The day before pop music star Alicia Keys rebuffed the appeals of author Alice Walker and Pink Floyd band member Rogers Waters to cancel her upcoming performance in Israel, Walker herself benefited from the Jewish community, which gave her a platform to promote her work.
On May 30, the 92nd Street Y in New York City hosted Walker, an activist with the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, at a book-signing for her new collection of poetry, The World Will Follow Joy, and her new book of meditations, The Cushion in the Road.
Before the book signing, the 92Y stage was the setting for a dialogue between Walker and playwright Eve Ensler for a dialogue that was mutually adoring, with each singing the other’s praises.
Outside the event on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, the response of the Jewish community to the use of 92Y as a venue for an anti-Zionist was tepid. A small, noisy group of perhaps 20 people, mostly elderly, demonstrated against Walker’s appearance.
Lannie Grauman, one of the few younger protesters, said she was raising her voice to make clear that a Jewish organization should not provide a venue for an avowed hater of Israel.
“Walker spreads lies about Israel,” she said.
Police arrived when a confrontation between a screaming protester and a Walker supporter threatened to erupt into physical conflict. Security was tight – even people coming into the 92Y lobby were interrogated.
Della Johnson awaited a friend on the landing outside the entry doors. Johnson said she “simply wanted to see [Walker] in person,” and was not keeping up with Walker’s political opinions.
Those opinions – including Walker’s positions concerning Israel, her support of the BDS movement, or her participation in the attempts to break Israel’s legal blockage of Gaza – found no expression during her time on stage. The love-fest began with Ensler’s pronouncement that “it feels right,” as the two clasped hands.
“I honor this woman,” Ensler said.
Walker and Ensler conducted a polite, philosophical dialogue about “humanity,” with frequent expressions of high regard for each other’s work.
The few questions allowed from the audience were submitted in writing, on cards supplied and collected by ushers. The questions were thoroughly filtered – any possibility of Walker being challenged on Israel was eliminated.
When the staged segment was finished, the two authors sat together. “This is a book signing,” announced 92Y’s director of security.
“If you don’t have a book you have to leave,” he added.
There were no exceptions. Lorri Schwartz, a therapist who had been invited to attend by an Ensler associate, was summarily escorted out of the book-signing line, forced to purchase a book in order to have a moment of conversation with Ensler.
After each purchaser of an Ensler or Walker book had received an autograph, Walker agreed to answer several questions from JNS.org.
Asked why she refused to allow Israeli publisher Yediot Books to translate The Color Purple into Hebrew last year, Walker responded, “It was translated [into Hebrew] before there was a boycott [of Israel]. So it’s already there.”
Explaining her rationale behind boycotting Israel, Walker said that in her experience, “boycotts are ideal for such situations in which you refuse to employ violence.”
“You know, we went through this in the [American] South,” she said. “We went through this in South Africa and it’s the only option…because Israel has been very brutal in occupying Palestinian land and its mistreatment of Palestinian people. Have you been to Gaza? You see what has been done to the people?”
Before Walker could respond to the point that Gaza City is actually highly developed and residents there enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, Beverly Greenfield, director of public and media relations for 92Y, attempted to interrupt the conversation.
But Walker continued.
“I would stop my government from giving the Israeli government so much money,” she said. “We need the money here. Our schools are a mess – they’re closing them down. Our hospitals are terrible. You know, the poor communities are in such suffering. We need the money that we have been giving to Israel all these years. It’s not right. There’s no way you can make it right.”
As Walker continued to express her views, 92Y’s Greenfield, who monitored the entire interview, again interrupted. “This is not the place for this,” she said, before shutting down the interview.