Navigate to News section

Why Alice Walker Is Sailing to Gaza

American novelist’s defense raises questions about the imminent flotilla

Marc Tracy
June 22, 2011
Alice Walker.(Flickr/Books LIVE)
Alice Walker.(Flickr/Books LIVE)

Alice Walker dreams of classic civil disobedience. She quickly name-checks Gandhi as well as Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman in an essay explaining why she will participate in the flotilla set to disembark for Gaza in a few days. But there is something fishy about her essay that betrays her stated cause of universalism (“One child must never be set above another”). It begins when she weirdly isolates Schwerner and Goodman, the two young civil rights martyrs who happened to be Jews, from Cheney, who was black, and it culminates in the story’s concluding anecdote, in which she reports what inspired her ex-husband to be a civil rights activist:

He was a little boy on his way home from Yeshiva … He was frequently harassed by older boys from regular school, and one day two of these boys snatched his yarmulke (skull cap), and, taunting him, ran off with it, eventually throwing it over a fence.

Two black boys appeared, saw his tears, assessed the situation, and took off after the boys who had taken his yarmulke. Chasing the boys down and catching them, they made them climb the fence, retrieve and dust off the yarmulke, and place it respectfully back on his head.

Walker seems unaware of how easily she—a novelist, who should know better—allows everyone their standard roles: The meek, pious Jew taunted by the evil, brutish goyim and saved by the goodhearted and even more powerful Magical Negroes (“appeared!”). Walker’s daughter, Rebecca, who is famously estranged from her mother, has said that she felt “more of a political symbol … than a cherished daughter,” and one senses why. (I emailed Rebecca Walker asking for comment, and she referred me to this.) Regardless, a stereotype-laden fable, even if depicting a real event, is not a sufficient basis for a grown-up to adopt a cause. Does Walker’s objection to the blockade derive from liberal humanism or from a recoiling at Jewish power? Sadly, her essay suggests the latter.

A Gaza flotilla need not be condemnable. The reason it turned out horrifically and ineffectively last year was, first, that some in the flotilla did not come in peace and, second, that Israel unintelligently, perhaps provocatively put young soldiers in a position where they were compelled to act in self-defense, causing the tragic deaths of nine aboard the Mavi Marmara. But imagine a nonviolent flotilla as a classic act of civil disobedience, in which protesters perceive a law as unjust (in this case, the blockade); break that law in order to draw attention to its alleged injustice (run the blockade); and then face the legally prescribed consequences of the law-breaking (which in this case are probably quite mild, and certainly fall well, well short of death). This wouldn’t end the debate. Supporters of the blockade should be untroubled by the prospect of Israel enforcing it with precision and compassion.

That the IHH, the Turkish charity which led last year’s expedition (and has ties to Islamist terrorists and condemned Osama Bin Laden’s killing), will not be participating this year encourages the thought that Flotilla II will turn out the way true acts of civil disobedience are supposed to. So does the presence of New York Times and CNN reporters (a supporter of Israel like a Commentary blogger should want Western journalists aboard the boats; their footage will surely speak louder than any ostensible biases.) Ultimately, though, the flotilla will be most effective if, first, it strictly chooses nonviolence, and, second, if most aboard are more enlightened than Alice Walker.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.