the great simplifiers? Jewish extremists and Palestinian extremists who to this day regard any form of negotiated solution in the Middle East as some kind of betrayal? Keep my mouth shut just to avoid trouble? I wanted to use the powerful medium of film to confront the audience very intimately with a subject with which they are normally familiar in an abstract sense at the most — or only from a biased point of view.

Would that Walker took such a view.

The letter tells its own story, and from the coverage it is receiving, is sparking an entirely new one. Walker signed the letter “in faith that a just future can be fashioned from small acts.” Regardless of one’s stance on Israel/Palestine, new ideas cannot be developed in a vacuum. Who is to say the publication of The Color Purple would not be the small act, the spark that ignited a new dialogue? Or whether the dialogue on the boycott was meant to serve as spark in its stead?

American Library Association Most Challenged Books By Decade

Walker Refuses to Authorize Hebrew Version of ‘The Color Purple’ [JTA]